Transference and Being Overly Attached to your Therapist

illustration of head shots showing two different brains and in front of each a person, one male one female sitting in chairs all representing the dynamic of transference
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Transference does not emerge because you've done something wrong in your therapy. It's a natural phenomenon that can manifest in almost any relationship.
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Overly attached to your therapist?

Psychologist and therapy coach Dr. Susan LaCombe

Psychologist / Therapy Coach, Dr. Susan LaCombe

Can you overcome being overly attached to your therapist?

It's painful to feel so attached you can't imagine leaving your therapist—even when you're not making progress or your budget can no longer accommodate regular sessions.

I've received many emails from visitors to myShrink who have been stuck in a transference with their therapist for years. I now see that there's no guarantees a transference will be resolved.

Until a transference is finally resolved chances are you will continue to feel overly attached to your therapist. 

That said, I've been fortunate to work with many who have been suffering from transference and have successfully worked it through. This experience has helped me to identify a few reasons why a transference might continue indefinitely.

I'll be talking about these reasons in this course. One key reason relates to the feeling of safety. With sufficient safety you can open up more easily to your therapist and thereby access deeper areas of your emotional brain. 

It's in the deep areas of the brain where the change needs to happen if you're to move through your transference. You can't merely "think" your way through.

Signs of feeling unsafe and feeling overly attached

Odd as it sounds, many people have no idea whether they’re feeling safe. I’ve had tall, strong looking guys in my office who say they feel "safe" but when it comes down to it, it's clear they're not.

You see, there's a big difference between you feeling safe and your primitive, reptilian body-based brain feeling safe. 

Because when I ask them to pause and sense into the sensations in their body, they notice the unmistakable signs of fear

  • tight feeling in the chest,
  • hands are locked together,
  • shoulders are hunched to the shoulders (braced against a potential threat),
  • ankles are turned inward,
  • toes curled,
  • clammy, tense hands,
  • collapsed on the couch.

If these sensations or symptoms sound familiar to you, there's a chance your brain is too overwhelmed for the necessary learning to occur. 

Why might you be feeling "unsafe" even when you feel your therapist is heartfelt and emotionally available? Read on . . . 

A kind, heartfelt therapist—a double edged sword

When you establish a good working connection with your therapist, you often create sufficient safety to allow yourself to access feelings you might not have otherwise.

Not always though.

Sometimes the more kind and emotionally available your therapist, the harder it is to open up.

Sounds contradictory?

It makes perfect sense when you understand how memory is stored in the brain. 

Intense feelings trigger memories when you felt the same way

To really understand why you might have so much fear, it's important to appreciate that the experiences underlying transferences occur early in life. Transferences surface only when the conditions are right and harken back to when you were similarly dependent.

When transference arises in therapy it's a kind of re-creation of the circumstances that you experienced back then. But now, owing to your connection, it's an opportunity to finally fulfill a certain stage in your development.

You may also know that as an infant you're totally dependent on your parents for your survival. Your connection to them figures strongly in your day to day activities.

Alongside those heartfelt feelings towards your therapist will reside similar memories of your life when you experienced the same strong emotions as an infant/toddler. (That's what being triggered is all about.)

So what happens if alongside those strong feelings you once felt as an infant there was some inconsistent caretaking going on (eg. mother/father's stress/anxiety, neglect, abuse, parent's depression).

The feelings associated with negative memories are going to wrap around these present day feelings and naturally make you feel a little on guard. You're worried about opening up, getting even more attached and then, as before, something bad happening (ie. like Mom or Dad not being there when you're in need).

With a transference, you're tapping into these early as yet unprocessed feelings and fears.  

In other words, the stakes are high. A lot is riding on your connection to your therapist. You don't want a repeat of what happened back then when you're weren't getting certain needs met. 

Making sure you have the right ingredients to resolve your transference

Fortunately, you now have the right components to make up the normal stage of development that you missed.

You get the chance to work through it and fill in the missing pieces. It’s actually not that important why you missed this stage other than to know it wasn’t your fault.

Best of all, these interactive experiences with your therapist expand your capacity to regulate emotion. (More on that exciting topic later.)

Here’s the rub though…

The conditions that 'moulded' the brain back then must be in place in order for your transference to be completely resolved. But with a good therapeutic alliance - you already have the most important condition.

What might those other conditions be?

First understand that the infant/toddler/youngster’s world is primarily a non-verbal one. In fact, the language centres in the brain don’t come online until 18 months.

When we’re young, we learn through our bodily senses. We feel, sense, touch. We move our body through space.

We don't learn through words as much as through experience. We play with objects in our environment, we explore, we experiment.

So one of the more important aspects of the work revolves around your feelings as you’re sitting there with your therapist. That's the basis for the "experience" the brain is looking for.

It’s important to manage these feelings just so, in order to have your transference fulfilled. The brain learns best under certain conditions that, if met, cement in the changes. This requires a whole brain experience of safety in the nervous system.

Feeling safe and being overly attached to your therapist

It’s essential that you feel safe in order to tolerate the intense emotions that pop up in therapy. Therapy can easily stall otherwise.

There are two main ways to feel “safe” in your session. The first one that most people are familiar with is by working through tough emotional material. All good therapy entails this.

Some folks however have a hard time even getting to first base. They can't open up enough to get to the deeper emotional material!

This can happen even with the kindest, most compassionate therapist. I know this first hand. (In fact, a I've tried to explain above, there are solid reasons why this type of therapist can make things much harder for you.)

Letting go of your therapist

As you begin to feel safer and as your therapist is able to meet you in the present, authentically and with an open heart that “attuned”  care will help you to move through and resolve your transference. 

If this proves to be a roadblock for you, you can learn how to find safety within yourself. That way you can learn to manage your fears enough to open up and experience what you need to in your therapy.  

Remember, you can’t just tell yourself to “feel safe”. Feeling safe depends on the primitive lower brain - the reptilian lizard brain and the limbic system combined.

That requires a whole different set of tools - tools you may have known about long ago - but are not forgotten.

See you in the next lesson.


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