Transference in Psychotherapy

Transference in Psychotherapy

Here is another psychological “inside” term or jargon, transference. This is a very common occurrence among therapists and their clients. Generally speaking, when recognized transference is quickly and easily dealt with. In this article we will take an in-depth look at transference, what does it mean, is it important, and how is it dealt with.

We all experience transference in some form or other. For most of us it is nothing more than our use of our imagination to enjoy an experience that we may not otherwise ever have. For many adolescent girls this occurs when they become infatuated with the latest teen heart throb. Their imagination takes over and they spend time daydreaming about their relationship. Not to be outdone the male of the species encounters the same experience. The focus of their attention usually is different, but the results are the same.

Although not fully understood transference is often the result intense and prolonged exposure to something or someone that make an indelible mark on the mind of the client. One example might be having someone who listens, really listens to you without making any judgments. The more you encounter this attention the easier it is to develop special feelings toward the listener 

Definition of transference

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Transference: a process by which the feelings that you had for someone (such as a parent) when you were a child become directed to someone else (such as a psychoanalyst).

What does this mean? Growing up many of us develop special relationships with a parent, grand parent, or other significant adult. It is that person we feel totally safe around, who understands us, and shows us how much they care. This bond is unique. Later in adulthood we encounter another relationship with the same qualities as we remember from those earlier times. Just as the feelings we experienced as a child remain within us, this new encounter brings them back to life.

In its most general form transference is neither good nor bad. Yes, it can be a nuisance much like a fly in the summer, but it eventually it resolves itself with the acknowledgement of its presence. Being that one of the goals of psychotherapy is to make the unconscious conscious, it is the wise therapist who encourages transference to be dealt with in an open manner.

When Transference Becomes an Issue

Given time, dynamics, and the nature of the relationship between therapist and client there are times when transference can become a disruptive issue. At its core this can represent an unhealthy often unconscious attachment to a relationship.

Example: Over three years one such client spent one to two hours per week in individual therapy.  Among the issues being dealt with were an unresolved and unhealthy parental attachment focused on the father. At the unconscious level the client was in a constant state of anxiety regarding the relationship. Was it good enough, was the client a failure, could the client ever be “daddy’s child?” These mixed messages created within the client the need to over please certain male father figures.

In this instance transference became the issue. Unbeknown to the client they begin to introduce into the therapeutic relationship a father child attachment. One that went well beyond simple transference.

Dealing with Transference

The first step in putting transference into its proper perspective is to identify the nature of the relationship that triggers such strong transference issues. The therapist triggers within the client unresolved memories. The therapist becomes the ”elephant in the room.” These can be issues of authority, playing the parent, your first love, the bully, your spouse, or any other situation where you find it threatening or comfortable to be in.

Another common example would be that in offering you a perspective to consider, the therapist comes across to you like the scolding parent.  Your initial reaction is one of anger. “How dare you…” or “You don’t need to talk to me like that.” If this reaction represents a pattern in your behavior, the therapist may well refocus to address this issue.

At a more problematic level an element of transference can include attachments with erotic overtones. Here the client’s transference has clearly become delusional. This becomes one of those lines in the sand that is not crossed.

Moving Beyond Transference

In many instances we all hold on to an ideal construct of something. That situation where all the elements match perfectly. Let’s say that in your mind you have the description for the perfect life partner. This description serves as your template in the dating world. You can easily match the characteristics of a potential candidate to your template, EXCEPT, when you really look at the person you recognize that they are different from your template.

It is here that you and your therapist have the discussion, they, the therapist, is not the template. The lessons learned from addressing transference in an open and safe environment can be invaluable.

As noted earlier transference is a neutral experience. Each person reacts to it differently. For most, it is an easily dealt with issue. But there are those instances when the issue becomes larger than life. No matter how hard you and your therapist work to resolve it, you cannot seem to get past transference. Here are two options to consider:

  1. If the issue that brought you into therapy is not a matter of great importance. Let’s say that in preparation for a long wilderness camping trip you wanted to resolve your fear of bears but you find that you just can’t get past transference. Weigh your priorities and decide if you really need therapy.
  1. If your issue is important to your psychological wellbeing and nothing you or your therapist have tried seem to work maybe it is time to consider switching to a different therapist.


Remember, sometimes the best way to deal with the elephant in the room is to open the door.


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