What Is Transference?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 19, 2023
3 min read

Transference is when someone redirects their feelings about one person onto someone else. During a therapy session, it usually refers to a person transferring their feelings about someone else onto their therapist. 

Countertransference is when a therapist transfers feelings onto the patient. Both transference and countertransference usually happen unconsciously.

This phenomenon was first described by the founder of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in 1895. 

‌In psychotherapy, there is positive and negative transference. With positive transference, the person receiving therapy redirects positive qualities onto the therapist. They may see the therapist as caring or helpful. With negative transference, the person receiving therapy transfers negative qualities onto the therapist. For example, they may see the therapist as hostile. They may also transfer painful feelings from the past onto their therapist.

Many forms of transference can occur outside of a therapy setting. They usually stem from childhood relationships. The most common types of transference include:

Parental transference. This happens when you see someone else in your life as a mother or father figure and transfer your feelings about your parent onto them.

Sibling transference. This can happen when someone reminds you of a sibling or when you are working on a team. You see someone else as a sibling and transfer your feelings about your sibling onto them.

Non-familial transference. Stereotypes are a great example of non-familial transference. Many people expect that cops will always uphold the law. However, they are just people, and some do break the law. People transfer their feelings about the police in general onto individual police officers.

‌A common example of transference is feeling worried that a current partner is going to cheat on you because an ex-partner did so. In this case, you are redirecting your feelings about that ex-partner onto your new one. Other examples include feeling annoyed at someone who reminds you of your mother who nagged you as a child or being extra nice to someone who reminds you of your father’s positive qualities.

‌Whether transference is positive or negative, it can be useful in a therapeutic relationship. Therapists can use what they learn from your transference to help you work on issues from your past.‌

Through transference, your therapist can learn a lot about your past and what you might need to work on. Transference in therapy can also help you recognize it elsewhere in your life. Your therapist might recommend journaling or other reflective practices to help you learn when and why you have transference in areas of your life.

While all therapists have different methods and theories they follow closely, here are some recommendations for therapists to manage their own anxiety:

  • Create an honest connection with clients
  • Don't get defensive in cases of negative transference
  • Be aware of the possibility of countertransference
  • Be aware of their own history and tendencies

There are several ways that therapists can be more mindful of countertransference:‌

  • Work to understand themselves‌
  • Use psychological theories to understand their clients and their relationships with them
  • Put themselves in their clients' shoes and practice empathy
  • Be able to differentiate their own identity from others
  • Manage their own anxiety 

Within the world of therapy, experts have different views of transference and countertransference. For example, Carl Rogers, the founder of "person-centered therapy," believed that it is not a big deal. Rogers thought that fostering a genuine, empathic relationship with therapy clients is more important. However, others, like the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, believe that transference and countertransference are important factors to learn how a therapy client relates to the world.

‌Transference-focused therapy is used to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD) and other personality disorders. It uses the relationship between you and your therapist as a window into your sense of self. When the intense emotions that often accompany personality disorders arise in therapy, the therapist will encourage you to explore your experience as it is associated with the relationship.

For example, if your mood suddenly shifts during a therapy session, your therapist may ask you about what they noticed in your own internal world. They may also ask you about what you observed in their behavior. The goal of transference-focused therapy is to help people with BPD reflect on their emotions and give them more control over how they respond to these emotions.