Transference, types, how therapists can recognize it and use it in a therapeutic way will be discussed in this blog. Let’s have a closer look at the definition of transference first.
What is Transference?
Transference is when a client places thoughts and feelings they possess regarding other people onto the therapist. Freud believed transference was an unconscious process and an inevitable part of the therapeutic relationship. He recognized that transference could either be used productively to explore a client’s issues or be mishandled and damage the therapeutic process.
Transference can be negative, positive, or even sexual. For example, a client may have unresolved anger toward their mother and find themselves exhibiting aggression toward their therapist. This is an instance of negative transference.
Positive transference can be helpful for the therapeutic relationship but can go too far. For example, it can help a client be compliant and agreeable, but it can hurt the treatment when the client displays inappropriate reverence for their therapist no matter their behavior.
Sexualized transference is when clients develop sexual or romantic feelings for their therapist. This is often depicted in movies and TV in a salacious manner but may be expressed more subtly. For example, a client might give their therapist a romantic present, such as lingerie.
Transference acts as a window into the issues clients are experiencing and it can have both a positive and negative impact on therapy.
If a therapist can recognize it, point it out, and examine it, it has the opportunity to help a client process their feelings about a particular situation. A lot of productive work can be done using transference when recognized as such.
However, some therapists may have difficulty recognizing transference and take it personally. That is when it can become a maladaptive part of the therapeutic process and bring about unhealthy countertransference.
How does a therapist recognize transference?
- A strong client reaction. One of the most helpful ways to recognize transference is when your client has a reaction in therapy that appears inappropriate for the situation. For instance, say you are discussing your client’s behavior in romantic relationships, and they start giving you flirtatious signals. Or you give them some homework and they yell at you for mistreating them. Whenever you have the thought that your client’s response seems out of place, that is a clue that they might be exhibiting transference.
- Boundary violations. Clients exhibiting transference are more likely to initiate behavior in a session that crosses boundaries. For example, the client asks you personal questions or they are resistant to following your practice policies and guidance.
- Know your client. If you know the history behind your client’s behavior patterns, it is much easier to pick up on transference. If they begin to treat you like they have other people in their life, for example, it can be an “aha” moment where you recognize transference for what it is. Some of this knowledge will just come over time but it is also crucial that you review clients’ background (e.g., their intake forms) and past progress notes.
- Ask for clarification. Transference does not come with an identification sign attached. It is not always clear if a client is displaying transference or if they are legitimately exhibiting an emotion brought about by the therapist’s actions. If you are unsure, you need to point it out and clarify it with the client. While this can cause some tension and conflict within a session, it is also an opportunity to perform some valuable therapeutic work. Carl Jung, a disciple of Freud, believed that the tension caused by transference must be endured by the therapist for true patient growth to occur.
- Give transference homework. If you are unsure of client transference during a session, it can be helpful for you to give an assignment that might help to make it clearer. Encourage your client to share their answers even though they may be uncomfortable.
Here are some possible questions you can ask your clients to help gauge their transference:
- How do you feel about your therapist?
- What has your therapist done to cause that reaction?
- Does your therapist remind you of anyone else in your life?
- Do you often feel towards others as you do toward your therapist?
Once a therapist recognizes transference, how they handle it is largely determined by their theoretical orientation. A psychodynamic or interpersonal therapist, for example, may wish to explore a family relationship indicated by transference. A cognitive-behavioral therapist, on the other hand, will want to examine the thought patterns that were placed upon the therapist during the transferential experience. Whatever your background, what you don’t want to do is ignore it. No matter if it is positive or negative, transference contains important information that a therapist can use to ultimately help their client.
The Promise and Peril of Transference
Psychotherapy is a process that asks therapists to get involved on a personal level with their clients. It is a professional relationship but it can also be quite intimate. And with intimacy, comes emotions directed at both the therapist and the client. Transference and countertransference can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to recognize. If you are still having difficulty grasping these two concepts, Kati Morton, a licensed therapist, made this easy-to-digest video to simplify the explanation.
When handled appropriately, transference and countertransference can act as important catalysts for change. When mismanaged, they can lead to ineffective treatment and, at worst, serious harm. The good news is that if a therapist does her or his due diligence and takes certain precautions, they can utilize a client’s transference to address relevant issues.
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