The Use of Healthy Transference in Therapy

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. It is very common for those suffering from childhood abuse to go through transference with their therapist. It is a difficult area and subject of therapy to negotiate but can be enormously beneficial in the therapy process if handled correctly.

The concept of transference was first described by psychoanalyst 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 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 behaviour. 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 in therapy can be incredibly helpful, pointing us in the direction of unhealed wounds. It can transport therapy from lecture to laboratory.

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 to 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 (read article on Journaling) can allow a person in therapy to identify possible patterns in both thought and behaviour, through the review and comparison of past entries. When examples of problematic transference become more recognisable, a person in therapy may be able to explore reasons why the transference occurs and help prevent its recurrence.

When things go awry in early development — that is, when parents are unable to provide what it is needed — the infant instead evolves a set of defenses to escape the awareness of its need and dependency. At one extreme, some people ward off feelings of dependency by merging identities with the loved object and taking possession of it. At the other extreme, some men and women deny their needs entirely and believe themselves completely self-sufficient. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities in between.

As the infantile transference emerges, in my case I increasingly turned to the analyst as the source of what I needed, experiencing that relationship, in part, as a revival of my earliest encounter with neediness, but also as a real, present-day relationship involving actual dependency. She brought with her characteristic defenses to bear on the growing awareness of that need and it was her job to shed light on this process. Over time, I came to rely less and less upon those defenses, I accepted the reality of my need for the analyst’s help and  tolerated the experience of dependency. Eventually, insight and understanding, along with the experience of the analyst’s care and concern within a healing psychotherapy relationship, provided me an emotional experience that approximated what was originally needed. In the process, I “grew up,” with certain inevitable limitations and handicaps, and eventually became independent.

This whole process allowed the therapist and I to then move on to the next stage of therapy which was EMDR to process the traumatic child abuse that I had been subjected to. Trust had been established and a healthy relationship existed.

3 comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, it’s exactly what I needed to see written down today and you have explained it so well.

    I’m in a really difficult part of my therapy right now, I’ve accepted that I need my therapist and I’ve even accepted my secret wish for her to be the mother I didn’t have… but now it feels I am completely and utterly preoccupied with her. I literally can’t stop thinking about her and about therapy and all that comes with it. It’s like she has become the only person in the world I can “see” right now and it’s freaking me out!!! I understand it’s transference and this has helped to ground me again. I think I will read this a lot! Thank you xx

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    • I’m so glad it helped. Have you talked to your therapist about this ? It would really help if you did. You’ll find she won’t be surprised and you can work through it with her. Good luck. Email me anytime. Erin

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Erin, she knows that I am experiencing maternal transference and I have told her that I look at her as a bit of a rescue fantasy, like she could be the mother I’ve always wanted and she would make everything better. She is very good about it and didn’t make me feel ashamed or embarrassed at all! But this new thing, this constant preoccupation of her is very new, it was only Friday that this started and I’ve thought about her all weekend, constantly, even dreaming of her. There is no erotic element to it whatsoever but I liken it to the early stages of falling in love. Not sure if that makes sense and that’s not something I feel ready to tell her x

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