I want to address a major confusion people usually have about transference, which has to do with not understanding how it is different from “real” feelings, because somehow there is a notion that transference and real feelings are two different things. They are not. Just because feelings in a
certain situation are called “transference” doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t real.
If you are experiencing strong feelings for your therapist, whatever they are, and want to know if those feelings are “real” or if they are “transference”, the short answer to that is they are both. They are real because you are feeling them, which is your real experience. And they are transference because they have developed in a therapy situation.
If this answer seems confusing and you want more clarity, then, firstly, make sure you understand transference as a concept. For that, please, read my other articles on transference “Transference Dance in Therapy: Introduction”, “Transference Dance in Therapy: What Is Transference” and “Transference Dance in Therapy: What Is Counter-Transference” before proceeding to read this one because this post is an expanded clarification of the concept.
Now, assuming that you have familiarized yourself with the concept of transference, let us discuss why the term was invented and what purpose it serves, because, I believe, much of the confusion about it comes from not understanding why feelings in therapy can’t be viewed and called as they are viewed and called in other relationships if the feelings are real.
The reason why the client’s feelings have to be viewed and discussed differently in therapy from how feelings are usually viewed and discussed in all other relationships outside of therapy situation is because understanding feelings serves different purposes in therapy and outside of therapy.
Outside of therapy, people generally try to understand each other’s feelings for the purpose of improving communications, improving relationships, giving and receiving emotional support, getting their emotional needs met and, sometimes, giving friendly lay person advice when it seems appropriate to do so.
In therapy, all feelings, including feelings towards the therapist, are explored in order to help the client to raise their self-awareness. Therefore, when feelings are discussed in therapy, the emphasis is put on understanding their basis and to what degree they are based on the accurate perception of reality. This is done for the purpose of improving the client’s well-being and their capacity to deal with life’s challenges.
As follows, the client’s feelings in therapy are the object of exploration a.k.a. analysis mostly for the sake of the exploration itself through which self-awareness is increased while, outside of therapy, feelings, most of the time, are simply expressed and explained (not so much analyzed) for the sake of improving human communications.
Therefore, in therapy, analyzing clients’ feelings is meant to be a method of practicing and, in this method, feelings are used as working tools and, as such, they require a technical term. “Transference” has become that term.
The main conclusion to be made from this discussion is that your feelings for somebody are always real no matter when, where and under what circumstances you feel them. Whether they are or aren’t labeled as “transference” depends on what you do with them, namely, whether you use them as a tool for your personal work or as the means of connecting and relating to the other person.
Also, I have to say that things are not neatly separated in real life. Quite a bit of emotional analysis may take place in all human relationships, just like a relational factor in therapy is very important. However, the differences in purposes is always clear. While friends and partners may analyze each other every once in a while, these are spontaneous conversations. They don’t happen because one person has an obligation to help the other one with their emotional problems, which is the case in therapy. Similarly, it’s important for a therapist to pay attention to the relational aspect of therapy and to make sure that mutual trust is stable throughout the course of therapy, but this is done with the ultimate goal to maintain the basis for a productive work, not for the purpose of maintaining the good relationship for its own sake.