Transference describes a situation where the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person. Most commonly, transference refers to a therapeutic setting, where a person in therapy may apply certain feelings or emotions toward the therapist.
What Is Transference?
Transference is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual redirects emotions and feelings, often unconsciously, from one person to another. This process may occur in therapy, when a person receiving treatment applies feelings toward—or expectations of—another person onto the therapist and then begins to interact with the therapist as if the therapist were the other individual. Often, the patterns seen in transference will be representative of a relationship from childhood.Sigmund Freud in his 1895 book Studies on Hysteria, where he noted the deep, intense, and often unconscious feelings that sometimes developed within the therapeutic relationships he established with the people he was treating.
Transference is a common occurrence among humans, and it may often occur in therapy, but it does not necessarily imply a mental health condition. Transference can also occur in various situations outside of therapy and may form the basis for certain relationship patterns in everyday life.
Types of Transference
Some of the more common types of transference include:
- Paternal transference, when an individual looks at another person as a father or an idealized father figure. The person may be viewed as powerful, wise, and authoritative, and an individual may expect protection and sound advice from this person.
- Maternal transference occurs when an individual treats another person as a mother or idealized mother figure. This person is often viewed as loving and influential, and nurture and comfort is often expected from them.
- Sibling transference can occur when parental relationships are lacking or when they break down. Unlike parental transference, this type of transference is generally not represented by leader/follower behavior, but by peer or team-based interactions.
- Non-familial transference can be seen when individuals treat others according to an idealized version of what they are expected to be rather than who they actually are. Stereotypes can form in this manner. For example, priests may be expected to be holy in everything they do, while policemen may be expected to uphold the law at all times, and doctors may be expected to cure any ailment.
Sometimes, transference is seen in everyday situations, such as when:
- One is easily annoyed by a classmate who looks a bit like one’s often-irritating younger sibling.
- A young person treats a much older female coworker with tenderness because she brings back memories of that person’s now-deceased mother.
- An individual begins to mistrust a romantic partner simply because a previous partner cheated.
Transference may be positive or negative. Both types can benefit therapy in different ways. Positive transference can lead the person in therapy to view the therapist as kind, concerned, or otherwise helpful. Negative transference might cause a person in therapy to direct angry or painful feelings toward the therapist, but the therapist may be able to use these emotions to help the person achieve greater understanding.
Transference in Therapy
A person’s social relationships and mental health may be affected by transference, as transference can lead to harmful patterns of thinking and behavior. The primary concern is generally the fact that, in the case of transference, an individual is not seeking to establish a relationship with a real person but with someone onto whom they have projected feelings and emotions.
When transference occurs in a therapeutic setting, a therapist may be able to come to a better understanding of an individual through an understanding of the projected feelings and, through this understanding, help the person in therapy to achieve results and recovery. By understanding how transference is occurring, a mental health professional may be better able to understand both a person’s condition and/or aspects of the person’s early life that affect that person at present.
Transference may often occur between the therapist and the person in therapy. For example, the therapist may be viewed as an all-knowing guru, an ideal lover, the master of a person’s fate, a fierce opponent, and so on. Proponents of psychoanalysis believe that transference is a therapeutic tool that is crucial in understanding an individual’s unconscious or repressed feelings. Healing is believed to be more likely to occur once these underlying issues are effectively exposed and addressed.
A therapist might also educate a person in treatment on the identification of various situations in which transference may be taking place. Techniques such as journaling can allow a person in therapy to identify possible patterns in both thought and behavior, through the review and comparison of past entries. When examples of problematic transference become more recognizable, a person in therapy may be able to explore reasons why the transference occurs and help prevent its recurrence.
- Dombeck, M. (2005). Transference. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/transference
Ladson, D., & Welton, R. (2007). Recognizing and Managing Erotic and Eroticized Transferences. Psychiatry, 4(4), 47-50. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921238/
- Makari, G. J. (1994). Toward an intellectual history of transference [Abstract]. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 17(3), 559-570. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7824382
- Pereira, J. G. (2010). Transference and the therapeutic relationship – working for or against it? Retrieved from http://grupanalise.pt/en/images/stories/revistaonline_ingls/Transference_and_the_Therapeutic__Relationship_working_for_or_against_it.pdf
- Prasko, J., Diveky, T., Grambal, A., Kamaradova, D., Mozny, P., Sigmundova, Z., Slepecky, M. & Vyskocilova, J. (2010). Transference and counter transference in cognitive behavioral therapy. Biomedical Papers of the Medical Faculty of the University Palacky, Olomouc, Czechoslovakia, 154(3), 189-197. Retrieved from http://biomed.papers.upol.cz/getrevsrc.php?identification=public&mag=bio&raid=95&type=fin&ver=2
Last Updated: 08-28-2015
WilliamkilmMay 6th, 2016 at 11:29 AM
Say, you got a nice article.Really looking forward to read more. Awesome.
Rinki L.October 15th, 2016 at 7:05 PM
This is very clear to understand and learning purpose, fruitful for therapist as well as student.
RodneyDecember 14th, 2016 at 2:31 PM
Can transference also happen with a personal trainer?
BlueZuluMarch 30th, 2017 at 5:24 AM
Hey Rodney, Transference can (and does!) happen with *anyone*!
TRIPTI GDecember 29th, 2016 at 3:10 AM
SteffMarch 10th, 2017 at 10:04 PM
I was thought transference but didn’t understand it very well. But this broke it down for me. Thank you very much am happy
FarhanaJune 27th, 2017 at 3:21 AM
this is easy to understand
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