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, or overwhelmingly negative feelings towards their therapist.
Consider this story from The New York Times, by Michelle Huneven:
“I was in my early 40s, and my life was finally swinging into shape. I had a steady stream of work and warm, generous friends. But I had yet to find a viable, committed love. I kept falling for handsome artistic narcissists and their beautiful myths, while ordinary guys with decent looks, good jobs and kind natures simply didn’t register on my radar.
I thought a male therapist might help. A friend referred me to Ira.
Ira had alert brown eyes that brightened with interest when I spoke. We duly talked for hours on his generous sliding-fee scale about men and love and why it wasn’t working out for me…
…As my therapy continued, we conversed on any number of topics. He was a cognitive psychologist, whereas I previously had been in Jungian analysis. We discussed the differences and similarities in those and other therapeutic approaches. He was just finishing a book, and we talked, too, about the difficulties and satisfactions of writing and being edited.
He was a great reader of fiction and literature, so literary matters — books, characters and authors — formed another strand in our continuing conversation. His wife and daughter were both big readers, he said, but to his bafflement and disappointment, his son wasn’t the least interested in books.
Over several years, we still talked a lot about men. I stayed locked into my type, but those artistic, sealed-off men weren’t locked into me. Ira told me over and over that most men wouldn’t even notice those five pounds that (I thought) prevented me from being lovable.
The man who was right for me, Ira insisted, wouldn’t feel intimidated by a woman’s intelligence; plenty of guys, like him, preferred smart women. His wife, he said, was one of the smartest people he knew, and the sexiest, despite having gone gray quite young. “Men are still drawn to her,” he exclaimed, as if he couldn’t believe his luck.
Even though I lived in Southern California and was Hollywood-adjacent, Ira assured me, not every man within 40 miles wanted a rail-thin, 20-something starlet.
Eventually, there came a natural winding down to the therapy and I began to think of stopping; I still didn’t have love, but I had hope. I would miss talking to Ira — I’d miss it a lot — but that was easily solved: I decided that, post-therapy, we should be friends.
We actually knew people in common. Old college friends of mine were in a book group with him and his wife, and two poets I knew were in a writing group with his wife. It seemed perfectly plausible to me that we could drift into each other’s social circles.
I know, I know: a classic case of transference.”
Can a Therapist Transfer Their Feelings Over to a Patient?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Better Online Counseling Relationships With BetterHelp
There is an increasingly large amount of research pointing to online counseling as an effective means of treating symptoms of mental health issues. 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 videoconferencing, messaging, live chat, 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 the pitfalls that can come with counseling, and can help you avoid them. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have experienced similar issues.
“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.”
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.