Transference in Therapy

What is transference and why is it important?

Transference can be an aid or a hindrance in  therapy. It can also complicate any of our relationships.

Transference is the phenomenon of transferring feelings from a significant person in your childhood to someone else. It is unconscious and it happens all the time to all of us. For example: you meet a woman and she reminds you strongly of your older sister who you were very close to. You will probably like this person and wish for a close friendship even before you know her very well.

In therapy, there can be positive transference, negative transference, or countertransference.

Countertransference occurs when the therapist is transferring feelings about their important people on to the client. It’s very human of the therapist but it is imperative that the therapist is aware of it and keeps the transferred feelings in check. Otherwise the therapist’s therapeutic judgement and reactions to the client can become clouded and compromise the quality and progress of therapy.

Positive transference is common at the beginning of therapy when the client is wishing for a “super person” who will “save them”. Someone with all the wisdom and skill needed to succeed at giving the client everything the client needs.
Positive transference is helpful to the therapist as the client is open to what they say and compliant to requests. When asked people in positive transference will often enthusiastically characterize their therapist as “Wonderful!”

Negative transference occurs when the client transfers negative beliefs and feelings from someone who was hurtful to them, onto the therapist. The client may say to the therapist: “you are out to get me and make me feel wrong all the time, just like my father,” or “you are judging me just like my mother did” or “you’re angry but you cover it up.”

Great work can come from “working through” negative transference. A profound change can occur when a client sees the therapist as they are and then realizes how much negative transference influences the way they relate to other people in their lives. It’s eye opening! Some “people their world” with their hurtful parents and find it such a relief to stop.

Too much positive transference can be a problem because the therapist is bound to “fall from grace” at some point. Often when a client’s “wonderful therapist” disappoints them the transference turns negative.

Bringing this phenomena of transferring feelings and beliefs to conscious awareness gives the client access to reality.  Then they can see the actual positive and negative attributes of the person who has been the target of their transference. It often has the effect of moving the person forward in personal growth and maturation.

Evaluate Your Therapist

Are you dissatisfied with your therapy? Is it you or is it your therapist? Let’s evaluate and find out.

First I will tell you what is reasonable to expect from a competent, experienced therapist. In the next post I will explain the notion of transference, positive and negative, and then how to work with your current therapist to see if negative transference is the problem.

Here are some fair expectations you should have of your therapy process and your therapist:

  1. You should make progress. If you don’t think you are, ask your therapist why they think you are or aren’t making progress. Don’t automatically discount your your own instincts. Listen but don’t assume the therapist knows more than you do just because they are “the professional” if what they say doesn’t make sense to you.
  2. You should get something new out of every session. If you are not, ask yourself if your therapist is:
    • not really working when you are in session – they should be.
    • just being “someone to talk to”: therapists should have a lot more than this to offer.
    • not clearly showing you how to get engaged in your sessions: You have to if you want to grow.
    • just giving advice: you should be learning how to answer your own questions and make your own decision.
  3. You should be learning from your therapist. Your therapist should know more than you do about the general kinds of issues you are dealing with. They should be able to clearly relate this understanding to your specific situation.
  4. You shouldn’t feel worried about your therapist’s feelings – it’s the therapist’s job to take care of themselves. The therapist should call you on doing this and reassure you they don’t need or want this from you.
  5. You should feel your therapist likes and cares about you. If your therapist doesn’t accept who you are and like things about you, you deserve more.
  6. Your therapist should have several ways to approach you and your problem. You should never feel like you are supposed to fit into their way of doing therapy.

If these expectations are not being met, talk to your therapist about them. It is also reasonable to look for another therapist. Remember, just because this therapist is set up in an office or clinic doesn’t mean they are good at their trade.

On the other hand, if you find yourself repeatedly switching therapists I would recommend you stick with your current therapist and make a sincere effort to work out your dissatisfaction.

If you fire a therapist, it may rid you of the problem at hand, but another version of that same problem will likely show up with your next therapist. You need to give your current therapist 3 to 5 more sessions while you focus on working out your relationship. This may well be about transference which is the unconscious phenomena of transferring feelings from one person to another; in this case unconsciously transferring your feelings for some one else in your life to your therapist.

Transference is one of the reasons therapy can work so well and it is also a reason why it can fail. More about that next in “Transference in Therapy“.