What is transference?

13 Nov 2015 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." - Mark Twain

Transference happens when we displace onto people unconscious wishes and fears which more properly relate to figures from our past, such as mother, father or other important figure.

It involves inappropriately bringing the past into the present. We tend to imagine, without any real evidence, that others have the motives, intentions and feelings that those early figures would have had. Most problems with transference originate early in life, in infancy or early childhood.

Often this reaction is most strong in relation to authority figures. For example, someone whose parents were overly critical may, in their adult life, mistakenly or exaggeratedly read criticism into the comments and behaviour of people in authority. If the parental criticism was also inconsistent and unpredictable, they may in addition tend to perfectionism, feeling unsafe unless they've protected themselves against any possible negative feedback.

In one sense, all our interpretations and reactions to the present could be argued as being informed by our experiences in the past, but transference has specific qualities which identify it:

  • The feelings and reactions arise for the person without a conscious connection between their response to the person(s) in the present and its relationship to their unconscious wishes and fears in relation to a significant person in their past - feeling and behaviour tends to replace recollection of events.

    It may be that through therapy, or for other reasons, the person begins to realise the connection between past experience and current behaviour, but when transference comes into play any associated realisation will normally come after the transferential reaction, as a result of reflection on their reaction rather than as part of it. Work on developing insight doesn’t so much prevent the transferential feelings arising in the moment, as help longer-term to weaken or dissolve the underlying defence mechanisms that give rise to the transference.

  • The transferential reaction is not susceptible to the normal processes of learning. In normal circumstances, when we get feedback that our interpretations of present situations are inaccurate, we can learn and adapt accordingly.

    Transference is resistant to such learning. It works to protect the person from recalling the painfulness of feelings and events in the past. So the individual continues to experience that painfulness as if it were happening in the present, distorting their perceptions and preventing appropriate learning. The inappropriateness or unhelpfulness of the reaction is often obvious to others looking on, but hidden from the person themselves.

  • Strong transference can have a feeling of intensity to it that can take others by surprise by its unexpectedness or inappropriateness. Experiencing another person’s strong transferential reaction may leave you shocked, puzzled and you may start to doubt your own experience of the situation or yourself.

  • The person tends to feel conflicted or ambivalent – they may have an awareness that there is something that is inappropriate or that is experienced negatively by others, but be defended against focussing on and reflecting on it, other than to stage-manage others’ perceptions of their behaviour and to prevent others becoming aware of the impulses that are motivating them.

Historical Background

The concept of transference originates with Freud, who noticed, when working with patients in analysis, feelings which appeared to distort the relationship with the analyst.  He first called this “a false connection”.   Later he used the term “displacement of affect”, indicating the inappropriate transfer of feelings onto the therapeutic relationship, before coining the term “transference”:

"[transferences] are new editions or facsimiles of the tendencies and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the process of the analysis, but they have this peculiarity, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician.  To put it another way: a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment" (Freud 1925)

He identified two aspects of transference: the template, in the sense that our mind creates templates for relationships in early life into which we try to fit later relationships; and the repetition compulsion, characterised as a need to replay old, traumatic situations, perhaps to understand or make sense of the original situation, perhaps as a side-effect of the distortions in our perceptions that follow from convincing ourselves that it was normal and appropriate.  The analyst became the focus for strong feelings, giving rise to, for example, terror, sexual obsession, hatred and dependency.

Freud believed that most transference contained repressed material, from unresolved wishes and fantasies, and at first considered transference to be a hindrance, distracting from the patient’s free association and the concerns that brought them to therapy, in favour of a focus on the therapist.   In the case of one of his patients, Dora, the client broke off treatment with him – she had negative feelings towards him.  Freud recognised this as transference and explained it as an example of resistance against the work of analysis thwarting understanding of the past via seduction or hostility.

Later, Freud recognised the value of transference, and conceptualised the analyst as a tabula rasa, a blank screen, and transference became an important tool to work with, with the analyst being in a sense somewhat removed as a personality in the therapeutic relationship. The notion was that the client was primarily responsible for the transference relationship which developed in the consulting room, the therapist merely encouraging the transference relationship to be developed in order that it should be available for analysis.  The therapist was seen as emotionally distant from the client, but with the ability to bring analytical insight into the client’s condition.

A more modern approach is to recognise that the relationship between counsellor and client is always co-created, whatever the transferential component is, and that it's impossible for the counsellor, as a fellow human being, with their own feelings, fallabilities & prejudices, and with transferential reactions of their own, to be a "blank screen". With this realisation, the counsellor becomes more empowered to work with the client in terms of the relationship developing between them, rather than to think of it as something that the client is "doing".

The definition of transference varies between writers, but all have the concept of inappropriately re-enacting past relationships in the present:

“transference may be said to be an attempt of the patient to revive and re-enact, in the analytic situation and in relation to the analyst, situations and phantasies of his childhood” (Nunberg 1951)

“Transference is generally defined as a repetition in present-day life, and particularly to the analyst, of various emotional attitudes developed during childhood within the family and especially towards the parents” (Lagache 1953)


Freud, S. (1925) Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. In Collected papers. Vol. III. Hogarth Press

Lagache, D. (1953) Some aspects of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 34:1-10.

Nunberg,h. (1951) Transference and Reality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 32:1-9.

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