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What is Transference in Therapy: How to Recognize it and What to Do

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Transference occurs when a person directs desires or feelings related toward someone in their lives toward someone who is not that person. Hence the term "transference", as the feelings are transferred from their true target to an unrelated one. In terms of psychotherapy, transference occurs when a patient directs or expresses feelings toward their therapist that seem to be based on a patient's feelings about someone else.

Types of Transference

Transferred feelings are not necessarily always a bad thing, as there are different types of transference that can be observed in the therapeutic process.

Negative Transference

Negative transference occurs during the therapeutic relationship when a patient's transference takes on a negative aspect, such as fear, suspicion, or anger, that may be related to a past relationships. For example, if a patient lashes out at their therapist because they say something that reminds them of their father, who they have unresolved anger toward.

Positive Transference

Positive transference occurs when the patient transfers positive feelings toward their therapist in a therapeutic relationship. This can include transferring certain characteristics, such as wisdom or kindness, to their psychologist. In a therapy session, positive transference can be helpful toward therapeutic alliance as long as these feelings are not overblown. Positive transference may also be referred to as "idealized transference".

Sexualized Transference

Typically, this type of transference is what people picture when they hear the term. Sexualized transference occurs when a patient begins to have romantic feelings or sexual feelings for their psychologist during the therapeutic process. When sexualized transference occurs, it is not because of any actual characteristics of the therapist themselves, but because of what the patient places on them.

Sexualized transference can also be subcategorized as "erotic transference," in which the patient has sexual fantasies about the therapist but recognizes that it is unrealistic, and "eroticized transference,"  a problematic pattern of thought and behavior during which the patient may make sexual overtures to the therapist, causing complications in the therapeutic relationship.

Signs and Symptoms of Transference

Transference can pop up in a number of ways during the therapeutic process, and may look different due to the fact that negative transference is different from positive transference and sexualized transference. Some indicators that you may be experiencing transference include:

  • During a therapy session, you find your self having sexual feelings or fantasies about your therapist
  • You have an emotional response to something your therapist says but you aren't sure why
  • You attribute great wisdom, patience, and care to your therapist
  • You feel you know your therapist well, despite any contact outside the therapeutic relationship

The Impacts of Transference Outside the Therapeutic Setting

Transference can occur in other relationships outside of the therapeutic relationship. Other common forms include maternal transference, sibling transference, and paternal transference. An example of maternal transference would be when a person is friends with someone who reminds them in some way of their mother, and may have internal conflicts about their feelings toward them for that reason. When paternal transference occurs, you may have a co-worker that you attribute fatherly feelings to because they resemble your father in some way. Sibling transference is the same, with this type of transference, for example, you may feel protective toward a friend that reminds you of your little brother.

In general, these feelings of transference do not interfere too much with life, especially if you recognize that it are happening. It can become complicated or inappropriate if your own feelings become strong and are toward co-workers, colleagues, or friends, especially if you are feeling negative emotions or if it is sexualized transference.

Manifestations of the Therapist's Countertransference to the Patient

In most cases, when a patient is experiencing transference, a therapist recognizes this and can offer a level of understanding about these feelings. However, in some cases, a therapist may find that their own feelings and internal conflicts can transfer to the patient as well. This is called counter transference. Transference and countertransference can muddy the waters of the therapeutic relationship.

Counter transference can skew therapy, and potentially make it more difficult for the therapist to be objective. A therapist's feelings toward the patient's transference change therapy outcomes if not dealt with. This is why, in most cases, mental health professionals are equipped to appropriately handle cases of transference and countertransference.

Discussing Transference With Your Therapist

If you, as a patient, understand that you are experiencing transference, whether positive transference, negative transference, or sexualized transference, it may be helpful to discuss this in your therapy session. Mental health professionals are trained to recognize and deal with these sort of emotional responses.

Sometimes, when a therapist recognizes negative transference or sexualized transference during the therapeutic process, they will wait to bring it up. It may be upsetting to the patient, and they may not want to negatively impact the therapeutic relationship, so they will hold on discussing transference until they feel the patient is ready.

Otherwise, a psychologist may decide to use negative transference as a way to discover certain challenges with past relationships in the therapy session. It can be illuminating when the therapist recognizes negative transference and they can shift their approach as necessary during the therapeutic process.

Understand Your Feelings Indicate a Deeper Issue

Experiencing transference is not unusual, and it doesn't make you a bad person. Negative emotions from past relationships with family or other close attachments can make their way to the therapy room. This has been recognized in psychodynamic therapy for years, and a therapist is trained to recognize and deal with a patient's transference.

By dealing with unconscious feelings that come out as negative transference or erotic transference, you may be able to better understand yourself and strengthen the therapeutic relationship. If you and your therapist are able to discuss transference and countertransference honestly and openly in a therapeutic setting, you may be able to manage transference feelings and continue therapy.

Understanding Transference in the Therapeutic Relationship in Brooklyn

Feelings of transference and countertransference during the therapeutic process is not unheard of. If you have noticed transference reactions in past or present relationships and want to explore your unconscious reaction or emotional response toward others, a therapist can help

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of doctoral-level psychotherapists are trained in recognizing and responding to transference attitudes and understands how unconscious feelings can affect the therapeutic process and therapy outcomes.

Give us a call today, and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Brooklyn therapist to offer a therapeutic setting and a therapeutic relationship that can help you identify and process these feelings, as well as build a greater sense of self awareness.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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