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Transference in Psychotherapy: Definition & Concept

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  • 0:00 What Is Transference?
  • 1:00 Freud And Transference
  • 2:13 Experiencing And…
  • 3:38 The Dangers Of…
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ron Fritz
In this lesson you will learn about transference and countertransference and what the difference is. Learn about the positive and negative impacts that transference can have, and how transference can affect a therapist's ability to effectively treat clients.

What Is Transference?

Meet Bob. Bob's a normal, every day guy who just started seeing a therapist. Imagine that Bob walks into a therapy session for the first time; as he sits facing the therapist, Bob is struck by how much this therapist resembles his father. When he speaks, the therapist's booming voice transports Bob back to when he was were eight years old, sitting across the dinner table from his dad. As the session continues, he begins to feel like he's in trouble, as if the therapist is scolding him. Bob chooses his words carefully so he won't disappoint the therapist; he desperately wants his approval. Bob is experiencing the psychological phenomenon of transference, often defined as the unconscious act of assigning feelings and attitudes associated with one's past to someone or something in the present.

In this case, Bob has feelings associated with his Dad and his childhood, and he he's transferring them onto his therapist, causing him to act differently.

Freud And Transference

Sigmund Freud first introduced transference in his theory of psychoanalysis, but the concept has transcended into virtually all branches of psychology. Although often associated with the client's parental figures, transference can occur with any significant figure in the individual's past, including teachers, abusers, and romantic interests or partners.

Freud believed that transference is a projection of one's feelings toward one person to another; essentially a person in the present becomes a surrogate for one in the past. Although its frequently thought of as a negative emotion, there can just as easily be positive forms of transference, which strengthen the relationship between the client and the therapist.

For example, if a client's therapist reminds her of a trustworthy person from her past, she might be inclined to trust her therapist more. Of course, transference can cause problems in therapy. When a client holds back or fails to disclose information, either because of mistrust of his or her therapist, or because of a desire for approval from the therapist. In each case, the individual's communication is incongruent, the client has ceased to be honest, and the transference is counterproductive.

Experiencing and Recognizing Transference

Transference happens all the time, both inside and outside of therapy. Perhaps Bob had a collie as a favorite pet when he was a child. Imagine as an adult, he takes his own child to buy a dog and at the pet store he sees a collie and a beagle. Bob might be more likely to pick the collie because of the fond memories he has of his own childhood pet. This is another example of transference.

Sometimes transference negatively affects a person life. If a client had a bad experience with a male authority figure as a child, that might make it more difficult for them to trust any male in authority. In turn, the client would probably be more trusting, and therefore more comfortable, with a female therapist than a male. That's another example of transference.

It's important to remember that an individual experiencing transference is often unaware of his or her feelings or where they come from. When the transference produces a negative outcome, such as the inability to trust males because of a bad experience as a child, a skilled therapist can use this to help the client discover and resolve repressed feelings or guilt.

By recognizing when the transference is occurring, and helping the client to explore it, the therapist may be able to help the client see their own transference and realize how they are projecting negative feelings from the past towards people in the present. Many therapeutic breakthroughs have been made using this technique, which is sometimes referred to as transference interpretation.

The Dangers of Countertransference

Sometimes transference operates in the reverse direction and the therapist projects feelings from his or her own past onto the client; this is called countertransference. Although transference from client to therapist can have productive outcomes, countertransference rarely does.

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