The Psychoanalytic Theory of Transference in Therapy

Your Therapist Can Experience Transference, Too

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Transference in psychoanalytic theory is when you project feelings about someone else onto your therapist. A classic example of transference is when a client falls in love with their therapist. However, one might also transfer feelings of rage, anger, distrust, or dependence.

While transference is typically a term for the mental health field, it can manifest in daily life when the brain tries to comprehend a current experience by examining the present through the past. Here we explore the definition of transference in greater detail and the different types.

Defining Transference

Transference, in general, is defined as "the process of moving something or someone from one place, position, etc. to another." However, the psychology-based definition of transference is a bit different and applies directly to those engaged in mental health therapy.

In this context, transference is defined as a projection of one's unconscious feelings onto their therapist. The American Psychological Association explains that these feelings are ones that were originally directed toward important figures in the person's childhood, such as their parents.

The concept of transference in therapy came about later in the 20th century, when therapeutic approaches became less strict, giving practitioners more flexibility in how they treated their patients.

Transference Is Multilayered and Complex

Transference can sometimes be an obstacle to therapy. Based on their feelings, the client may feel tempted to cut off the relationship with their therapist altogether, for instance. Or they might become sullen and withdrawn during therapy sessions, impeding their progress.

Working through transferred feelings is an important part of psychodynamic therapy. The nature of the transference can provide important clues to the client’s issues while working through the situation can help resolve deep-rooted conflicts in their psyche.

There are three types of transference in therapy:

  • Positive transference
  • Negative transference
  • Sexualized transference

Positive Transference

Transference can sometimes be a good thing. An example of positive transference is when you apply enjoyable aspects of your past relationships to the relationship with your therapist. This can have a positive outcome because you see your therapist as caring, wise, and concerned about you.

The benefits of positive transference can be seen in a case study involving a child with autism. Once positive transference started to occur, the young boy's bond with the therapist started to strengthen and he began following the therapist's directions, reduced his aggressive behaviors, and his learning abilities developed.

Negative Transference

Negative transference involves the transfer of negative emotions to the therapist. Anger and hostility are two emotions that might have been felt in childhood, either toward a parent or other important individual, then reappearing in the therapeutic relationship.

Negative transference sounds bad but actually can enhance the therapeutic experience. Once realized, the therapist is able to use this transference as a topic of discussion, further examining the client's emotional response.

Negative transference can be especially useful if the therapist helps you overcome an emotional response that is out of proportion to what transpired during the therapy session. 

Sexualized Transference

Do you feel attracted to your therapist? If so, you might be experiencing sexualized transference, also sometimes referred to as erotic transference. Feelings that fall under sexualized transference include those that are:

  • Intimate and sexual
  • Reverential or feelings of worship
  • Romantic and sensual

Some research suggests that sexualized transference may be more common for members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially if the person has few friends or others they can trust or confide in.

Counter-Transference

Mental health therapists must also be aware of the possibility that their own feelings and internal conflicts could be transferred to the client as well. This process is known as counter-transference and can muddy the therapeutic relationship.

An estimated 78% of therapists have felt sexual feelings toward a client at one time or another, with male therapists experiencing these intimate feelings more often than female therapists.

Despite the negative connotation of counter-transference, some psychotherapists use it in therapeutic ways. The therapist may choose to disclose their feelings if a client mentions that they seem angry, for instance, first crediting the client with recognizing this emotion and then working together to understand how much of the response may have been projected by the client.

Examples of Transference in Therapy

What does transference look like in a therapeutic setting? Here are a few examples to consider.

Example of Positive Transference

Tony's mother was always loving and supportive. Tony has a female therapist and projects these same feelings on her, considering her as a loving, supportive individual as well.

Example of Negative Transference

Michelle became very angry with her therapist when he discussed the possibility of homework activities. Through the exploration of her anger with the therapist, Michelle discovered that she was experiencing transference of unresolved anger toward an authoritarian elementary school teacher.

Example of Sexualized Transference

As therapy progresses, Chris develops sexual feelings toward the therapist. Chris has even had erotic fantasies involving the therapist, sometimes also saying flirtatious things during the therapy session.

Discussing Transference With Your Therapist

Woman in therapy talking to therapist

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If your therapist recognizes that you are experiencing transference, they may not want to discuss it right away. It will, however, be necessary to address the transference at some point because if the topic is avoided, it could lead to an impasse in therapy and negatively impact your relationship with your therapist.

Additional consequences of avoiding transference are that you, the client, may:

  • Become embarrassed, uncomfortable, and withdraw from therapy emotionally
  • Experience higher levels of stress during therapy sessions due to how you feel
  • Regress, which can negate some of the positive progress you already achieved

Talking about the transference when both you and the therapist are ready can help resolve these issues, enhancing the therapeutic process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is counter-transference different from transference?

    Transference is when a client projects feelings on the therapist, while counter-transference is when a therapist projects feelings on the client.

  • What are some of the issues that counter-transference can cause for therapists and their patients?

    Counter-transference can make it harder for a therapist to be objective during the therapeutic process. It may even skew the therapy in the wrong direction as actions taken during the sessions could be based more on the therapist's feelings than on the feelings of the patient. Additionally, patients may not be able to resolve their issues if they are confused by the emotional response of the therapist.

  • Is transference in therapy a defense mechanism?

    Some researchers suggest that transference in therapy may be a defense mechanism, such as when the patient is insincere or not ready to face negative emotions. Others contend that whether transference is considered a defense mechanism varies depending on the therapist's interpretation.

  • Are there risk factors that could make someone more likely to have transference?

    If a client is feeling especially vulnerable, such as when dealing with a life-threatening disease that threatens their self-esteem and self-control, it may increase their risk of transference. Additionally, transference may be more common when therapy is conducted in person as opposed to therapy that occurs online.

14 Sources
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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.