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Our Ask an Expert Column allows you to submit your questions anonymously to our panel of health professionals. To submit a question of your own, visit liberomagazine.com/ask
What is transference in therapy and does it mean I am not good at being a client? -J
This is a great question that highlights a frequent problem in therapy. There is a whole language used in psychology, and it often confuses people. The media gives one meaning to a word, and therapists of different types may have several different meanings for the same word. And then there is the client, struggling to figure out what they are being told.
Originally, Freud described transference as a part of the therapeutic relationship where the client thinks of or acts toward their therapist as if the therapist is someone else the client previously had a relationship with. For instance, the patient may attach too closely to the therapist as if the therapist were their mother, or they may rebel as if the therapist is their father.
Originally, Freud described transference as a part of the therapeutic relationship where the client treats the therapist like someone else the client previously had a relationship with.
Like many other Freudian ideas, this one has gone through a lot of criticism and revision. However, it’s still a useful idea.
The relationship between client and therapist can be complex, and we tend to refer to the client’s side of that connection as transference. (The therapist’s emotional response to the client is often called countertransference.)
Whether it is acknowledged or not, transference is a part of therapy. Partly, this is because therapists work to keep their personal lives and aspects of their experience and personalities out of the room. Therefore, as clients construct an idea of what the therapist is like, they might transfer expectations or feelings that they have experienced before onto the therapist to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
Whether it is acknowledged or not, transference is a part of therapy.
This can be very healing, and it can also go wrong.
For instance, I tend to look and act very much like a mom. When a client receives my approval and understanding, it can touch the broken places in their heart where their own mom might not have communicated love. If that client then starts to be dependent on me or to be overly concerned with pleasing me, then transference has gone out of balance. This is particularly dangerous if the transference turns romantic or erotic. A good therapist notices transference (and countertransference) and manages it carefully, talking it through as necessary, and setting clear boundaries.
A good therapist notices transference (and countertransference) and manages it carefully
You ask if transference makes you “bad at therapy”; it doesn’t. I would say it makes you a typical client. Transference is part of the process. If it is good, then it helps; if it starts to go bad, it is your therapist’s job to redirect or address it gently. If your therapist brought it up with you, then it may make sense to think it through and remind yourself that you only know your therapist professionally. Your therapist is doing a job to help you, and although you have a special bond, it is a very limited one. The positive changes you experience in therapy belong to you, and you can continue the good work with or without them.
Transference doesn’t make you bad at therapy; it makes you a typical client.
Colleen Fuller, MA, RCC
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