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.

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