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What Is Transference?

Transference is the process of projecting one’s feelings toward an important figure in your life onto someone else.

The term emerged from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic practice in the 1890s. Freud believed that childhood experiences and 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 can be recognized and, hopefully, resolved.

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 lash out at the therapist, transferring the anger she felt toward her mother onto her therapist.

The therapist, in turn, might ask to explore the patient’s reaction. This could facilitate a discussion about the patient’s unresolved problems with her mother, so the pair could understand how those emotions might influence her today and how to move forward.

Transference can also apply outside of the clinic. A woman could feel overly protective of a younger friend who reminds her of her baby sister. A young employee might project feelings toward his father onto his boss by continually asking for help and advice.

How Transference Works in Therapy

Freud’s framework has proven nearly impossible to empirically validate. Still, his theories spurred the growth of psychology, and some of his ideas—like transference—remain a relevant therapeutic technique.

When a therapist recognizes that transference is occurring, it can be a valuable moment to identify an underlying problem to address and resolve. Raising the issue could provide somewhat of an “aha moment” to patients who may not have been able to spot the problematic pattern before.

But pointing this out isn’t easy—it may upset the client or prevent them from opening up. The therapist would likely consider the relationship they have with the client, the empathy and trust the two have built, and whether the time is right when deciding whether to call out transference.

Another pattern that could occur in therapy is countertransference—when the counselor projects his or her own feelings toward someone back onto the client. Projecting feelings of attraction, anger, or an array of other feelings can provide insight or potentially harm the relationship, so therapists may want to be aware of the phenomenon and address it if necessary.

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