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Transference: Why This Little-Understood Concept is So Important to Therapy
The relationship you have with your therapist is special, but in many ways, it’s like any other relationship. At some point, you’ll have to work out problems with your therapist just like you would with a partner or family member. Many of those problems will probably be rooted in 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 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.
Transference isn't actually a problem if it's recognized and addressed. It's an inevitable and natural part of therapy.
In fact, Freud and other pioneering therapists believed it was what made therapy work—the juice that gave therapy the power to effect change.
Modern therapists also recognize its power to either help or hinder the therapeutic relationship.
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. But 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.
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?
In most cases, what’s inside 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.
Stale emotions can seem so fresh. It's not unusual to keep them and chew on them and try to draw nourishment from them even when they're well past their expiration date.
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 made them is long gone, and even when you’re the one who served them to yourself.
What Causes Transference?
To be clear, 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—the term transference specifically refers to what happens when you transfer feelings you have toward or about other people onto your therapist.
The emotions we tend to hold on to the longest are the ones that come from childhood.
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.
Another reason 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 and 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.
Note that not all transference reactions come from feelings you've transferred from parents, though.
If an intimate partnership, other family relationship, or 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.
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 outbursts.
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. And Bill is tired of how much work he has to do just to avoid what might make him react that way.
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.
However long it takes to uncover transference, 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 anger flare-ups. 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.
There are many methods a therapist can use to explore and release these old feelings and the beliefs and identities attached to 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 them 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 cause emotional pain, poison therapy, and bring it to an early end.
You can prevent transference from poisoning therapy by working with your therapist to watch out for it.
But don’t make the opposite mistake, either—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.
The only way to find out what's behind your reactions is to work closely with your therapist to explore them.
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. While it’s your therapist’s job to recognize and respond to transference in an appropriate way, you can help the process along by being honest and open with your therapist about what you’re feeling toward them, even if it’s negative or seems harsh.
Don't worry about hurting your therapist's feelings—the only way to work through challenging emotions is to talk about them, and your therapist knows how to do just that.
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 these old feelings back to the surface. And working with these feelings is at the heart of the therapeutic process.
When you have a good therapist, transference can be one of your biggest allies in therapy.
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.
So, don’t give up when therapy gets challenging—you might be on the verge of a breakthrough. With the right approach, working with transference can help you take your therapy to the next level.
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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.