Ask a Therapist: What is Transference?

Ask a Therapist: What is Transference?

When you Google the word “transference” this is what you’ll find:


noun: transference

  • Psychoanalysis the redirection to a substitute, usually a therapist, of emotions that were originally felt in childhood

So.. what does that actually mean? How does this show up with you in therapy and what does it mean for your process?

Why do we care about transference?

This is an important question, and what we're going to deep dive into today.

Transference is...

...all the leftover yucky feelings that are still hanging out inside of you. They come into therapy with you, and if you let them, they can even run how your therapy goes (or doesn't).

...very similar to the concept of “projection.” In relationship with a person we assume certain traits or motives of the other based on an unrelated relationship that we have. I.e. In childhood if you frequently felt misunderstood by a parental figure, in therapy you may find yourself assuming that your therapist is likewise unable to understand you.

...when one transfers feelings about another person or experience onto their therapist. This can show up as feelings of intense hatred, mistrust, a desire to please your therapist, or sexual attraction to the therapist. Transference is an amazing tool that can give us information about how you feel in other relationships in your life. (Along with many other things- almost anything can be the result of transference!)

... a natural process of all humans and is a natural part of therapy. It happens when a client feels strong emotion towards a therapist (anger, shame, joy, sexual desire, or fear), because the therapist activates something in them about a previous relationship that has unresolved conflict, pain, or tension.

...when a person is talking to an invisible someone else in the room, but directing all the energy at their counselor.

The below story will play out what transference could look like in therapy.

An Example:

Let's say you are building a house with your partner. Bob's a builder, and he's building your house. He's late on everything. He makes big promises and then under-delivers. One of his ticks is that he will be consistently late to appointments that you've set up in advance. He shows up thirty minutes late almost every time, and then gives you bad news about the house. Something always takes extra time or extra money. Bob never seems apologetic for any of this. But, this is something that is going on in the sidelines of your life.

The real reason that you're coming to therapy is because you and your wife recently had a miscarriage. She asked you to go to therapy because you've been "on edge" ever since.

You've been working with your therapist for a few months. At the last session, you finally opened up and cried, hard. It was difficult, but you felt a little bit of relief. You're a little annoyed that it has taken 3 months to start feeling better, but you're glad that the momentum has picked up. You wonder what the next session is going to be like. Then, as you're sitting in the waiting room you realize that your therapist is running a few minutes behind. You keep waiting.

She is running 5 minutes behind.

By the time you make it in to the office your appointment starts 8 minutes late. Of course you're angry with your therapist. But, instead of going off on her, telling her that she isn't a professional, that she has thrown off your whole session, and that this isn't worth your time, you hold it all in. You say, "It's been a fine week, there isn't much to talk about. In fact, I'm not sure I should come back anymore. I think I'm over the hump." She digs a little. She asks, "is there something we're not talking about?"

You shrug.

"Is there something that happened in the past, present in the room with us?" Then, as you and your therapist explore this further it hits you.

Bob reminds you of your Dad. He always over promised and under delivered. He was never there when he said he'd be there. He made you feel like you weren't worth it to him to be on time. It wasn't safe to be angry with him, so instead you stuffed the feelings.

When your therapist ran late, it brought up all the feelings from your relationship with Bob, and even older, those feelings you have about your dad.

As you dig deeper with your therapist, everything begins falling into place. You respond to Bob and to your therapist the way that you responded to your Dad- by avoiding and cowering. You're angry, deeply angry that you weren't given the chance to be a different kind of father.

The transference of those feelings of intense anger that you stifled in session are the same feelings of anger at Bob, and at your dad. This gives you an opportunity. Now that you and your therapist have brought it into the room openly, there is something that you can do about it. You have choice in how you respond now. Below are some options for what you can do.

What You Can Do:

Ask the question “is this something specific to the therapist or have I felt these feelings toward someone in the past?”

Bring it up. If you’re not sure how to bring it up it could be something like, “I’m feeling really mad at you and I’m not sure why…” , “You remind me of my mother…” , “When you made that face I all of the sudden got a pit in my stomach…”

Ask yourself - “How old do I feel right now?”

If you notice you feel like a younger version of yourself this is a good indicator that you are being triggered and re-experiencing an emotion, rather than feeling it uniquely in that moment.

Scale the intensity of the emotion - 0-10, with zero being no intensity and 10 being the highest level. If you feel the emotion at a 7 or higher there is a good chance you are being reminded of something you’ve experienced before.

Notice and ask - “what is the negative thought I am having about myself/ this person?”

What Transference Offers:

If you are able to do any of the things from the above section, then it allows us to explore it together.

From there we can begin to recognize other times in your life that you have felt similarly towards another person (or yourself). This will give the opportunity to explore if the belief you are holding about this relationship lines up.

Transference allows us to work with these feelings in the therapy room, within the therapeutic relationship. It opens up the possibility of working towards having a corrective experience. We welcome any type of transference that comes up as important information to be curious about together.

It is natural in therapy to bring up these issues with your therapist. This decreases the shame associated with such strong emotion and helps to walk through where these strong emotions come from.

We'll leave you with this quote to ponder.

"Usually we see other people not as they are, but as we are." Brennan Manning

If you have a therapist, please feel free to bring this up with them. If you are looking to start your journey, feel free to contact us. We'd love to explore this with you further.

Take Care,

The Phoenix Counseling Collective

Andy, Kim, Molly, Brittany & Sarah all collaborated on this post

Photo by JK on Unsplash

We Are Moving

We are thrilled to announce that The Phoenix Counseling Collective is moving!

Our new address is:

531 E. Lynwood, Phoenix, AZ 85004.

For the last 6 years our practice has enjoyed seeing our clients out of an historic house in downtown Phoenix. That space felt comfortable and safe to do the difficult work of growing and flourishing.

As we’ve grown over the past several years, both with therapists and clients, we have felt the need to move into a larger space to better serve the Phoenix community. Much of our excitement comes because after a long search, we have found what we think is an office that has a similar feel as our current space. It is also a comfortable, historic home a mile and a half from the our current office, and we hope that it provides the same sense of peace and safety.

We realize that any change can be disruptive. If you are a current client, it may take some time to adjust to the new space. Please feel free to offer any thoughts, feelings, or feedback of any kind to your therapist, or to the Practice Manager.

We have a heart for the city of Phoenix. We want to serve the people who live here, work here, and do life here.

We truly believe that this new space will open up opportunities to do that even better, including the space to have small therapeutic groups. This excites us very much, because it will give us the opportunity to serve the community in ways we haven’t yet had the space to do.

The new office will be open starting October 7, 2019.

Warmly and Hopefully,

~The Phoenix Counseling Collective

Caleb, Elisa, Andy, Kim, Molly, Brittany, Steffi, Andrew, and Sarah

Mindfulness Is More than Mumbo-Jumbo

Mindfulness matters. Many studies have demonstrated this over and over again, especially related to anxiety and depression. So, to celebrate the fact that we can use our minds to alleviate our suffering, we have gotten together to share some of our favorite mindfulness activities. You CAN use these at home!

Why we use Mindfulness:

Neurologically we know that it helps bring the parasympathetic nervous system online, which is the system that is our default, calm self. When we use mindfulness, we are able to respond to the environment and those around us with more care and kindness instead of working out of the sympathetic nervous system, which comes online when there is a perceived sense of threat. When we work out of our sympathetic nervous system, we are cranky, fearful, and often angry because we are primed for a “battle” of any sort that might be around the corner. Even people who often have a difficult time with meditation or guided imagery are able to utilize mindfulness effectively. Many people find instant relief for migraines, somatic pain, anxiety, and grounding after a tough emotional experience.

We use mindfulness to connect to our bodies and ourselves. We start to feel more relaxed and less anxiety when we do this. We use these exercises to gain insight from a “non-critical” point of view. It typically calms the pressure in the chest, the sinking in the stomach, and tension in the shoulders.

In short, it de-stresses and us. It helps us practice pointing our awareness at something else (other than what we are anxious about.)

When to use Mindfulness:

If you catch yourself having these thoughts, or noticing these things- it is a good time to try an exercise:

  1. "I'm so anxious right now."

  2. "I'm stressed out."

  3. "What the heck am I even feeling?"

  4. "Work sucks right now."

  5. "Why am so impatient?"

Another time you can use these is when you notice something is happening in your body that is uncomfortable and/or distressing.

Exercises to try at home:

#1- The Light Stream Technique

We do a slightly different version of this often in session, but there is a good recording here if you'd like to do it at home! This one especially helps if you are overwhelmed emotionally, or feeling hyperaroused, or overly anxious.

#2- Getting the Scoop

Bring attention to your body and notice the areas where you are holding tension. If you can’t pinpoint them right away, start from your feet and gradually scan your body going all the way up to your head. Start breathing slow breaths in and out, with the exhale being longer than the inhale. Imagine “scooping” out the tension from each part of your body where you are holding it or simply breathing out the tension with each exhale. Do this until you start to feel more relaxed or less anxiety.

#3- Meditation Coupled with Deep Breathing

Meditation and focusing on the breath helps to settle the mind and become more connected with soul and body. The headspace app is very helpful. There are some meditations that include walking and other movement, which can be especially helpful! It is great to practice awareness and presence as we are moving about instead of mindlessly hurrying around.

#4- Picture This

Picture you sitting outside of yourself. Observe your posture, breathing patterns, movement, facial expressions, and thoughts and feelings. As you observe, take a curious perspective. Just notice where you are at in that moment. Simply become aware of what is happening on the inside from an external and observing position.

#5- Mindfulness Through an Activity

Eating: Be mindful around an activity such as eating. Slow down, think about all the nuances of the food you're eating. Where did it come from? How it was prepared? How does it smell? What's the consistency? Identify the taste, etc.

Moving: Be mindful around a more bodily movement such as yoga. Slow down, think about all the muscles that are moving. Picture them. Notice their sensations as you do a slow roll down your body. Feel gravity pulling on you in different places.

Brushing Your Teeth: Close your eyes. Brush one tooth at a time. Envision that tooth as it is brushed from all angles.

You can do the same! Take anything you do and turn it into a mindful activity. Be creative! What do you do every day that could be a time for you to stop and be mindful?

If you would like to learn more or work with a therapist- please feel free to reach out to us.

Take Care,

The Phoenix Counseling Collective,

Caleb, Elisa, Andy, Kim, Molly, & Brittany

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Why "Feelings" ARE Important

Here at the Phoenix Counseling Collective, we believe that emotions (what some call “feelings”) are important for a number of reasons. This post will explore the territory of what emotions are. 

Emotions are...

the language of the body.

the currency of experientially knowing and being known. 

what connect us to ourselves, other people and the world around us. 

what sets us apart from every other creature.

That is much beauty all wrapped up in the idea of emotions. Let's begin to explore these ideas together. 

Emotions are the language of the body. 

Your body has a ton of knowledge that you may not even be aware of, but you can access. Emotions are stored and felt in the bodies, often times unconsciously. The language your body often uses to let you know important information is emotions. Once we get to know this language of emotions, then we understand what our body is trying to tell us and then we can use that information to make better decisions. 

We can integrate the knowledge from our bodies with the knowledge in our heads and move forward as whole beings. 

If we didn't have emotions, then we would be missing out on an entire stream of information that is accessible to us.

Emotions are the currency of experientially knowing and being known by the world around us. 

Once we understand the language of emotions, it gives us the opportunity to know that language in another. Emotions give us the sense that we are seen, and connect us to be able to access the environment around us. They are a primary lens that we see and make sense of what is going on around us. Consequently, strong painful or joyous emotions make an imprint on our minds because they help shape our existential experience of an event. Our memory is intimately connected with the emotional sensations that we have along with it and the stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. (However, sometimes the memory is so painful that our mind protects us by "forgetting" at a conscious level that something has happened.)

Emotions are what connect us to ourselves, other people and the world around us. 

Because emotions are naturally short term and vary throughout the day, when we are tuned into our emotional responses we begin to see how moment to moment experiences influence us. This provides us greater insight into our values, motivations, and worldview. Additionally, because we do not live within a vacuum our perception of events are largely impacted by our history. By having the opportunity to notice our emotional experiences we begin to recognize the why behind the way are behaving or responding to various stimulus. Often times it points to another time in our life that we have felt similar. Emotions have context within not only our current situation, but also our individual stories. For example, how we feel about sadness has to do with how we learned (or didn't learn) to name sadness. And what we do with the sadness is based on what we did with sadness when we were 6 months and 4 years old and 16 years old. All these ways of navigating, avoiding, or being overwhelmed by an emotion effects what we do with our emotions as an adult.

When it comes to interpersonal relationships, emotions are the key that unlocks connection with others. Our emotions are expressed in our tone, facial expressions, and body language. They allow us to be understood by others and allow us to understand them. They move us from being robots, into people who create an interactional process that defies math. It provides context and ability to be better known by others. Emotions connect us with others.  They allow us to connect in deep and meaningful ways and help us bond in a much deeper way than other species. When someone cries and feels sad, we may cry and feel sad with them. To experience emotions with someone is deeply connecting and helps us know that we are not alone. 

Emotions are a core component of what sets us apart from all other creatures. 

There is not another species on the planet that can experience the intensity and expressiveness of emotions like humans can. In fact, to deny our emotional depth is to deny a part of what makes us fully human. Emotions are something that happens in our bodies when we experience something meaningful. For instance, when we hear about someone losing a job or a boyfriend or girlfriend, we may will literally experience in our body our heart drop, tears well up in our eyes, or simply a heaviness in our shoulders. These are indicators that something big and meaningful has happened. We don’t experience emotion when something is small or meaningless and therefore when we feel and notice emotions (such as sadness, joy, fear, shame, pain, hurt, or anger) we should pause and be willing to notice what is happening in the moment. Emotions tell us that something meaningful is happening and if we don’t slow down, we might miss something. 

Emotions are what we are feeling. They inform us of how we are responding to our surroundings and others.  Our emotional states are not random and they can give us much insight into what's happening within our minds and bodies. 

Take a moment to tune in to yours- right now. 

What are you feeling?

Pay attention. 

If you’d like to come in and talk to us about it, or if you have trouble sorting out your emotions, please contact us.

Take Care, 

The Phoenix Counseling Collective 

Caleb, Elisa, Andy, Kim, Molly

Photo by Marco Molitor on Unsplash