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Transference

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Transference is a phenomenon in which one seems to direct feelings or desires related to an important figure in one’s life—such as a parent—toward someone who is not that person. In the context of psychoanalysis and related forms of therapy, a patient is thought to demonstrate transference when expressing feelings toward the therapist that appear to be based on the patient’s past feelings about someone else.

What Is Transference?

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The concept of transference emerged from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic practice in the 1890s. Freud believed that childhood experiences and internal conflicts formed the foundation for one’s development and personality as an adult. Psychoanalysis aims to uncover those unconscious conflicts—which may be responsible for current patterns of emotion and behavior. Transference is one method through which those conflicts may be recognized and, hopefully, resolved.

What is an example of transference?

If a patient’s mother was extremely judgmental to her as a child, and the therapist makes an observation that the patient perceives as judgmental, the patient might express that and even lash out at the therapist. This response could be interpreted as her applying to her therapist the same feelings that she felt toward her mother. A patient’s response to a therapist may also resemble her response to a romantic partner or some other person in her life.

Does transference happen outside of therapy?

Psychologists argue that transference occurs in everyday life, even if it’s more closely examined in certain forms of therapy. For example, a woman could feel overly protective of a younger friend who reminds her of her baby sister. A young employee might experience the same sort of feelings he has about his father when in the presence of a boss who resembles the father in some way.

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How Transference Works in Therapy

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While much of Freud’s framework has proven difficult to validate empirically, his theories spurred the growth of psychology, and a number of his ideas—including transference—remain relevant to therapists today. Especially in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic forms of psychotherapy, transference is considered a useful therapeutic tool.

What are different types of transference in therapy?

In therapy, both positively and negatively shaded kinds of transference may occur. “Idealized transference” describes when a patient assumes that the therapist has certain positive characteristics (such as wisdom). If the positive feelings are not too exaggerated, this form of transference may be useful for the therapist-patient alliance. Negative transference might be at work when a patient has feelings about the therapist, such as suspicion or anger, that seem to be based on experiences from past relationships. 

What is sexualized transference?

A patient’s experience of sexual or romantic feelings about the therapist has been called sexualized transference. The concept dates back to Freud, who posited that some patients fall in love with their therapist because of the context of psychoanalysis, not because of the actual characteristics of the therapist. Later theorists distinguished between “erotic transference,” which can involve sexual fantasies that a patient realizes are unrealistic, and “eroticized transference”—a more intense and problematic pattern that may include explicit sexual overtures from a patient.

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