Transference Definition: What Is Transference In Therapy?

Updated September 04, 2018

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Have you ever met someone completely new, only to realize that you already have 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 it on both ends.

What Is the Definition of Transference?

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 between the two and attributing the feelings you had with your father to your therapist.

What Does Transference Mean in Terms of 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, and overwhelmingly negative feelings towards their therapist.

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What does this look like from the perspective of a patient? Let's read this excerpt from a story published in PsychCentral by Cheryl Rice:

I was in love.

His name was David. David was my therapist.

I started treatment with him after my mother's death from a six-month bout with cancer. Her death left me broken open, bereft. My three-year-old marriage hadn't quite found its footing and I felt alone in my grief. So I began therapy with David expecting a psychic sanctuary.

What I did not expect was finding myself thinking obsessively about him between sessions, planning the outfits I'd wear to my appointments, wondering if he preferred chocolate chip cookies with or without nuts.
Three months into our work I walked into his office, sank into his loveseat and blurted, "I think I am in love with you."

Without missing a beat he replied, "Wow. That's a big deal feeling and an even bigger deal to share with anyone, let alone your therapist."

I felt my face redden. I wanted to run away but before I could move David continued. "Cheryl, you are very brave, self-aware, and smart. You are a beautiful person with many attractive qualities." I knew his next sentence would include a "but."

"That said," he continued, "I don't have affairs. And even if someday we both get divorced, we still wouldn't be together. In fact, there are no conditions that will ever allow us to have anything other than a doctor/patient relationship. But I will always be here for you as your therapist."

The tears that had been welling up spilled down my cheeks. I reached for a tissue to dab at my eyes - not wanting to ruin my makeup or add to my humiliation by openly sobbing or blowing my nose.

Before the interminable session was over, David told me about transference: the tendency for patients to project childhood feelings for parents onto their therapist. Mine, he said was a case of "erotic transference" due to the infatuation I was experiencing. The depth of my feelings for him represented the depth of other unfulfilled longings.

Because of Cheryl's situation, she began to transfer these feelings of intense desire over to her therapist. Luckily, her therapist was able to spot the transference quickly and deal with it in a professional manner. Keep in mind that this is only one example of transference and that not all cases are this easy to spot. Subtle feelings occur just as often as overwhelming feelings do and an open line of communication between yourself and your therapist is necessary if you are to deal with these feelings.

This personal story can be considered an example of "good" transference. Because the transference was identified and dealt with, Cheryl was able to work through those feelings that were not being dealt with prior to her infatuation with her therapist. If it had gone unnoticed or if it occurred with a person who was not her therapist, however, the situation could have been much more harmful to all parties involved.

Can a Therapist Transfer Their Feelings Over to a Patient?

Absolutely! In fact, there is a term in psychology for 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 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. They will be able to identify that they are being triggered and deal with their personal feelings on their own as well.

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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, it becomes more difficult to help the patient and can cause damage to the patient's healing process.

One therapist in Psychology Today describes this situation perfectly:

The ache I felt in my chest as Lyn recounted the events of that heartrending evening at the hospital was too deep and too personal to ignore. I took in a full slow breath as Lyn pulled out a picture of her son. "Can I show you a picture of Mathew?"

"Of course," I said, digging deep for the most soothing and tender voice possible.

The moment of silence while she looked for her one enduring keepsake of his precious self seemed eternal. The room felt still and empty. Then, the emptiness started to throb as if in sync with my rushing heart beat. What would I see? How would he look? Could I separate this from my own experience? Would I be able to stop thinking of my son? Would I be able to hide what I was feeling? Could I remain neutral in my response?

"I'm so sorry," I looked at Rob and Lyn, "it's so awful, sweet Mathew, he's so beautiful." Another moment, in therapy as in life, when the right words are nowhere to be found. Her eyes filled with tears, "I miss him so much." Her sobs became heavy with unimaginable grief. My instincts led me to sit quietly after saying, "I know you do."

I confess that the feeling I struggled with while listening to Lyn and Rob explore their sadness was one of guilt. I thought about our similar tales of pregnancy and post term deliveries and still, any way I looked at it, my baby lived and their baby died. Any time a strong emotional response invades the therapeutic setting we have the ingredients of countertransference material that can be 1) useful to the session, 2) harmful to the session or 3) incompatible with the work we are doing. In this case, it had honestly never occurred to me that my son had been so close to death, until I sat along side their anguish.

How Does a Patient Deal With Transference?

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

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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 is natural and it needs to be discussed in order to help you along your healing journey.

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. Instead of allowing yourself to do this, remember that your feelings for your therapist represent a bigger issue 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, 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. 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.

Has 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, I recommend visiting https://www.betterhelp.com/start/.

BetterHelp is the world's largest e-counseling platform that helps individuals around the world find affordable, accessible, and convenient online counseling. Click on the link above to take a short questionnaire that will help you connect with the right online counselor for you!


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