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Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. One definition of transference is "the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person's childhood." Another definition is "the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object." Still another definition is "a reproduction of emotions relating to repressed experiences, especially of childhood, and the substitution of another person ... for the original object of the repressed impulses." Transference was first described by Sigmund Freud, who acknowledged its importance for psychoanalysis for better understanding of the patient's feelings.
It is common for people to transfer feelings from their parents to their partners or children (i.e., cross-generational entanglements). For instance, one could mistrust somebody who resembles an ex-spouse in manners, voice, or external appearance; or be overly compliant to someone who resembles a childhood friend.
In The Psychology of the Transference, Carl Jung states that within the transference dyad both participants typically experience a variety of opposites, that in love and in psychological growth, the key to success is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process, and that this tension allows one to grow and to transform.
Only in a personally or socially harmful context can transference be described as a pathological issue. A modern, social-cognitive perspective on transference, uncovered by Dr. Susan Andersen at New York University, explains how it occurs in everyday life. When we encounter a person who reminds us of someone whom we do or did like and who is or was important to us, we infer, unconsciously, that this person is indeed like our significant other (whether a lover, friend, relative, or other person). Myriad effects arise from this, including inferring that traits belong to the new person that in fact belong to our significant other. This perspective has generated a wealth of research that illuminated how we tend to repeat relationship patterns from the past in the present.
A specific theory of transference in cases of abuse, known as AMT (Abusive Multiple Transference) has been suggested by David W. Bernstein, in which abusers not only transfer negative feelings directed towards their former abusers to their own victims, but also transfer the power and dominance of the former abusers to themselves. An example is the serial killer Carroll Cole. While his father was away in World War II, Cole's mother engaged in several extramarital affairs, forcing Cole to watch. She later beat him to ensure that he would not alert his father. Cole would later come to murder many women whom he considered "loose", and those in general who reminded him of his mother. Similarly high-profile serial killers often transfer unresolved rage toward previous love or hate-objects onto "surrogates," or individuals resembling or otherwise calling to mind the original object of that hate. In the instance of Ted Bundy, he repeatedly killed brunette women who reminded him of a previous girlfriend with whom he had become infatuated, but who had ended the relationship, leaving Ted rejected and pathologically rageful.
Moreover, Sigmund Freud held that transference plays a large role in male homosexuality and its psychoanalytic treatment. In The Ego and the Id, he asserts that eroticism between males can be an outcome of a "[psychically] non-economic" hostility, which is unconsciously subverted into love and sexual attraction, as this is more socially appropriate offers greater prospect for satisfaction (the clinical term being "impulse discharge"). Implications of this are evident in analysis, regardless of whether the analyst resembles (etc.) the "forbidden" love object; this transference is more notable with neurosis related to the homosexual feelings (ego-dystonic homosexuality). Additionally, countertransference in the analyst can occur spontaneously in response to such transference, wherein the analyst may suddenly develop an attraction to the patient, regardless of the analyst's sexual orientation (it is noted that an astute analyst will recognize this as countertransference in response to intensely emotionally-charged transference).
Transference and countertransference during psychotherapy
In a therapy context, transference refers to redirection of a patient's feelings for a significant person to the therapist. Transference is often manifested as an erotic attraction towards a therapist, but can be seen in many other forms such as rage, hatred, mistrust, parentification, extreme dependence, or even placing the therapist in a god-like or guru status. When Freud initially encountered transference in his therapy with patients, he thought he was encountering patient resistance, as he recognized the phenomenon when a patient refused to participate in a session of free association. But what he learned was that the analysis of the transference was actually the work that needed to be done: "the transference, which, whether affectionate or hostile, seemed in every case to constitute the greatest threat to the treatment, becomes its best tool". The focus in psychodynamic psychotherapy is, in large part, the therapist and patient recognizing the transference relationship and exploring the relationship's meaning. Since the transference between patient and therapist happens on an unconscious level, psychodynamic therapists who are largely concerned with a patient's unconscious material use the transference to reveal unresolved conflicts patients have with childhood figures.
Countertransference is defined as redirection of a therapist's feelings toward a patient, or more generally, as a therapist's emotional entanglement with a patient. A therapist's attunement to their own countertransference is nearly as critical as understanding the transference. Not only does this help therapists regulate their emotions in the therapeutic relationship, but it also gives therapists valuable insight into what patients are attempting to elicit in them. For example, a therapist who is sexually attracted to a patient must understand the countertransference aspect (if any) of the attraction, and look at how the patient might be eliciting this attraction. Once any countertransference aspect has been identified, the therapist can ask the patient what his or her feelings are toward the therapist, and can explore how those feelings relate to unconscious motivations, desires, or fears.
Another contrasting perspective on transference and countertransference is offered in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy. Rather than using the patient's transference strategically in therapy, the positive or negative transference is diplomatically pointed out and explained as an obstacle to cooperation and improvement. For the therapist, any signs of countertransference would suggest that his or her own personal training analysis needs to be continued to overcome these tendencies.
- Kapelovitz, Leonard H. (1987). To Love and To Work/A Demonstration and Discussion of Psychotherapy. p. 66.
- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (8th ed. 1976).
- Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (2d College Ed. 1970).
- Jung, Carl C. The Psychology of the Transference, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01752-2
- Andersen, S. M. & Berk., M. (1998). The social-cognitive model of transference: Experiencing past relationships in the present. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(4), 109-115.
- "Michaels, S. G., & Aynesworth, H. (2000). Ted Bundy: Conversations with a killer. Dallas: Authorlink.
- Freud, S. (1960). The ego and the id. J. Strachey (Ed.). (J. Riviere, Trans.). New York: W.W. Norton. (Original work published 1923)
- McKenzie, F. (2011). Understanding and managing the therapeutic relationship. Chicago: Lyceum Books.
- Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 1) p. 496
- Horacio Etchegoyen: The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, Karnac Books ed., New Ed, 2005, ISBN 1-85575-455-X
- Heinrich Racker, Transference and Counter-Transference, Publisher: International Universities Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8236-8323-0.
- Herbert A Rosenfeld, Impasse And Interpretation, 1987, Taylor & Francis Ltd, ISBN 0-415-01012-8.
- Harold Searles, Countertransference and related subjects; selected papers., Publisher New York, International Universities Press, 1979, ISBN 0-8236-1085-3.
- Horacio Etchegoyen, The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, Publisher: Karnac Books, 2005, ISBN 1-85575-455-X.
- Margaret Little, Transference Neurosis and Transference Psychosis, Publisher: Jason Aronson; 1993, ISBN 1-56821-074-4.
- Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Transference and Countertransference, Publisher: Chrion, 1984 (Reissued 1992), ISBN 0-933029-63-2.