What Is Transference? What to Do When It Shows Up in Therapy
Therapy can bring up surprisingly strong feelings.
Sometimes, it’s obvious where they come from. For example, you might finally be able to feel and release old grief for a loss you suffered. You might finally be able to access and express anger toward someone who hurt you a long time ago. When you have feelings like this, you know where they come from because they come up when you’re talking about the events that caused them.
Some strong feelings in therapy, however, can be a lot more mysterious. You might feel sad, angry, or anxious during or after a therapy session and have no idea why. Sometimes, these feelings can seem to come out of nowhere and to be about nothing and no one, as if something just got shaken loose.
Sometimes, the feelings seem to be about your therapist. Suddenly, you’re thinking and worrying a lot more about something they said. It becomes really important whether they believe you, approve of you, or care. You might get really angry or start to hate them. You might even fall in love with them!
Often, when you have big feelings like this toward your therapist, the reason is transference.
What Is Transference?
Transference is therapist lingo for what happens when you experience really strong feelings toward your therapist that aren’t really about your therapist.
Transference reactions can be big and overwhelming. Often, they don’t feel good. But even when they do feel good, they tend to make you anxious. If you’re really attached to your therapist and are deeply affected by how much they seem to care, you might worry that they’ll stop caring or that they don’t really care. This can become a painful obsession you seek to prove or disprove every session.
When you’re in the middle of a big transference reaction, it’s tempting to want to quit therapy. You might think you’re with the wrong therapist, that they did something wrong, or that you did something wrong. But usually, none of that is true. This is just how it feels when something in the present opens a door to the past. It can actually be the beginning of a major breakthrough in therapy.
So, don’t give up if therapy doesn’t feel so great right now. We can help. If you’re struggling in your relationship with your therapist, or are just confused about what you’re feeling toward them, we can help you understand what’s going on and what you can do about it. Read on to learn how to recognize transference and how to enlist your therapist’s help to get to the bottom of these deep feelings.
Are These Big Feelings Normal?
Transference is often (though not always) the culprit when you feel triggered, emotionally hurt, or misunderstood in a therapy session.
One tell-tale sign of transference is when your feelings or reactions seem bigger than they should be. You don’t just feel frustrated, you feel enraged. You don’t just feel hurt, you feel deeply wounded in a way that confirms your most painful beliefs. But all your therapist did to trigger these feelings was have that tone or give you that look.
These big feelings can make therapy a lot more difficult. They’re so intense they can be overwhelming. It’s easy to mistake them for a sign that something’s gone wrong in therapy. But usually, they’re a sign that something is going right.
In fact, Freud and other pioneering therapists believed transference was what made therapy work—the juice that gave therapy the power to effect change.
Modern therapists also recognize the power of transference to either help or hinder therapy. A good therapist will help you go deeper so you can find out the real reason you’re feeling this way.
If you work through it, transference can take your therapy to the next level. It can guide you to your deepest wounds and give you the insights you need to heal them.
However, if transference isn’t identified for what it is or handled well, it can overpower the therapeutic process. It can poison your relationship with your therapist and make it impossible to move forward in therapy.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Once you learn how to recognize these feelings, you can learn how to work through them with your therapist’s help.
Bringing Old Emotions Back to Life
Have you ever forgotten something in the back of your fridge for a really long time? Think of transference as the emotional equivalent.
Transference is made up of the old feelings you’ve held on to and kept in cold storage until you moved some other things around and found them again.
What happens when you open the container?
Usually, what’s inside the ancient container in the back of your fridge is unrecognizable and at least somewhat unpleasant. In some cases—like when you open an old fruitcake—what you find seems as sweet as ever, though you still hesitate to eat it. Usually, you decide to dump it and move on, or at least shove it to the back of the fridge and forget about it again.
Where the old food in your fridge metaphor breaks down is that it’s way harder to tell when old emotions are old. It’s also harder to know what to do with them.
And when these old, sour feelings make you feel bad, you tend to blame the person in the room with you for serving them to you, even if the person who originally served them to you is long gone—and even if you’re the one who served them to yourself.
What Causes Transference?
Transference doesn’t refer to any old emotion that comes back up. It describes what happens when you transfer an old emotion that you originally felt toward someone else onto the person in the room with you.
And while it’s possible to transfer old emotions onto just about anyone—a partner, a child, a friend, a boss—in therapy, transference refers to what happens when you transfer feelings you have toward or about other people onto your therapist.
It’s natural that therapists cause these kinds of reactions. Your therapist is someone who’s in a position of authority over you but whose job is to help you feel better. Does that remind you of anyone else you know?
When you experience a transference reaction to your therapist, it’s usually because they did or said something that reminded you of what one of your parents said or did when you were a kid.
And that similarity, paired with the authority your therapist has and the emotional intimacy you share with them, brought those old childhood emotions right back to the surface.
Often, those old feelings haven’t lost an ounce of their intensity. One reason is all the old baggage and beliefs you’ve attached to them over the years.
Transference Isn't Always About Your Parents
Not all transference reactions come from feelings you’ve transferred from parents.
If another family relationship, an intimate partnership, or a friendship affected you strongly enough, it can come out as transferred feelings in the therapy room. And the rage, fear, and pain can be just as strong as it was at the time you experienced the trauma or betrayal that caused it.
Another reason these feelings are still so intense is that you never resolved them—you never healed the wound or trauma that caused them. In fact, the opposite occurred. That wound got more inflamed over time. Then you put that pain behind glass in the museum of your identity. You made yourself believe it was the only way you could feel.
The reason you might be seeking therapy is because you’ve started to believe you don’t have to feel this way anymore. Whether you’ve felt this way your whole life, or just for a while, you know you’re ready for therapy when you’re ready to find out why you feel this way and what you have to do to heal.
What Does Transference Look Like?
To learn a little more about what transference looks like, let’s meet Bill.
Bill’s been in therapy a while. He started several months ago when his partner asked him to see a therapist to address his temper.
In their early sessions, Bill and his therapist started identifying his anger triggers. They came up with ways he could avoid these triggers or mitigate their effects. They developed action plans to help him work with his anger without lashing out at his partner.
Thanks to all of this work, Bill feels triggered less often and manages his anger better. But nothing they’ve done has changed how angry he feels when he does get triggered.
Today, Bill’s therapist is recovering from a cold and taking cough medicine. He’s a little looser than usual. He says something he thinks is funny. He laughs at himself, but it’s not funny to Bill.
In fact, it’s deeply insulting. Bill feels mocked, diminished, and dismissed. Suddenly, his therapist is no longer an ally, but an enemy, yet another person who doesn’t respect him or take him seriously. Bill lashes out. He screams at his therapist, “Fuck you! You’re just like HIM!”
“Like who?” his therapist asks. Bill’s therapist doesn’t know who he has just reminded Bill of, but he knows it’s important. Bill is silent for a moment. “Sa—” he starts to say the name of his partner, then stops himself. He knows it isn’t true.
While what he just felt is similar to what he feels when he’s with his partner, he knows it’s older than that. “I was going to say my partner, but you know, who you really reminded me of was my dad.”
What to Do When Transference Occurs
In Bill’s case, he got right to it, though it often takes several sessions for transference to build up and to connect the reaction to its source.
But no matter how long it takes to uncover transference, it’s worth it. It’s important work—once that connection is made, deeper work can begin.
Now, Bill has the chance to do more than learn how to avoid his anger triggers or manage his temper outbursts. Working with his transference reaction can open doors to the past that will allow Bill to heal his anger at its roots.
Bill and his therapist will probably talk about what Bill experienced in his childhood. They will identify what his father did that made him feel so helpless, diminished, and rejected. Then they’ll explore the beliefs that have held those feelings in place—and made him so reactive when something triggers them.
How Bill and his therapist choose to work on these old wounds will depend on the methods his therapist is trained in and what suits Bill best as a client. What’s most important is that they both recognized that he was having a transference reaction.
Working with what happened instead of shutting it down will allow Bill and his therapist to move deeper in therapy and in their relationship. Something else would have happened if Bill’s therapist had just tried to ignore Bill’s reaction. Unrecognized transference reactions can poison therapy and bring it to an early end.
But it’s just as important not to make the opposite mistake and call things transference that aren’t. Not all negative reactions in therapy are signs of transference. Strong reactions can also occur when you have a bad therapist or when stressors outside of therapy have become more intense.
This is why it’s important to talk to your therapist about what you’re feeling. Transference won’t get resolved in a single session, but it will respond to the work you do to address it. It can take some time, but a good therapist will help you feel supported while you do the work.
Transference is what happens when you transfer the feelings you have toward or about someone else, usually a parent, onto your therapist. It’s a normal and natural part of the therapeutic process and good therapists know how to recognize and work with it.
However, it can also be destructive, especially if you don’t talk about it. You get the best results in therapy when you don’t let bad feelings fester.
While it’s your therapist’s job to recognize and respond to transference in an appropriate way, you can help by being honest and open about what you’re feeling toward them, even if it’s negative or seems harsh.
Admitting when you’re having strong feelings toward your therapist, good or bad, will allow you to repair and strengthen your relationship. It will also give you the opportunity to explore, release, and heal some of your oldest and most painful feelings.
In fact, many therapists believe that transference plays an essential role in bringing hidden sources of pain back to the surface. Working with these feelings to heal that pain is ultimately what therapy is all about.
With your therapist’s help, you can use difficult moments in your sessions to help you understand your deepest psychological wounds. Then you can start to let go of the stories that have kept those wounds open all these years.
Working with transference is powerful and can help you get through blocks you’ve had for a really long time. It can change how you understand yourself and how you feel from day to day. It can help you change how you react to the people you love when things get tough.
So, don’t give up when therapy gets challenging—you might be on the verge of a breakthrough. And you might be surprised by what happens next. It might even change your life!
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.