Transference occurs when a person redirects some of their feelings or desires for another person to an entirely different person.

One example of transference is when you observe characteristics of your father in a new boss. You attribute fatherly feelings to this new boss. They can be good or bad feelings.

As another example, you may meet a new neighbor and immediately see a physical resemblance to a previous spouse. You then attribute mannerisms of your ex to this new person.

Transference can happen even in the face of distinct differences. It often makes you look past these dissimilarities to the likenesses.

Transference can also happen in a healthcare setting. For example, transference in therapy happens when a patient attaches anger, hostility, love, adoration, or a host of other possible feelings onto their therapist or doctor. Therapists know this can happen. They actively try to monitor for it.

Sometimes, as part of their therapy process, some therapists even actively encourage it. As part of psychoanalysis, therapists try to understand a person’s unconscious mental processes. This can help them comprehend that patient’s actions, behaviors, and feelings.

For instance, the therapist may see an unconscious reaction to intimacy in their patient’s inability to form strong bonds with significant others. Transference can help the therapist understand why that fear of intimacy exists. They can then work toward resolving it. This may help the patient develop healthy, long-lasting relationships.

Countertransference occurs when a therapist redirects their own feelings or desires onto their patients. This may be a reaction to the patient’s transference. It can also happen independently of any behaviors from the patient.

Therapists are guided by strict professional codes. As such, they work to establish clear lines of separation between themselves as a healthcare provider and you as a patient.

For example, a therapist can’t be your friend outside of the therapy setting. They need to maintain a professional distance.

However, the space between therapist and patient can be a murky one. Transference can complicate the situation, too. Some professionals do struggle with these issues at some points in their practice.

Therapists can try to prevent or improve countertransference. They may turn to colleagues and undergo therapy themselves.

Therapists may also recommend patients to colleagues to alleviate the situation and provide the best possible care for the patient.

Projection and transference are very similar. They both involve you attributing emotions or feelings to a person who doesn’t actually have them. The difference between the two is where the misattributions occur.

Projection occurs when you attribute a behavior or feeling you have about a person onto them. Then, you may begin to see “evidence” of those feelings projected back at you.

For example, projection occurs when you realize you aren’t too fond of the new co-worker two cubicles over. You aren’t sure why, but you get that feeling. Over time, you begin to convince yourself that they’re showing signs of dislike for you. Individual behaviors act as “proof” of your theory.

The attributed emotions may be both positive (love, adoration, worship) or negative (hostility, aggression, jealousy). They can also grow as your feelings toward the person grow.

Transference in therapy may be unintentional. A patient redirects feelings about a parent, sibling, or spouse onto the therapist.

It could also be intentional or provoked. Your therapist may actively work with you to draw out these feelings or conflicts. This way they can better see and understand them.

In all cases, a therapist should make the patient aware of when transference is happening. This way you can understand what you’re feeling.

Unaddressed transference can be problematic for the patient. It may even prevent them from returning for treatment. This is counterproductive.

Here are some of the situations a therapist may intentionally use transference:

Transference-focused psychotherapy

In a well-established therapy relationship, a patient and a therapist can choose to use transference as a tool of treatment.

Your therapist may help you transfer thoughts or feelings about a person onto them. Then your therapist can use that interaction to better understand your thoughts and feelings.

Together, you can develop better treatments or behavioral changes.

Dynamic psychotherapy

This is most often a short-term form of psychotherapy. It relies on the therapist’s ability to quickly define and breakthrough a patient’s problems.

If these issues involve feelings or thoughts about another person, the therapist may purposefully try to upset their patient with that information.

This type of transference can help the therapist develop more quickly an understanding and begin treatment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

If you’re open to understanding how your past has shaped your current problems, your therapist my use CBT.

CBT ultimately teaches you to understand your old behaviors so you can recreate newer, healthier ones. This process may bring up emotional issues that remain painful.

Transference in this situation can happen when the patient finds in the therapist a source of comfort or hostility that heightens some of those feelings.

Transference involves a wide range of emotions. All of them are valid.

Negative emotions of transference include:

  • anger
  • disappointment
  • frustration
  • hostility
  • fear
  • frustration

Positive emotions of transference include:

  • attentiveness
  • idealization
  • love
  • affection
  • attachment

In cases when the therapist uses transference as part of the therapy process, continuing therapy will help “treat” the transference. The therapist can work with you to end the redirection of emotions and feelings. You’ll work to properly attribute those emotions.

In the event transference hurts your ability to talk to your therapist, you may need to see a new therapist.

The goal of therapy is that you feel comfortable being open and having an honest dialogue with the mental health expert. If transference stands in the way of that practice, therapy won’t be effective.

You may consider seeing a second therapist about the transference. When you feel it’s resolved, you can then return to your initial therapist and continue the work you were doing before transference became problematic.

Transference is a phenomenon that occurs when people redirect emotions or feelings about one person to an entirely separate individual. This can occur in everyday life. It can also occur in the realm of therapy.

Therapists may intentionally use transference to better understand your perspective or problems. It can also be unintended. You may attribute negative or positive feelings to your therapist because of similarities you see in your therapist and someone else in your life.

Treatment is possible in both cases. Properly addressing transference can help you and your therapist regain a healthy, productive relationship that’s ultimately beneficial for you.