Therapy FAQ

Transference In Therapy: What It Is and How to Recognize It

Picture this: You are in your therapist’s office, hoping to find a solution to your troubling situation. However, you realize that your feelings and emotions towards the therapist are getting somewhat complicated as you connect them with past experiences. These feelings can be challenging and interfere with the therapeutic process. But what exactly is this […]

By Alan Deibel, LCPC

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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Picture this: You are in your therapist’s office, hoping to find a solution to your troubling situation. However, you realize that your feelings and emotions towards the therapist are getting somewhat complicated as you connect them with past experiences.

These feelings can be challenging and interfere with the therapeutic process. But what exactly is this phenomenon, and does it impact therapy outcomes? This article discusses the causes, signs, and symptoms of transference and how to prevent it.

What Is Transference in Psychotherapy?

In psychotherapy, transference occurs when clients transfer feelings of adoration, love, hostility, or anger onto their therapist. Transference can also be part of a therapeutic process where therapists try to understand a patient’s unconscious mental process. This allows therapists to understand a patient’s behaviors and feelings.

Kristina Anzell, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Grow Therapy, says, “Transference is a complex phenomenon that can sometimes derail therapy outcomes. A patient may be tempted to discontinue with a therapy session and the therapeutic relationship. They might also become sullen during therapy, impeding the treatment process.”

Transference is a complex phenomenon that can sometimes derail therapy outcomes.

- Kristina Anzell, LCSW

Types of Transference

Transference can be positive or negative. Positive transference occurs when patients transfer positive feelings of love, idealization, or attachment toward their therapists. Comparatively, negative transference involves the transfer of negative emotions and feelings, for instance, anger and hostility, towards counselors.

An example of positive transference would be if a client idolizes their therapist and looks at them as an all-knowing figure, rather than a human just like themself.

An example of negative transference would be if a client becomes furious with her therapist when he proposes assigning homework activities. The person loudly rejects the assignment, saying she’s not in elementary school anymore. While calm, the therapist seeks to know why the client is furious about homework and discovers anger towards a verbally abusive elementary school tutor.

Other forms of transference in psychotherapy include the following:

Paternal Transference

This transference occurs when a patient views their therapist as a father figure. It happens as a belief that therapists are in a position of power, have authority, and can be a great source of protection and advice. For instance, you may observe your father’s traits in your therapist and attribute fatherly feelings to them.

Maternal Transference

This transference occurs when a client treats their therapist as an idealized mother figure. They view the therapist as caring and expect them to be caring and comforting, just like their mothers. For instance, a patient who grew up with a loving and warm mother may similarly experience their female clinician.

Sibling Transference

This transference occurs as a reflection of sibling dynamics. It usually develops when a patient lacks a strong relationship with their mother or father figure.  

Sexualized Transference

Also known as erotic transference, it occurs when a patient is obsessively attracted to their counselor erotically. The feelings may include:

Sexualized transference is usually beyond a person’s objective attractiveness and often leads to clients acting up.

Non-Familial Transference

This type of transference occurs when clients treat their therapists as idealized versions of what they expect them to be rather than their actual selves. For instance, patients may expect mental health professionals to treat and cure any mental illness.

What Causes Transference in Therapy?

Transference may result from different places. For instance, it may develop from unresolved experiences or emotions in your past life or lack of trust in others. Additionally, therapists may deliberately create transference with their patients to establish an asymmetrical relationship.

Also, strong transference can result from unreadable therapists who act naturally, don’t talk about themselves, and don’t show any emotional involvement. The client may transfer the feelings they have learned from other significant individuals to their therapists.

Transference in therapy can also arise from the following:

Often, transference occurs in the early stages of a therapy session when the client is getting to know their counselor.

Benefits of Transference in Therapy

Transference plays a critical role in every therapeutic setting. Sometimes, therapists encourage transference to comprehend their patients’ unconscious mental processes.

In addition, transference is essential for understanding the client’s feelings, behaviors, and actions. For example, therapists may observe an unconscious reaction to intimacy in their client’s ability to establish solid bonds with their partners. As a result, they can understand the reason behind a patient’s fear of intimacy and work towards creating healthy and lasting relationships.

Further, client transference helps therapists understand their possible behaviors toward significant people. Clients may remember an important person in their past relationships as they respond to a therapist’s appearance, trait, or style. These reactions may influence their perception of a therapist, which is essential in treating clients with complicated and painful experiences.

Transference in therapy can also help you recognize it in the future. During treatment, a therapist may propose reflective practices like journaling, helping you understand why and when you experience transference in other aspects of life.

In addition, transference in therapy is essential because:

Transference can also be used in the following ways: 

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Therapists often use cognitive behavioral therapy to understand how your past has influenced your present experiences. Understanding your old behaviors and redeveloping new, healthier ones can raise painful emotional issues. In such a situation, a therapist may provoke transference so you can find comfort in them and lessen your feelings.

  1. Transference-Focused Psychotherapy

Transference-focused psychotherapy, TFP, is an evidence-based psychodynamic psychotherapy for treating individuals with acute personality disorders. For example, transference-focused therapy is often used to treat narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.

Therapists may assist in moving one’s feelings and thoughts about a person onto them. They will then use the interaction to understand your emotions and thoughts. As a result, they can eventually establish effective treatment options and behavioral alterations.

  1. Dynamic Psychotherapy

Dynamic psychotherapy involves a therapist’s ability to rapidly identify and work through a person’s issues. If these problems include thoughts or emotions about others, the therapist may intentionally upset their client with that information. This transference allows therapists to understand their client’s situation and commence treatment quickly.

Signs and Symptoms of Transference

Transference may manifest in diverse ways. In addition, the signs can vary depending on the patient and the therapeutic alliance. Various signs manifest in the patient’s transference toward a therapist, including the following:

Preoccupations may also be a sign of transference in therapy. Preoccupation occurs when a person thinks about their therapist even after the therapy session concludes. Preoccupations may also suggest the client has developed an unhealthy attachment with the therapist.

Misplaced feelings and inappropriate thoughts could also indicate a patient’s transference. Sometimes, patients may tell their counselors what they want and don’t want in therapy. For instance, they may ask the therapist to stop controlling them. In addition, clients may develop a crush or have intense sexual attraction towards their counselors, indicating transference.

Further, strong emotional reactions may signal transference. Patients may blow up at their therapist for no reason, indicating they have buried emotions toward others.

Over-idealization is also a common telltale of a patient’s positive transference. Sometimes, clients may view their therapists as all-knowing and don’t expect them to have any negative attributes. These feelings often relate to how the patient used to feel about someone significant in their life.

Finally, anger and hostility could also signify negative transference. For instance, you may get angry about your therapist’s actions. Depending on your past experiences and conflict resolution mechanisms, you may take a passive stance or verbalize your anger.

Preventing and Managing Transference

Navigating and controlling transference requires collaboration between a client and a therapist. If you have feelings — positive or negative — towards your therapist that are hard to explain, here is how you can overcome them:

Work on Your Wellness

Dealing with transference in an appropriate therapeutic setting enhances self-awareness. It also gives you the resources to find balance in your life and restructure your relationships.

Understand Your Feelings Indicate a Deeper Issue

With transference, getting lost in your feelings toward your counselor is easy. However, you may remember that what you feel about your therapist signifies something different, and they don’t dictate who you are. This knowledge will prevent unnecessary emotional patterns and help you resolve existing issues.

Seek Peer Support

Consult a friend or colleague when you have unexplainable feelings towards your therapist. Regular support from peers can help you remain objective in your treatment process.

Set Clear Boundaries

You can also manage transference by setting clear boundaries. Boundaries may involve observing therapy schedules, maintaining physical distances, or communicating through professional channels when necessary. Discussing emotional projections and misunderstandings of intent with your therapist as soon as they occur is essential.

Further, ensure you respect and maintain the boundaries set by your therapist to maintain the objectivity of the treatment process.

Discuss Your Feelings with Your Therapist

Your therapist will be willing to listen to your feelings and help you work through them, so don’t feel ashamed about your emotions towards them. They understand transference is an essential phenomenon in therapy, and addressing it is vital for your healing journey.

However, discussing transference with your therapist may feel overwhelming and uncomfortable, mainly if your feelings are negative. Additionally, your therapist may not want to talk about it right away. But, disclosing your emotions is essential to your treatment process as it solidifies the therapeutic relationship and prevents an impasse in therapy.

Further, discussing transference with your therapist is important because it: 

While you may contemplate finding a new therapist, working through these feelings with the current one is essential. Seek to understand the kind of reactions you are having towards them. You may list them down to have a better idea about them. Check if these feelings reflect how you felt toward other significant people, for instance, your parents or siblings.

Explain your feelings to the therapist once you have a better idea. Explain how these feelings connect to your past experiences or childhood life.

Take a Break If Necessary

Sometimes, your feelings towards the therapist may be overwhelming. Consider some time off from therapy and your therapist if your emotions prevent you from getting effective treatment. If it’s impossible to get over transference after the break, consider finding another therapist.

Get Support Today

While transference can be fascinating, it can also negatively impact the relationship with your therapist and the treatment outcomes. However, understanding what it is, when it occurs, and how it manifests itself can help manage it. 

Additionally, knowing its impact on therapy and how to prevent its adverse consequences can foster effective results for your treatment. Discussing your emotions with your therapist can help create a comfortable and friendly environment for your treatment session.

At Grow Therapy, we can help you locate a provider who understands and enables you to overcome your situations. With our search tool, you can find a therapist in your area who accepts your insurance. 

FAQs

  • The opposite of the transference phenomenon is countertransference. It refers to when therapists transfer their own feelings to their clients, usually triggered by the patient's feelings.

  • Transference is naturally unconscious, as an individual unknowingly projects their emotions. However, a person may gain awareness if transference is identified and discussed. So, transference may start as unconscious and gradually become part of your conscious awareness.

About the author
Alan Deibel, LCPC

Alan Deibel is a licensed clinical professional counselor with over 12 years of experience who specializes in ADHD, addiction, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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