Definition Of Transference In Therapy

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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

Defining transference

Learn about transference in therapy

In psychology, transference refers to the unconscious transfer or redirection of one's own feelings and desires from one person (the client) to another person (their therapist).

One instance of transference in psychology may be developing an unhealthy relationship with your therapist because their mannerisms remind you of your late father in childhood. While you may not be actively trying to make your therapist your new father figure, your subconscious may establish a connection (or transfer feelings) between the two and lead you to attribute the feelings you had toward your father to your therapist. This is the definition of transference in a nutshell. This can also occur if your therapist reminds you of significant others in your own history, and you may experience sexual attraction or thought transference based on emotions present in past relationships.

Signs of transference include, but are not limited to, unexplained or unjustified strong emotional reactions to a therapist’s words or actions and daydreaming about the therapist in a non-therapy setting. 

Defining transference in therapy

A patient’s transference occurs in a therapeutic relationship when the client begins to transfer their feelings and associations over to their therapist. Transference was commonly discussed by Sigmund Freud, who noticed the phenomena occurring in his patients. One of the most common forms of transference involves a relationship in which the patient’s feelings are platonic, erotic, or negative feelings toward their therapist. However, there are other ways transference can occur in therapy. 

Transference can be defined as negative transference or positive transference. Negative transference is the projection of negative emotions and feelings onto the therapist, while positive transference is the projection of positive emotions and feelings. Some further examples of transference in psychology include familial transference, or the projection of a familial role (parent, sibling, etc.) onto the therapist and nonfamilial transference, or the projection of a romantic or idealized role onto the therapist.

Read on as we further explore and define transference.

Can a therapist transfer their feelings?

There is a term in psychology to define the opposite phenomenon when a therapist’s feelings are transferred to the client. This is called countertransference in therapyCountertransference may occur because a therapist is triggered by a situation that their client is facing. In response to these triggering situations, the therapist may respond by disregarding the client’s feelings or by taking too much interest in the client's life. 

Much like transference, countertransference may occur in both positive and negative situations. In a case involving positive countertransference, a therapist who is triggered by a client may use their own experience to build a stronger relationship with the client and help them work through their challenges, using transference to benefit both people. In such a case, the therapist may be able to identify that they are being triggered—and that transference is occurring—and manage their personal feelings on their own.

In a situation involving negative countertransference, a therapist may respond to triggering events by not fully committing themselves to a patient or by attempting to blame them for whatever feelings they may be experiencing. Because the therapist may not be able to identify their own response to the client and the resulting transference, it may become difficult to help the client. This transference may affect the client's healing process.

It is important to note that there is a difference between being wary of transference and transference actually happening. Being aware of transference and the emotions associated with the process does not always mean you can prevent it from happening; sometimes, transference occurs subtly. A therapeutic relationship is built on professionalism and trust, and countertransference may affect that relationship. If this is the case, some people may choose to move on to a different therapist who can view their situation more objectively. 

Navigating transference

If you are experiencing feelings toward your therapist that you don't understand (part of transference), here is what you might do:

1. Make your feelings known to your therapist

Your therapist is there to listen to your feelings and help you work through them. This includes any feelings that you have toward them. You don't need to feel ashamed about the way you are feeling. Transference can happen, and you can discuss it to move forward on your healing journey. You may find that your therapist has experience discussing transference, which is a common phenomenon in psychotherapy.

2. Give yourself space if necessary

There may be moments in the healing process when you feel the need to take a short break from your therapist and talk to someone else. If you are dealing with overwhelming feelings, this may be the best course of action that you can take, especially if you find yourself overwhelmed when thinking about your next therapy session or interaction. You might 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

When transference happens, it can be easy to get lost in your feelings toward the therapist. Instead, you might try to remember that your feelings for your therapist represent something different, that they may come from some childhood or past relationship or experience, and that these feelings don’t define you. This may keep you from getting caught up in unnecessary emotional patterns in everyday life while you try to mend any underlying problems.

BetterHelp therapy

Learn about transference in therapy

There is an increasingly large body of research pointing to online counseling and psychoanalysis 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, may be considered a sort of transference-focused psychotherapy. It can illustrate the strength of the bond formed between a counselor and client. The study found that a significant working alliance can be created through an online platform to deliver therapy, even though the client and therapist are usually geographically separated. 

As discussed above, online therapy platforms may help you cultivate a meaningful relationship with a therapist. 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 transference and can work with you to explore any of your concerns about this phenomenon. Read below for reviews from those who have spoken with a BetterHelp therapist.

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.”


Has transference created concerns about your relationship with your therapist? If so, you are not alone. In fact, many patients have this experience. If you’re looking to start a new period of your healing journey, take the first step by reaching out to get matched with a licensed therapist at BetterHelp when you’re ready.
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