Ask a Therapist: What is Transference?
When you Google the word “transference” this is what you’ll find:
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.
...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.
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?"
"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.
The Phoenix Counseling Collective