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Blog » What is transference?

13 Nov 2008

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."  - Mark Twain

Transference happens when we displace onto people unconscious wishes and fears which more properly relate to figures from our own past, such as mother, father or other important figure.

It involves inappropriately bringing the past into the present. We tend to imagine, without any real evidence, that others have the motives, intentions and feelings that those early figures would have had. Most problems with transference originate early in life, in infancy or early childhood.

We are all affected by transference to some extent  - with our experience of the present being unconsciously distorted by our formative life experiences  - but for some people this can be problematic enough to result in deep distress or repetitive patterns of unhelpful or destructive behaviour.  

Often this reaction is most strong in relation to authority figures. For example, if your parents were overly critical you might, in your adult life, mistakenly or exaggeratedly read criticism into the comments and behaviour of people in authority. If that parental criticism was also inconsistent and unpredictable, you might find yourself tending to perfectionism  - feeling unsafe unless you've protected yourself against any possible negative feedback you can imagine.

Counselling and therapy can be a very effective way to address transference-related issues, but needs a commitment from the client to work for real change, rather than simply look for support or for better ways of stage-managing the effects of their distorted perceptions and behaviour.  As a rough rule-of-thumb, this level of deep change tends not to happen before the experience of living with their transference has become more painful and distressing than the hard work of truly getting to grips with and dissolve this "second nature" in therapeutic work.

In one sense, all our interpretations and reactions to the present could be argued as being informed by our experiences in the past, but transference has specific qualities which identify it:

  • The feelings and reactions arise for you without a conscious connection between the situation in the present and your experience in their past  - feelings and behaviour tends to arise without a recollection of any particular actual events that led you to react that way.

    It may be that through therapy, or for other reasons, the person begins to realise the connection between past experience and current behaviour, but when transference comes into play any associated realisation will normally come after the event, as a result of reflection on your reaction rather than as part of it in the moment. Work on developing insight doesn’t so much prevent the transferential feelings arising in the moment, as help longer-term to weaken or dissolve the underlying defence mechanisms that give rise to it.
  • The transferential reaction is not susceptible to the normal processes of learning. In normal circumstances, when we get feedback that our interpretations of present situations are inaccurate, we can learn and adapt accordingly.  With transference, we may be able to see that our reaction is unhelpful to us, but feel compelled to react that way anyway  - as if we had no choice.

    Transference is resistant to such learning because it's an attempt to protect us from recalling the painfulness of feelings and events in the past. So the we continue to experience that painfulness as if it were happening in the present, distorting our perceptions and preventing appropriate learning. The inappropriateness or unhelpfulness of the reaction is often obvious to others looking on, even when hidden from the person themselves.

  • Strong transference can have a feeling of intensity to it that can take others by surprise by its unexpectedness or inappropriateness. Experiencing another person’s strong transferential reaction may leave you shocked, puzzled and you may start to doubt your own experience of the situation or yourself.

  • The person experiencing transference tends to feel conflicted or ambivalent – they may have an awareness that there is something that is inappropriate or that is experienced negatively by others, but be defended against focussing on and reflecting on it, other than to stage-manage others’ perceptions of their behaviour and to prevent others becoming aware of the impulses that are motivating them.


Historical Background

The concept of transference originates with Freud, who noticed, when working with patients in analysis, feelings which appeared to distort the relationship with the analyst.  He first called this “a false connection”.   Later he used the term “displacement of affect”, indicating the inappropriate transfer of feelings onto the therapeutic relationship, before coining the term “transference”:

"[transferences] are new editions or facsimiles of the tendencies and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the process of the analysis, but they have this peculiarity, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician.  To put it another way: a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment" (Freud 1925)

He identified two aspects of transference: the template, in the sense that our mind creates templates for relationships in early life into which we try to fit later relationships; and the repetition compulsion, characterised as a need to replay old, traumatic situations, perhaps to understand or make sense of the original situation, perhaps as a side-effect of the distortions in our perceptions that follow from convincing ourselves that it was normal and appropriate.  The analyst became the focus for strong feelings, giving rise to, for example, terror, sexual obsession, hatred and dependency.

Freud believed that most transference contained repressed material, from unresolved wishes and fantasies, and at first considered transference to be a hindrance, distracting from the patient’s free association and the concerns that brought them to therapy, in favour of a focus on the therapist.   In the case of one of his patients, Dora, the client broke off treatment with him – she had negative feelings towards him.  Freud recognised this as transference and explained it as an example of resistance against the work of analysis thwarting understanding of the past via seduction or hostility.

Later, Freud recognised the value of transference, and conceptualised the analyst as a tabula rasa, a blank screen, and transference became an important tool to work with, with the analyst being in a sense somewhat removed as a personality in the therapeutic relationship. The notion was that the client was primarily responsible for the transference relationship which developed in the consulting room, the therapist merely encouraging the transference relationship to be developed in order that it should be available for analysis.  The therapist was seen as emotionally distant from the client, but with the ability to bring analytical insight into the client’s condition.

Modern approaches, though, recognise that the relationship between counsellor and client is always co-created, whatever the transferential component is, and that it's impossible for the counsellor, as a fellow human being, with their own feelings, fallabilities & prejudices, and with transferential reactions of their own, to be a "blank screen". With this realisation, the counsellor becomes more empowered to work with the client in terms of the relationship developing between them, rather than to think of it as something that the client is "doing".

The definition of transference varies between writers, but all have the concept of inappropriately re-enacting past relationships in the present:

“transference may be said to be an attempt of the patient to revive and re-enact, in the analytic situation and in relation to the analyst, situations and phantasies of his childhood” (Nunberg 1951)

“Transference is generally defined as a repetition in present-day life, and particularly to the analyst, of various emotional attitudes developed during childhood within the family and especially towards the parents” (Lagache 1953)


Freud, S. (1925) Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. In Collected papers. Vol. III. Hogarth Press

Lagache, D. (1953) Some aspects of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 34:1-10.

Nunberg,h. (1951) Transference and Reality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 32:1-9.

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