What is transference?
Transference is often used to describe a redirection of unconscious feelings from their original object to a new object. For example, feelings which originally occurred towards a parent or spouse could then be transferred to a therapist or counsellor within a therapeutic relationship.
Some types of feelings which can be attributed to transference include:
· Feelings of platonic or familial love
· Negative feelings such as anger or bitterness
· Romantic or sexual attraction
Do we transfer our feelings at other times?
Transference isn’t limited to a therapist/client relationship, however. We can find ourselves repeating certain feelings in any social situation. When we are introduced to a complete stranger, we may find that they remind us of our overbearing mother and have a negative reaction before they have even said hello. Or they may remind us of a close friend and we may treat them as such as a result.
The way that we deal with the world is shaped by our former experiences. Transference is a product of this theory and, in the confines of a psychoanalytic relationship, can take on a greater significance than at other times.
Why does transference happen in therapy?
In a friendship or romantic relationship, both partners will bring their own personalities, desires and feelings to the partnership. However in a therapeutic relationship, the therapist is putting forward the appearance of a blank slate. They are effectively anonymous, there to reflect the issues and concerns of the client so that they can be better analysed.
Sometimes it is obvious why transference is occurring. If a client is depressed because of a string of bad relationships, they will likely feel validated by a therapist who is providing a sympathetic listening ear. This may lead them to develop romantic feelings towards the therapist and to fantasise about having a closer connection with them.
However, it is important to recognise transference as and when it occurs in order for the feelings to be brought into the open. A qualified therapist will be able to draw attention to these feelings and explore them so that they may be resolved.
Can transference be a good thing?
In our everyday relationships, it can be harmful to associate someone with feelings which are occurring as a result of our unconscious thoughts. To label someone according to our prior experiences prevents us from building an honest relationship with them and gives us a narrow and self-centred view. However, transference in therapy can be very beneficial as it can potentially unlock the answer to issues which have yet to be healed.
If the transferred feelings can be discussed openly and honestly, then new ideas can be pinpointed between the client and therapist. The client will come to realise that their feelings are representations of their inner feelings and are not occurring as a result of their relationship with the therapist. In this way, the relationship can become stronger and the client will feel ready to move on to the next part of their treatment.
Tips for dealing with transference
Work out how helpful/harmful it is
If you think that your feelings are hindering your progress in therapy (ie when they are so strong you feel unable to be honest about them), it’s OK to leave and seek a different therapist. This is especially important if you are attending goal-based treatments such as CBT as you will need to be able to tackle your specified issue with no distractions.
Transference is completely normal. You are not ‘crazy’ for being attracted to your therapist or associating them with your father. The important thing is to bring these feelings to light and discuss them together.
Wait it out
If you are feeling trapped by your thoughts and unable to break free, try to give it time. Once you have openly discussed your feelings with your therapist, they should diminish over time.
Your therapist should be able to help you to see the difference between themselves and the original object of your feelings. It could be that it’s just one mannerism which is reminding you of your childhood friend or that your therapist has the same voice as your mother but looks nothing like her. The more differences you can see, the more you will be able to scale down your feelings.