Definition of Transference In Therapy

By Julia Thomas|Updated June 27, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Dutil , LMHC, LPC

Have you ever met someone completely new, only to realize that you already have defined feelings towards them such as anger, sadness, or love? Have you ever avoided or pursued a friendship or a relationship because a certain person reminded you of someone you knew? This phenomenon has a name: transference. In this article, we are going to discuss the transference psychology definition, what happens when transference occurs in therapy, and how to deal with transference on both ends.

Defining Transference

Transference Affects The Way A Client Feels About A Therapist. Read More.

In psychology, transference describes the unconscious transfer or redirection of one's own feelings and wants from one person (the patient) to another person (their therapist). A great example of transference may be developing an unhealthy relationship with your therapist because their mannerisms remind you of your late father. While you are not actively trying to make your therapist your new father figure, your subconscious is establishing a connection (or creating transference) between the two and attributing the feelings you had with your father to your therapist. This is the definition of transference in a nutshell.

Defining Transference in Therapy

Transference occurs in a therapeutic relationship when the patient begins to transfer their feelings and associations over to their therapist. The most common forms of transference include relationships in which patients feel platonic, erotic, or overwhelmingly negative feelings towards their therapist. But there are other ways transference pops up in therapy. Read on as we further explore and define transference.

Consider this story from The New York Times, by Michelle Huneven to help explain transference in more depth.

Can a Therapist Transfer Their Feelings?

In fact, there is a term in psychology to define this situation as well: countertransference. Countertransference usually occurs because a therapist is triggered by a situation that their patient is dealing with. In response to these triggering situations, the therapist may respond by disregarding the patient's feelings or by taking too much interest in the patient's life.

Much like transference, there are both good and bad situations in which the definition of countertransference may occur. In a case involving "good" countertransference, a therapist who is triggered by a patient will use their own experience to build a stronger relationship with the patient and help them work through their issues, using transference to benefit both people. The therapist will be able to identify that they are being triggered — and that transference is occurring — and deal with their personal feelings on their own as well.

In a situation involving "bad" countertransference, a therapist may respond to triggering events by not fully committing themselves to the patient or by attempting to blame them for whatever feelings they may be experiencing. Because the therapist cannot identify their own response to the patient and the resulting transference, it becomes more difficult to help the patient. This transference can cause damage to the patient's healing process.

Navigating Transference

If you are a patient who is experiencing feelings towards your therapist that you don't understand (part of transference), here is what you should do:

1. Make Your Feelings Known to Your Therapist

Believe it or not, your therapist is there to listen to your feelings and help you work through them. This most certainly includes any and all feelings that you feel about them. Don't feel ashamed about the way you are feeling. Transference can happen, and it needs to be discussed in order to help you along your healing journey. You therapist will be happy to discuss transference, as a transference conversation is worth your time and energy.

2. Give Yourself Space if Necessary

There are going to be moments when you may feel the need to take a short vacation from your therapist and seek help elsewhere. If you are dealing with overwhelming feelings, this may be the best course of action that you can take. Allow yourself to take some time off from your therapist if your feelings are preventing you from getting the help that you need.

3. Remind Yourself That Your Feelings Represent a Deeper Issue

It can be easy to get lost in your feelings for your therapist with transference. Instead of allowing yourself to do this, remember that your feelings for your therapist represent a bigger challenge, and that you need to focus on that. This will keep you from getting caught up in unnecessary situations while you try to mend the underlying problems.

If you're a therapist who is dealing with a patient who is transferring their feelings onto you with transference, the advice is similar. Allow them to express their feelings, remain professional at all times, and help them work through the issues that are causing them to have these feelings of transference. If you're a therapist experiencing countertransference, allow yourself to work through any feelings that have come up because of a patient's situation. Remember, you are a mental health professional and you are expected to behave as such at all times. Being aware of transference is the first step toward making progress.

BetterHelp Therapy

Transference Affects The Way A Client Feels About A Therapist. Read More.

There is an increasingly large body of research pointing to online counseling as an effective means of treating symptoms of mental health challenges. In a report published in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers examined the therapeutic alliance formed as a result of online counseling. A therapeutic alliance, or working alliance, simply illustrates the strength of the bond formed between a counselor and participant. The study found that a significant working alliance could be created when utilizing an online platform to deliver therapy, despite the fact that the participant and therapist are usually geographically separated. This finding is in addition to a number of studies pointing to the overall effectiveness of online therapy as a method of treatment.

As discussed above, online therapy platforms can help you cultivate a meaningful, unproblematic relationship with a counselor. With BetterHelp, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with a therapist via video, messaging, or voice call — all from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have an internet connection). The qualified mental health professionals at BetterHelp understand both the positives and negatives that can come with transference. Read below for reviews, from those who have experienced similar challenges with transference.

Counselor Reviews

“I am so excited to have been paired with Laura Kern. She is someone who I feel comfortable telling things that I normally would not want to talk about. She listens, she responds in a timely fashion and she is extremely qualified in her field. She is always in touch with me throughout the day and I appreciate that. The dialogue continues until she sees everything is ok. I am excited to have her in my life and I look forward to a long relationship with her. I highly recommend Laura Kern.”

“Busola is amazing, I've only had a few sessions with her but she makes me feel listened to. She understands what my primary needs are for each session and addresses them. Moreover, it doesn't feel like just time to talk and unload everything on someone, but she addresses negative behavioral patterns and helps create an action plan for them.”

Conclusion

Have your transference problems created issues between you or your therapist? For those of you who may be looking to start a new period of your healing journey or for those of you who have yet to start, reaching out to a professional can be a great place to begin. 

Commonly Asked Questions

What is transference in psychology example?
What is the transference in psychology?
What are the three types of transference?
How do you recognize transference?
What is traumatic transference?
What to do when someone is projecting onto you?
Why does transference happen?
How do therapists use transference?
What is Freudian transference?
How do you address transference?

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.