Transference in Therapy: What It Is


For people engaged in psychotherapy, the phenomenon of transference may arise during sessions.

Transference is common and normal in a therapeutic setting, and a good therapist will use the transference to further a client’s progress.

When something is transferred, it is moved from one place to another. In a therapy transference, people unknowingly transfer - or move - their feelings about someone in their life to their counselor.

Typically, people transfer childhood feelings or attitudes about a parent or sibling to the therapist. Then, they begin to experience the therapist, and react to them, much as they did the sibling or parent years ago.

Resolving Unresolved Feelings

Transferred attitudes or feelings are a person’s unresolved emotional issues with their parent, sibling, or other individual. Unresolved issues are what people often call “emotional baggage.” It is common for people to transfer emotional baggage onto their therapist.

With the counselor’s help, transference is an opportunity for people to view and sort through their emotional baggage. By shifting unresolved issues to the counselor, people get in touch with thoughts and feelings that might have been “bagged-up” for years. Because the feelings are brought into the open, they can be processed (talked about) and resolved.

For instance, imagine this scenario:

  • A man named Eric has a difficult relationship with his mother. The mother is a perfectionist. When Eric was a boy, she criticized him every day for not living up to her expectations.
  • As a child, Eric longed for his mother’s approval. He frequently hid his hurt feelings by arguing with his mother, and talking back to her.
  • Now, at age twenty-five, Eric sees a counselor named Maureen. After several sessions, Robert starts arguing with Maureen and makes frequent sarcastic remarks.
  • Maureen understands that Eric has transferred or moved his hurt and anger toward his mother onto herself (Maureen). Maureen explains what is happening to Eric so he can recognize and work through his unresolved feelings.
  • Eventually, Eric realizes he could not have lived up to his mother’s standards as a boy. He forgives himself for being a child and being human, and no longer feels compelled to argue with Maureen, or the other women in his life.

There are different variations of transference, but they all work generally the same way. For example, sometimes people will transfer current feelings or attitudes about a parent or sibling onto the counselor. In whatever way it manifests, transference is normal and useful in a therapeutic setting.

Photo credit: Fox Valley Institute (@flickr)


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