Translating “Transference” in Psychotherapy (in Plain English)

Transference is a universal psychological phenomenon in which a person’s relation to another person has elements which are similar to and/or are based on his or her earlier attachments, especially to parents, siblings, and significant others. In a psychodynamic treatment, particularly the more intense the treatment, a relationship between patient and therapist/analyst is fostered in which intense feelings are accentuated. As in any other relationship the patient sees the analyst/therapist not only objectively but imputes qualities to the therapist/analyst which are based on qualities of other important figures in his or her current and/or earlier life. A therapist thus can utilize the patient’s experience of the therapist to understand the nature and difficulties of the patient’s relationships in his/her current life and their connections to the patient’s earlier life.

[Source: “Beyond Freud,” by Lawrence Blum M.D. and Leon Hoffman M.D. at]

Here’s my “translation” of transference.

When you come into contact with another person, your beliefs about current people in your life, past people in your life, as well as people in general will all subconsciously influence your emotional reactions to the person. It’s not only with a psychotherapist; it’s with anyone.

For example, if somebody has a style of voice or a mannerism which reminds you of a current or past important person in your life, then your beliefs about this person might influence the new person you’re encountering now.

This is particularly true when you form an association or bond with a psychotherapist. Why? Because psychotherapists, regardless of style or theoretical view, are focused primarily on yourself. It’s not a two-way exchange, as in a friendship or a romantic relationship, nor is it supposed to be. Because the therapist is somewhat of a “blank slate” compared to other people you get to know as friends, romantic partners or even business associates, your subconscious mind will tend to “project” onto this new person — in the form of your beliefs, views and attitudes (even prejudices) — attributes that are really about your own inner emotions, not the therapist.

According to classical psychoanalytic or psychodynamic (i.e. Freudian or neoFreudian) theory, it’s your childhood wishes, urges or other “unconscious” impulses creating these feelings. This might sound reasonable, until you attempt to define “childhood wishes, urges or impulses.” These are vague terms and concepts, and don’t have any meanings you can pinpoint in reality. Perhaps they’re convenient for the psychoanalytic therapist who will see you several times a week for the next decade in order to form an “intense” relationship for its own sake; but don’t expect it to give you any real answers about yourself.

A belief or viewpoint, on the other hand, is actually something real. Beliefs and viewpoints are not always in congruence with facts and reality. They’re not always rationally defensible, even by yourself. But they do exist as part of your mind. If they come out automatically and against your will, in the form of emotions, then they’re simply mental content which reveals something about the way your mind thinks on the automatic level.

The part of the above quotation which makes the most sense is: “As in any other relationship the patient sees the analyst/therapist not only objectively but imputes qualities to the therapist/analyst which are based on qualities of other important figures in his or her current and/or earlier life.

In other words, your mind forms associations throughout life. Emotional associations provide convenient ways of condensing our thoughts and ideas into simplified value judgments. “Hope.” “Despair.” “Guilt.” “Pride.” “Love.” “Disgust.” Emotions sum up a lot of things pretty well.

The condensation aspect of emotion allows us to handle a lot of information all at once. It’s part of what enables us to advance beyond the level of our cats and dogs. At the same time, emotions can oversimplify or make other kinds of logical errors. That’s why our reasoning minds (including, sometimes, psychotherapy) are necessary: To help us figure out what our errors or distortions in thinking are, so we don’t blindly or destructively act upon those errors.

Back to what the psychoanalysts call transference. If your therapist reminds you of your mother, then the thing to examine is: What did my mother say or do that resulted in my feeling the way I do now? What do I think of that behavior, and why?

If your therapist reminds you of someone you really respect, love, hate, or are easily annoyed by, then it’s simply a reflection of the fact that you hold ideas and views about people which are relevant with your therapist, at this particular moment, just like they might be with anyone else you encounter.

If you think your therapist is saying or doing something for which there’s really no evidence upon reflection, then the next question to ask yourself is: “What does this remind me of? Who in my life, past or present, does this kind of thing, or says this kind of thing? And what do I think about it?”

If “transference” is of any use while working with a psychotherapist, this is it. It helps you expose or become aware of various thoughts, ideas, assumptions or even prejudices you have about people in general, or significant others (past or present) in particular. It’s useful information about why you think and feel as you do about people.

None of it is really about the therapist. It’s all about you — and what your mind thinks, feels and perceives regarding all the people with whom you form relationships.

The solution to your emotional conflicts is not years of open-ended psychoanalysis designed to create intensity in a therapy relationship and stir up emotions from past experiences. Conflicts in your psychological state require the same method as intellectual and other problems in life: reason. A psychotherapist’s job is to help you apply reason to your emotions.


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