(See below for an explanation of how this scene depicts what transference is)
You're wondering what transference is and whether it might explain the feelings you're having. Each time your sessions end, you're left wanting for more.
Can these feelings towards your therapist be real or merely an intricate interplay of your mind?
(Sigmund Freud was right along these lines.)
Hi, I'm Dr. Susan LaCombe, a psychotherapist/psychologist with nearly 30 years of clinical experience.
In 2006, I wrote an article online on dealing with transference. What followed was unexpected yet deeply moving – a flood of earnest messages poured in from clients of fellow therapists.
These messages unveiled what could only be described as 'transference horror stories' . . . many recounted years spent grappling with transference with little relief and without the necessary tools to steer its course.
Others candidly shared the tortuous pain of suddenly being referred to other practitioners still feeling tethered to their original therapist.
Updated: August 13, 2023
What is transference?
DEFINITION: Transference is the process whereby implicit memories of a prior relationship (eg. parent, caregiver, teacher) spontaneously manifest as an irresistible, involuntary and enduring attraction to another person.
Because the emotional attraction is genuine, successful release from the transference can be achieved by a therapeutic examination and resolution of the experiences underlying the implicit memories.
In layperson's terms . . . if your early relationship with your parents (or caregivers), is lacking in terms of any developmental needs, you may unconsciously find a way to get that need met at a later time through a connection with someone who closely matches the same characteristics and/or role of your parents.
To understand transference from this neuro-developmental perspective you may find it helpful to learn about the role that implicit memories play.
Here's how to understand 'Implicit Memories':
Implicit memories are 'feeling-sense' memories that encompass your recollection of reactions to past real-life events.
You don't normally intentionally try to recall an implicit memory. Rather, implicit memories are most commonly triggered.
Indeed, you can suddenly be experiencing an implicit memory and not know that it is happening. These memories have a knack for slipping through the cracks of your conscious memory, leaving you without a clear recollection of the original event or its timing!
I often share the story of how as a young adult, I'd open the fridge door and suddenly be catapulted back in time to my childhood.
Gone was the ability to put food together. I was filled with the helplessness of a child (ie. seeing the near empty fridge triggered an implicit memory).
The only tool in my kit was to order take-out 🙂
As well, you can have a positive implicit memory as easily as a negative one. These types of memories operate in the background, shaping your responses and behaviors, even when you're not consciously aware of them.
Consider the scenario where a piece of music transports you back in time, evoking sensations within your body and mind.
While you may struggle to pinpoint the exact moment or circumstances of your first encounter with that melody, the emotions it stirs are undeniably genuine.
These feelings are not mere figments of imagination; they're an integral part of these implicit memories that hold an undeniably firm grip on your psyche.
BIG PROBLEM: If you're suddenly experiencing an implicit memory you tend to attribute the feelings as being caused by what's in front of you. You don't have the awareness that a memory from the past is being triggered.
Unbeknownst to you, the emotions presently coursing through you trace back to genuine implicit memories of bygone moments. In an intriguing twist, these sensations undergo a subtle "redirection," finding their outlet through your therapist.
As if fulfilling an age-old quest, your therapist inadvertently assumes the role of the elusive, nurturing "mother or father figure," sparking a profound and intricate connection.
The scene above illustrates how early interactions with parents and caregivers become the basis for relationship patterns in your later years. When these memories remain raw and unprocessed, they readily project themselves onto those who hold significance in your life. (And, often without your awareness.)
A notable illustration of this dynamic is evident in various types of transference (eg. an erotic attraction or believing your therapist has the characteristics of a mother or father figure you never had).
For example, the child above has picked up on her mother's feelings of overwhelm and of the situation being "too much to handle". The little girl internalizes these reactions believing her needs are "too much".
Then later as an adult, whenever she attempts to express her needs it automatically triggers these inner child memories and her tendency is to assume others feel this same way, (ie. "you're asking for too much".)
If you have gaps in emotional "learning" during infancy, then you'll be susceptible to experiencing transference in adulthood (depending which emotional needs went unmet).
Recall psychology 101: If you missed achieving a developmental level, it can be rectified later. As numerous therapists have found (ie. working with hundreds of patients), such is the case with transferential reactions.
The take-home message is that transference is a manifestation—in the present—of events from long time ago where you either . . .
- Didn't get enough chances to learn what you needed to, or
- A traumatic and overly rigid or chaotic home life compelled you to develop strategies that worked in the moment, but in the end stunted your normal emotional development.
Because the brain continues to "learn" throughout the lifespan, in a sense transference gives you the opportunity for you to "catch up".
Indeed, you can experience a difference in how you feel towards yourself. Your behavior can change for the better. Once a transference is resolved, you might have what some might call, even a fundamental personality change. It's that big.
Introduction to this evolutionary approach
If the brain early on learned a strategy that proved to be less than optimal in adulthood, it can unlearn it.
And if there were learning gaps in childhood we can provide experiences for the brain to get that learning when we reach adulthood.
This positive outlook requires working with the brain and it's normal operation. (There's no sense struggling against the current 🙂
I suggest that you figure out what experiences you need, and then ensure that your brain learns from those experiences.
I know . . . easier said then done.
This 3-Part Series will hopefully help you give you a head start on discovering what transference is from a neuro-developmental perspective.
*Note, I didn't use the term "mental illness". In my clinical experience most issues I've seen are the result of adaptive learning by the brain—at the time. To right the wrong's of the past, it is therefore a case of providing the brain with new healthy experiences it can learn from. (Note that not all "issues" are psychological in nature; some are organic, but fewer than most people realize.)
In this article we'll explore . . .
Common misspellings: transferance, transferrence, transferrance, transferece.
Discover what hundreds of members already know: transference can be overcome. Click below to learn more:
What is transference?
Definition of Transference: a psychological pattern where we unconsciously experience one person through the filter of our feelings towards someone else from our past.
Note that the other "someone" is normally from our childhood.
Here's one way of understanding it . . .
Imagine if your best friend of many years has started acting as if you're just like her domineering father. Suddenly, conversations have a habit of going sideways. She explodes from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond and usually on a tangent that's completely off centre from where you started. It's mind boggling.
And today she wants to bite your head off when all you asked was "how'd you come to choose keto for your diet?"
(Discussions around diets these days can be particularly polarizing. Let's say though that you're genuinely curious as you're considering the same keto diet. What accounts for the 'Jekyll and Hyde' switcheroo in your friend? )
Read on for an intriguing possibility . . . 😉
Historically, the idea behind transference comes from the notion that we in effect "transfer" feelings for one person, onto another.
It's often used - though not exclusively - in reference to any feelings that arise towards your therapist.
Apparently, it didn't start out that way.
Sigmund Freud first used it as a neurological term. However, by the time he wrote the Interpretation of Dreams he was also using it as a psychological phenomenon.
The turning point was Freud's work with a patient named "Dora". Transference in therapy took on a much larger role after that: "By 1900, transference was ready to stand, as it does today, at the core of psychoanalytic theory."*
*Toward an Intellectual History of Transference, 1988-1900. Makari, G.J., Psychiatr Clin North Am 1994 Sep;17(3):559-70.
Related terms: projective identification, transference neurosis, parataxic distortion.
What is transference in therapy?
Transference in therapy* is the same psychological process described above only the "object" of your projection (ie. where you direct your attention) is your therapist.
In effect you "transfer" your feelings from one person (from your past) onto your therapist. You experience your therapist as if he or she held certain, often idealized, attributes that were either missing or accentuated from your past.
For example, you might experience your therapist as totally 'good'. (ie. He represents the father figure you never had.)
In contrast with negative transference, you experience your therapist as totally 'bad' (ie. the difficult relationship with your Mom gets projected onto your therapist who has now become a mother figure).
In other words, when transference is heightened you tend to experience your therapist in polar opposite ways - either black and white with no shades of grey.
An equally interesting dynamic - known as countertransference - includes the feelings the therapist has towards the client.
Is transference a defense mechanism?
Yes, in conventional psychoanalytical practice, transference is regarded as a defense mechanism. It protects you from deeply rooted emotional pain.
And I would agree with that description.
However, from a neuroscience perspective the brain often operates in less mysterious ways - that is, once you understand what it's ultimately trying to do.
From this perspective transference can be interpreted as the brain is seeking to have a particular experience that it needs to complete its development.
Let me explain.
We know that the brain changes mainly through personal experience. By its very nature, transference also exposes you to an experience - and it's one that you can learn from.
Indeed, once a transference is resolved (ie. it no longer has a hold on you), many people report feeling like an adult, instead of feeling child-like in an adult world.
Transference in relationships
Though the word 'transference' is usually associated with psychotherapy, you can actually develop a transference with anyone.
In fact we all experience transferences to some degree in our personal relationships.
As I mentioned, the term 'transference' was initially adopted in reference to situations where we transfer unmet psychological desires or conflicts onto another person. For example, you might experience your partner’s assertiveness as if she was your critical mother.
That is, you experience the person as if they were just like that other person, and you react accordingly. You're not "crazy" - you do this in an effort to meet a basic psychological need.
That need could be to get closure on an interpersonal conflict that has been brewing since childhood.
Or a transference might arise with respect to a caring health professional who you (subconsciously) feel displays the exact same emotions and attitudes of your mother (or a mother you never had). (See Erin's story)
You experience the other person that way because there's a part of you yearning for experience which were lacking in your emotional upbringing. As a result of this experience, the brain will 'fill the gaps' in your developmental history.
So in this way, transference emerges out of a natural - even healthy - desire to feel whole. Successfully resolving the transference will better equip you to meet your adult needs.
Transference in psychoanalysis
Transference was initially only associated with psychoanalysis where the therapist would intentionally attempt to intensify it so it could be better observed and analyzed.
For example, the psychoanalyst might be uncommunicative or emotionally distant (which makes most people feel uncomfortable). That discomfort in turn, tends to bring out the more vulnerable parts of us (Sort of like going to your high school reunion when you haven't resolved any of your adolescent issues. Yeeks!)
This discomfort is particularly amped when the therapeutic "rules of engagement" are not spelled out.
It's like showing up to a silent yoga retreat in the hottest time of summer wearing shorts and a tight tank top - when everyone else is wearing loose-fitting long-pant yoga gear. Yeah, you didn't get the memo 😉
Thankfully, as I understand it, analysts today are more engaged with their clients and the transference that emerges is less shrouded in mystery.*
Even though I recognize some limitations with how psychoanalytic therapy is practiced, please note that I'm also very grateful for the work accomplished by the early pioneers of psychoanalytic theory and what they did for us all.
Recognizing and Managing Erotic and Eroticized Transferences, Darnell Ladson, Randon Wilton, Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 Apr; 4(4): 47-50.
The goal was to "resolve" your transference
It was believed that resolving the transference (ie. working through it) would eliminate the individual's neurotic tendencies and enable him or her to attain happiness.
As with other talk-based theories, it's believed that transformative personal change happens through ‘left brain’ discussion and analysis. (None of that messy emotional stuff. It just confounds the situation 🙂
In other words the theory is, "talking enough about a subject will lead to self-awareness and. ultimately to change."*
Other "talk" type therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy tend avoid the whole issue of transference if it arises.
Unfortunately, the presence of empathy on the part of the therapist is often insufficient to transform a transference. In my view, the interaction between therapist and patient must play out the dynamic at the core of the transference.
*Note: this is a novice' interpretation of psychoanalysis. I had some training in psychoanalytic concepts however I could never profess to be an expert. So if you're really curious, you'll have to do your own research.
Why did transference happen to me?
Many therapy clients that write me tell stories of transference that developed without warning. They had no idea this could occur. (See Diane)
Indeed, the issues they entered therapy for are often quite different than issues that surface related to their transference.
You might be tempted to blame your therapist. Why didn't she warn me this could happen? Did she do anything that made it happen?
Consider this . . .
Transference appears to tap into those gaps in emotional development that are so blended or "normalized" with clients, they do not experience a problem with the core issue.
When emotional problems are so "blended" you don't recognize them as "issues"
For instance, you might describe yourself as easy going. You tend to take a back seat to things, carefully choosing your moments to say anything and avoid saying what you really want particularly if it's a potential conflict with someone else.
That's been generally okay with you cause you'd rather just play it cool and let others decide.
Problem is sometimes you end up feeling used and under-appreciated. That's when you wonder if you have the right friends around you.
The reality is, you've been "training" your friends to expect this of you since you met them.
It's not your fault.
You have an under developed capacity for recognizing, and expressing your own needs.
However, you've adapted. Your unmet needs have "blended" into how you come to experience yourself.
Under the veil of an "easy going" persona you're hiding deep fears of being seen for who you really are: A normal human being with needs.
You're so convincing, you've even convince yourself. You believe that's who you are.
Brain Fact: Every function evolved with a purpose.
It may not always be readily apparent, but there’s usually an underlying reason why the brain chooses a certain course of action.
In particular, whatever strengthens you emotionally will help ensure you find your place and survive as a valued member of your social group.
If you keep 'survival of the fittest' in mind in regards to understanding any emotion or any brain function, it'll help you to "normalize" your quirks and make sense of yourself.
'Too much of a good thing'
The "blame game" isn't going to help anyone - including you. I only tell you that so you understand what I'm about to say.
In the above example, the reason you don't usually have a preference one way or another is that you've learned that sensing what you want only causes deep pain.
You see, if your needs were inadequately met or even went unnoticed as an infant then after a while the pain of feeling that need is just too dang hard to feel. (Like an infant crying incessantly wanting to be picked up, you learned it's best not to go there. So in the end you didn't.)
Problem is, if you don't experience a need and then have that same need fulfilled, you won't learn to feel what you want without going into major angst.
An evolutionary perspective
Let's take a basic emotion we've all felt: shame.
Survival of fittest required that we remain aligned with our tribe. The risk of being banished would mean certain death.
Shame is a our built-in "embarrassment" meter that helps us curtail any behaviour that sets us too far apart from the group. Besides it keeps us toilet trained 🙂
Like drinking one too many coffees in a day, the benefit becomes less optimal when taken to extremes.
Inadequate attuned care by a parent can set the stage for overdeveloped shame pathways. This poses a big challenge when it comes to having a solid connections with others.
As in the photo above, the child who is rebuffed enough times later replays this scene in her interactions with her therapist. It's one of the reasons, humiliation towards one's transference plays out in many transferences. (See Suz example below)
(You can imagine for instance, this "greater purpose" means nothing if you share it with your teenage son who happens to "die inside from embarrassment" anytime someone looks at him sideways.)
Let's move forward with your transference
Getting back to transference . . . that's how I want you to view it:
"There's a reason it emerged and even though at this point I can't grasp it's main purpose, I trust that my brain has an agenda."
The trick is to optimize your experience with transference, avoid prolonging it and maximize your time so you get the most bang for your buck.
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If you're like many people transference popped out of the blue. Suddenly, you lost serious control over your feelings. Worse, your transference seems to go on forever with no end in sight.
And, am I right? Your therapist isn't providing much guidance on getting through. Seemingly, there's no concrete steps you can take to resolve it within a reasonable amount of time.
If these sentiments ring true to you, consider a consult with yours truly.
Click here to learn more.
Member Questions About Transference Issues
Diane, Livingston, USA
Why aren’t my feelings for my therapist real?
I'm sure I'm experiencing transference and cannot stand it. I walk into the office all ready to talk about my feelings and as soon as I sit down I shut down and feel like I'm 10 years old.
I hate her and love her at the same time and can't stand that I wasn't warned that this crap can happen. I blame her for not warning me about transference and really wish I had never met her at times.
I started out in marriage counseling which went well and it's 3 years later and I can't leave. I've tried--said goodbye--decided I was done, but something draws me back to her.
By the way I am a woman and I do not have sexual desires for my therapist when I say I love her, it's a love for this person that always listens and is always there for me. Reality is she's not tough. She can't answer the phone whenever I call and when I need to talk I can't. I hate that I have to wait for and appointment.
It would also be sooooo much easier to discuss all of this with her on the phone and she won't do that. I want to quit , but can't. I'm stuck. I hope you can help.
Diane re-posted and added these comments. I thought I'd include them as she's posed some good questions.
After re-reading what I wrote, I thought I'd add a few more lines. Why does everything I say about her or my feelings have to relate to something else? I feel like my feelings are not real because we are always looking for a reason for them and they are supposedly not really towards her but something else.
Why can't I just like and not like my therapist?
Also, how am I supposed to trust her when she doesn't open up to me? I know I would be more comfortable talking if she allowed me to trust her with something. I hate the one-sidedness of the whole thing. I have googled her and found out information, but that's not good enough. I actually became very angry by what I found.
Sometimes I really don't even know why I'm seeing her, but like I said, I'm drawn toward the whole thing. I go into the office or call her expecting one thing and leave or hang up disappointed. I have also talked to her about crying in the office. I have said that I won't cry because I'd feel foolish sitting there while she stares at me crying.
The other thing is now that I told her that how can I cry if I feel it coming on? I'll really feel like a fool after telling her I'm not going to. I'd feel like I was giving in.
As you can see there's alot going on and I'm really am stuck. I've thought about trying a new therapist, but really don't want to start all over again. Help
Hi Diane, I felt there was so much in your post that I asked my friend, Dr. Carole to add her thoughts to the topic. What we were really struck with is your deep yearning for a felt connection with your therapist, which is so healthy. And, yes we do hear the agony that you are going through.
Your description of what is happening for you in therapy seems most descriptive of transference. You are allowing yourself to access other parts of yourself. As you might already know, we can't get better without that.
In your situation, it also seems that you can rely on your therapist's consistent physical presence. You can count on her being there when you arrive for your appointments. And, despite what it feels like, from our perspectives, there is also adequate connection in your relationship with your therapist.
Otherwise, it is unlikely the transference would have surfaced at all. With that noted, it seems like the felt connection is not sufficient.
What we wondered is if you were being attuned to?
It seems to us that your therapist is staying too far away which is keeping you feeling quite desperate and despairing . . . probably the same feelings you felt as an infant and the source of the transference.
She seems to reveal so little of herself. Without feeling her presence it must be incredibly scary for you. It likely feels as if you are hanging out there without the sure footing that a caring attuned mother would give her infant.
You see, it isn't what she reveals about her life outside therapy that counts - it's how she reveals herself in the emotional moments she has with you in the session.
You need to feel she senses a bit of your struggle. That's the connection you're no doubt yearning for.
Then, you're being seen.
In other words, you need to feel that at some point she is joining with you . . . that she experiences your yearning for connection.
It's that feeling of being "tuned into" that provides the kind of emotional safety that helps us heal.
So we see that she's holding firm boundaries but what seems to be absent is the processing of your relationship as you work together.
In other words, is she making the relationship between the two of you part of the therapy?
You mentioned how your therapist keeps referencing your feelings to "something else".
In actual fact, any feeling we have can link up with our past. That goes for any one of us, for any feeling. That's just the way we're wired.
However, while these past-present hook-ups need to be made and it sounds like you're getting a sense of how your past is playing a role in the dynamic, what seems to be missing is looking at what's happening between the two of you in the present moment.
It's a tricky balance. You need to know that your therapist is tough enough to handle what you throw at her but also that she is being impacted by it to some degree. You need to feel her humanness. She needs to match your energy so you can bounce up against something.
It kinda reminds me of what a parent might do when a teenager is acting out--meeting their energy with firm boundaries and love.
We were also struck by your struggle with crying while your therapist looks on. Both Dr. Carole and I have had clients express a similar "push-pull" with tears.
How a therapist responds can potentially support a healing moment. However, if the bid for connection goes unmet, it can quickly turn into another, "once again I'm alone in my tears".
When Dr. Carole has a sense that her client may be feeling stared at, it is through her attunement that she senses what's most appropriate. For example, some clients will say they don't want to cry while agonizing through spilled tears.
In some cases, the depth of a client's tears are such that she will ask if it's okay to sit beside her.
Dr. Carole finds that this helps her client move through the emotion more easily. Because, after all tears are a natural way of expressing deep emotion. We want to honour them, not tuck them away.
One of the things you may have noticed on the site Diane, is my emphasis on neuroscience and child development. Insights from these sources are helping us to see that "we are more human than otherwise" and that our need for connection is a requirement for mind body growth.
We feel that your desire to have your therapist "trust you with something" comes from a healthy part of you. You see, as we feel trustworthy, our sense of trust in ourselves expands, and with that, so does life.
We've done our best to address the dynamics described in your post. It's never possible however to objectively know from the outside the nuances inside a therapeutic relationship. Our wish is that we have been helpful and that our musings will assist you in deepening your relationship with your therapist.
All the best on your journey,
Shrinklady and Dr. Carole
I love my OT - being emotionally vulnerable scares me
Hmm... someone mentioned the word transference to me and I googled it. It freaked me out a bit. I am a strongly independent and stubborn person, and the thought that I could become so emotionally vulnerable to someone else TERRIFIES me. Yet I have done just that. Only it isn't with my therapist, it is with my occupational therapist that I see for something else (though my mental health is very intertwined in what brought me to see her in the first place).
I think in just knowing about transference, I can take a step back (hopefully) and realize that this is transference. While I don't have sexual feelings for her, I think about her often and look forward to therapy every week. If something gets in the way of that I get very upset about it. Also, I enjoy the therapy very much, and find it very calming and pleasant, so I think I associate that with her as well.
She is leaving for maternity leave any time now, and we will be planning towards discharge upon her return. I became very upset about this (I knew about it months ago), and even suicidal. I know that she is NOT my therapist, and that once my OT goals have been reached it is time for me to part my ways with her.
But I feel like I am losing a VERY important support in my life, especially because I have moved, and am seeing a new therapist. I have not developed a lot of trust with my new therapist yet, and I don't feel totally open to talk to her about what exactly is going with my occupational therapist. Hearing about this has actually given me a lot of hope, in that this is relatively normal. I do know that her leave and transitioning out of therapy will be very hard, but now I think I understand why it terrified me so much.
Yes, that's right Erin, transference can happen with anyone as you have discovered. The feelings that surface through transference are useful for helping us to see more of ourselves.
You see, it's really not about the person per se but what comes up for us in relationship with the person. It wakes us up to what we're yearning for even if we're not conscious of it.
In your case, it appears that she is helping you to feel what's it's like to feel safe and calm in someone's presence. What a gift!
You will always have the memory of your OT and I would encourage you to use that in times when you need to. For instance, when feeling stressed you can remember the kindness she showed you.
I would also encourage you to talk to your therapist about your feelings for your OT. She will be able to help you navigate the upcoming transitions.*
Keep in mind that the closeness you feel with your OT may be preventing you from forming a closer relationship with your current therapist.
All the best on your journey,
*P.S. Erin, at the risk of sounding self promoting - which is exactly what I'm doing 🙂 - if your therapist isn't able to help you to resolve this transference consider Therapy Bootcamp. I created my program for exactly this kind of scenario - where folks have no where to turn for help.
suz. boston, usa
Feel humiliated with my transference
I am experiencing transference for the first time and am finding it incredibly painful and difficult. The thought of talking about it with my therapist brings up huge feelings of humiliation and seems impossible.
I never had a "real" mom, just a neglectful abusive one, and long for the nurturance and care she represents to me. I know it can't happen that way, but it causes so many huge feelings to come up in me. It's helpful to have these feelings labeled.
Thanks Suz for comments and for sharing your experience. Transference contains an incredibly powerful energy, I know.
On the positive, that these feelings have surfaced represent a huge potential for healing and growth. I hope at some point you'll take advantage of the nurturing available to you in the relationship with your therapist.
In regards to the feelings of shame that have arisen . . .
In a healthy relationship between Mom and infant, there’s lots of instances where you would learn to get to know your feelings and have them validated.
When this is absent - as seems to be the case with you - you as the infant would have no option but to conclude that you’ve done something wrong - hence the shameful feelings.
(Recall too that the infant experiences her world as if she is causing these things to happen.)
If it’s any inspiration for you to continue . . .
When heart-felt feelings arose in my own therapy, just as you described, they were they were associated with a deep shame.
I couldn't look at my therapist. It was gut wrenchingly difficult to tease these feelings apart.
What I've learned though, is that the more I open my heart (and move through the pain), connections with others become more meaningful and my life becomes richer.
It helped me to know that I needn't go fast. I could take baby steps.
I wish you similar progress on your very special journey,
All the best,