Transference happens in therapy a lot. In fact, it can happen in any relationship but is closely associated with the therapeutic relationship between a client and therapist. How a therapist handles this will certainly be decisive in judging the success of the process. Transference left unnoticed and not dealt with will lead to an erosion of the boundaries needed to do therapy effectively and is potentially harmful to the client. If it is not dealt with correctly , it can also increase the chances of counter transference (covered in next post).
Before we go further, let’s define the main terms used above. Psychology Today clarifies transference as the following:
Transference comes from psychoanalysis and means: “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood concerning someone towards a new object. The phenomenon happens when a patient begins to transfer feelings to their therapist, whether they are positive or negative. For example, the patient may begin to look at the therapist as if the therapist were their father, transferring feelings for their real father to their therapist.
Counter transference :
Counter transference, which occurs when a therapist transfers emotions to a person in therapy, is often a reaction to transference, a phenomenon in which the person in treatment redirects feelings for others onto the therapist. Counter transference is also periodically used to define situations where the therapist literally takes on the suffering of his patient. Good therapy.org
Therapists, including myself, are often looking for, hoping for and promoting transference to happen on a positive basis. For example, a client who has been severely abused by a parent as a child, may undergo transference by perceiving the therapist as a parent. As the client might expect this role to be negative or harmful, recovery of abuse could be possible when the therapist uses the client’s transference to supply what his or her parent did not – a safe, accepting relationship with boundaries. In this case, there might be positive effects to the transference. The process is however, controversial and some schools of thought see transference as a dangerous element of what should be a professional relationship.
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As a therapist, I see the relationship with the client as a model for the client’s relationships with others outside of therapy. I work in an atmosphere of genuine respect, empathy and regard for the client’s feelings and situation. The fact that a client is able to talk about everything, receive and give feedback and realize they are not being judged is often the key to recovery. This is where the therapist bears a huge responsibility for the direction of the relationship. Often the therapist may be the first person who has ever listened to them and appeared to understand. This can lead to the inevitable outcome of seeing the therapist as more than just a service provider, at best a friend…to the extreme as a potential partner. This is where things can get complicated if a therapist does not recognize the signs and takes action.
Transference usually becomes unhelpful when the therapist allows or promotes, knowingly or unknowingly, a dual relationship with the client. This includes a friendship, romantic or sexual relationship. Clients are often looking for the former and sometimes the latter. Therapy must have boundaries and is sometimes the only positive structure a client might have had in their life ever, so it hardly surprising that they would have those feelings. The important thing is to be able to talk about it openly and find solutions. Once the concept of transference is on the table and the concepts behind it explained and accepted, it can be used as a ‘laboratory’ to work through feelings together. An essential part of this process is to separate the feelings held for the therapist from the “original” and work on that issue. This is where transference can be useful. If it is not discussed or recognized, it could mean the premature end of therapy. Therapists themselves who cross that line need to look at their own motives and issues in supervision.
At this point, it would be useful to look at types of transference that can occur in therapy . Heathline.com describe four main types:
- Paternal transference. This form of transference occurs when a person views another person as a father figure. This takes shape as the belief that another person is in a position of power, has authority, and can give sound advice and protection.
- Maternal transference. Similar to the paternal example, in this instance, an individual treats another person as an idealized mother figure. They likely view this person as caring and expect them to be nurturing and comforting.
- Sibling transference. Often this can be experienced when parental relationships are not super strong and take shape as more peer-based interactions rather than a leader/follower relationship.
- Non-familial transference. This form of transference takes shape when a person treats others as idealized versions of what they are expected to be rather than their authentic selves.
In addition to this, we can add romantic or erotic transference where clients have romantic or sexual fantasies about the therapist or negative transference where feelings of hate and disgust prevail. These are difficult to deal with and will often lead to a referral to another therapist in most cases.