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Transference (German: Übertragung) is a phenomenon within psychotherapy in which repetitions of old feelings, attitudes, desires, or fantasies that someone displaces are subconsciously projected onto a here-and-now person. Traditionally, it had solely concerned feelings from a primary relationship during childhood.
Transference was first described by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who considered it an important part of psychoanalytic treatment. Transference of this kind can be considered inappropriate without proper clinical supervision.
It is common for people to transfer feelings about their parents to their partners or children (that is, cross-generational entanglements). Another example of transference would be a person mistrusting somebody who resembles an ex-spouse in manners, voice, or external appearance, or being 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 explains how it can occur in everyday life. When people meet a new person who reminds them of someone else, they unconsciously infer that the new person has traits similar to the person previously known. This perspective has generated a wealth of research that illuminated how people tend to repeat relationship patterns from the past in the present.
Sigmund Freud held that transference plays a large role in male homosexuality. In The Ego and the Id, he claimed that eroticism between males can be an outcome of a "[psychically] non-economic" hostility, which is unconsciously subverted into love and sexual attraction.
Transference and counter-transference during psychotherapy
Transference will appear in the full speech that occurs during free association, revealing the inverse of the subject's past, within the here and now, and the analyst will hear which of the four discourses the subject's desire has been metonymically shifted to, beyond the ego, leading to a dystonic form of resistance.
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 from 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. Andrea Celenza noted in 2010 that "the use of the analyst's countertransference remains a point of controversy".
- Gladding, Samuel (2018). Family Therapy: History, Theory, and Practice (7 ed.). Pearson. p. 215.
Transference is the projection of feelings, attitudes, or desires onto a significant other such as a therapist (Levy & Scala, 2012).
- Corey, Gerald (2020). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Cengage Limited. pp. 70–71.
Transference is the client's unconscious shifting to the analyst of feelings, attitudes, and fantasies (both positive and negative) that are reactions to significant others in the client's past. Transference involves the unconscious repetition of the past in the present. 'It reflects the deep patterning of old experiences in relationships as they emerge in current life' (Luborsky et al., 2011, p. 47). [...] Not every positive response (such as liking the therapist) should be labeled 'positive transference.' Conversely, a client's anger toward the therapist may be a function of the therapist's behavior; it is a mistake to label all negative reactions as signs of 'negative transference.'
- Corey, G.; Corey, M. S.; Corey, C. (2020). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions (10 ed.). Cengage Limited. p. 47.
Transference is the process whereby clients project onto their therapists past feelings or attitudes they had toward their caregivers or significant people in their lives. Transference is understood as having its origins in early childhood and constitutes a repetition of past themes in the present. [...] Transference is not a catch-all concept intended to explain every feeling clients express toward a therapist. Many reactions clients have toward counselors are based on the here-and-now style the counselor exhibits.
- Karen, Horney (1939). New Ways in Psychoanalysis. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-393-31230-0.
I do not think it is of any consequence whether we keep or drop the term transference, provided we divorce it from the one-sidedness of its original meaning: the reactivation of past feelings.
- 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 (2nd 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.
- Freud, S. (1960). The ego and the id. J. Strachey (Ed.). (J. Riviere, Trans.). New York: W.W. Norton. (Original work published 1923)
- Dulsster, Dries G. M. (2022). The Reign of Speech: On Applied Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 21. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-85596-3. ISBN 978-3-030-85595-6.
[S]peech in psychoanalysis cannot be distinguished from transference. [...] Lacan refers to Freud who defined transference as: 'the assumption of his own history by the subject, in the measure that he is constituted by the speech directed to another' (Lacan, 1974).
- 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
- Celenza, Andrea (October 2010). "The guilty pleasure of erotic countertransference: searching for radial true". Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 11 (4): 175–183. doi:10.1080/15240657.2010.513222.
- 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.
- On Transference, Freudian quotes on transference.