The term transference describes a psychological phenomenon in which a person transfers or redirects their feelings and emotions from themselves onto another person.
Transference is an unconscious process that often occurs in a therapeutic setting, for example, between a client and therapist.
However, transference can occur in various other situations, not just within a therapeutic relationship. For instance, transference may occur between colleagues, siblings, friends, spouses, etc.
One example of transference is when someone in therapy applies their ideas, feelings or expectations of another individual to the therapist and, as a result, begins to engage with the therapist as if the therapist were the other person.
Researchers say that the patterns usually observed in transference represent relationship figures in childhood, for example, one’s parents or caregivers.
Where did the concept of transference originate?
The concept of transference was first explained by Austrian-born psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his 1895 book Studies on Hysteria.
Freud identified significant associations between client and therapist and observed the profound, intense, albeit unconscious feelings that often developed within the therapeutic alliance.
Psychoanalysis and transference
Freud described transference using case studies from some of his clients, such as Anna O.
According to Freud, transference can lead to catharsis if the emotions and feelings between client and therapist are successfully transferred and resolved.
Transference and catharsis
Freud described transference in the following way:
- Transference – is when a client begins to feel as though the therapist is a parental figure, such as a mother or father figure. During the transference, the client can directly deal with issues they may have toward those individuals via the therapist.
- Catharsis – involves releasing repressed emotions, enabling the client to express what Freud called the ”motivating energy” that has been suppressed or bottled up. For example, when Anna O spoke of her disdain about a dog drinking from the same glass as a human.
- Insight – is when a client becomes aware of the core emotions released through catharsis.
Transference is prevalent among humans and does not necessarily signify a mental health condition – it can occur in various ways and many situations.
Moreover, it may form the foundation for specific relationship patterns.
What are the three types of transference in therapy?
Researchers have identified three types of transference in a therapeutic setting. They include:
- Positive transference
- Negative transference
- Sexualized transference
1. Positive transference
Transference can sometimes positively impact the therapeutic relationship and may improve treatment outcomes and patient compliance.
One example of positive transference is when clients apply all the positive attributes of their past relationships to the therapist.
Here, the client may perceive the therapist as kind, caring and wise, which can strengthen trust and help develop a mutual bond.
Positive feelings toward the therapist
One study on a young child with autism highlighted the benefits of positive transference in therapy. Once a positive bond was established, the child’s relationship with the therapist became more robust, and the young boy began following the therapist’s directions.
Moreover, the therapist noted a significant reduction in the child’s aggression and his learning abilities improved (The Psychoanalytic Theory of Transference in Therapy, VeryWell Mind, Lisa Fritscher, 08th June 2022).
2. Negative transference
Unlike positive transference, negative transference involves redirecting negative emotions to one’s therapist.
Typically, such emotions include hostility and anger. Still, other adverse emotions may also feature – such feelings might have been experienced in childhood, likely toward a significant figure such as the person’s mother, father or another important individual.
Thus, any repressed emotions one experiences in childhood toward such people will resurface in the therapeutic relationship (The Psychoanalytic Theory of Transference in Therapy, VeryWell Mind, Lisa Fritscher, 08th June 2022).
Negative transference is not always a bad thing.
Moreover, negative transference mustn’t be seen as bad since it can improve and enhance client and therapist relationships.
In addition, any negative redirection of feelings and emotions during therapy can be used as a topic for discussion in future therapy sessions.
Crucially, through transference, something significant has cropped up for the client, and the therapist may find it beneficial to the patient’s progress to explore these emotional responses further.
3. Sexualised transference
Another type of transference is sexualized transference, where a client may begin to experience sexual feelings or become attracted to their therapist.
Sexualized transference is sometimes called erotic transference, where a client experiences feelings toward their therapist that are:
- Sensual and romantic
- Sexual and intimate
- Worshipful or admiring
Studies show that those with few friends or who lack reliable, solid relationships are more likely to experience sexualized transference toward a therapist than those with positive, stable relationships.
Other types of transference
Other types of transference include:
- Paternal transference – involves someone looking at another person as a father figure. The individual may think of the father figure as strong, wise, and authoritative and expect trusted advice and security from this person.
- Maternal transference – Similar to paternal transference, a person may view someone as a mother figure and see this individual as gentle, caring and loving – a person may expect the mother figure to offer comfort and protection.
- Sibling transference – slightly different from parental transference, sibling transference is primarily focused on team or peer-based interactions. Sibling transference often occurs when parental relationships are broken or when they are lacking.
Researchers describe another type of transference called non-familial transference, where a person treats others as an idealized version of who they should be, not who they are.
For example, a person may have preconceptions about those in law enforcement, believing that police should uphold the law at all times.
A person may also believe that a doctor can cure any disease, illness or ailment.
You may be surprised to learn that therapists can also transfer their thoughts and feelings onto clients; this process is called countertransference.
However, despite the negative undertones, countertransference can be a positive aspect of therapy and may help the client and therapist secure a more trusting, mutual bond.
Client and therapist
For example, if a client observes anger, frustration or sadness in the therapist, the therapist may choose to disclose why this might be the case.
Moreover, the therapist may praise or credit the client for being observant and allow them to figure out how much of these observations are projections rather than what the therapist is experiencing.
Therapy and transference
Studies show that transference can be detrimental to a person’s mental health.
Essentially, someone who engages in transference is not necessarily looking to build genuine relationships since the focus (albeit unconscious) is on projecting emotions and feelings.
Transference allows therapists to understand the patient better.
A therapist is trained to recognize when transference occurs within a therapeutic setting. Thus, the therapist may better understand the client through the information gathered from the transference process. In addition, transference allows therapists to understand specific aspects of a client’s past that impact them in the present.
Studies show that many psychoanalysts believe transference to be a therapeutic tool in therapy and may give therapists valuable insight into a client’s unconscious or repressed feelings (GoodTherapy, Transference, 25th September 2019).
During therapy sessions, therapists can educate their clients by helping them identify when transference might occur.
For instance, when disruptive or problematic transference is identified, an individual is empowered to explore the source of the transference, what the triggers might be, and how to prevent it.
Treatment allows for awareness and empowerment to take place.
Transference-focused therapy (TFT) is recommended since it allows people to gain valuable knowledge and insight into unhelpful thoughts and behavioural patterns.
Contacting White River Manor
If you would like more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health, contact a White River Manor specialist today.
Our specialist team understands how challenging it can be to reach out in the first instance; however, talking about your worries or concerns with a trusted professional is the first step to feeling better.
We are always on hand to lend a listening ear. Contact a team member today.
- The Psychoanalytic Theory of Transference in Therapy: Verywell Mind, Lisa Fritscher, 08th June 2022
- Transference: GoodTherapy, 25th September 2019