Is it Real or Just Transference?

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.

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4 Comments  comments 

4 Responses

  1. anonymous

    Do you think it is possible that for some people “transference” might be less of a reflection of a person’s real past problems and issues than a diversion from very painful present issues? For instance, let’s say that someone has a lot of emotional pain beneath the surface due to the death or illness or loss of someone they have loved. Could the “relationship” that develops (particularly in psychodynamic therapy) become a focus that diverts the attention of the client, rather like a play or a compelling novel?

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Good question.

      I think, there are two dynamics here that co-exist and operate simultaneously.

      One is what you suggested when the person is trying to cope with some painful personal situation by not dealing with it directly and focusing their energy on the new “relationship” with the therapist because a) this allows them not to feel pain that has to do with something real happening in their life and b) it may also be exciting because they could project all kinds of hopes and dreams onto this new “relationship”. (By the way, this is often the reason why an unhealthy obsession about the “relationship” with the therapist happens so often. It happens because it’s a good unconscious way for people to avoid dealing with the real issues that life confronts them with. And for many therapists who believe that their “relationship” with clients has to be a central point of their work it is also a good way not to work on helping clients to deal with real life challenges.)

      At the same time, the dynamics of the “relationship” itself and many feelings, thoughts and mental states it evokes for the client have a lot to do with their past experiences, which, by definition, is transference.

      For instance, a person who was abandoned a lot in the past since early childhood will be much more sensitive to sudden changes in the therapist’s schedule than somebody who haven’t had that experience. For that kind of person, the therapist’s vacation may create panic whereas for someone else it wouldn’t be a big deal. Or, if the patient is a woman who has been sexually abused by important male figures in her life, she may unconsciously behave provocatively with the male therapist just to “test” if he is “save” to be around and if he would not take advantage of her vulnerable position as other males in her life did.

      These kind of feelings and behaviors are the expressions of transference since they have a lot to do with past experiences while the motivation to focus obsessively on the therapist and the “relationship” with the therapist may have a lot to do with their current life circumstances, particularly with real challenges people don’t want to address because these are too hard and too painful to deal with.

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Marina,
    Recently in another post you mentioned that a person might use an online review site to express concerns about a therapist. I have looked at these sites for other medical professionals, but decided to look at the reviews for a therapist I visited years ago. Although, there are generally not many reviews on these sites yet, I found a review where a former client described the therapist almost exactly in the way that I would have.

    At the time, the therapist implied or stated that this was my “transference”. But if different patients are having similar reactions, might not that indicate that the therapist has some traits that bother some people?

    I am definitely now in favor of only short term therapy for a specific problem with an objective professional. Thanks for all your excellent and helpful posts.

    • Marina Tonkonogy

      Absolutely. If other patients have similar reactions that should confirm to you that it wasn’t your “transference” but the therapist’s behavior that became a problem.

      It, probably, felt validating that you were not the only one who had that perception of the therapist.

      Now, after much reflection on my entire experience being on both sides of therapy room, as well as communicating with colleagues, and much of self-education, I am also in favor of short-term therapy with a clearly set up objective. At least, I believe, it’d be best to do it that way with each individual therapist. As far as how many times one can seek therapy with different therapists, it’s a personal decision.

      Thank you for your feedback and your participation in discussions. It’s greatly appreciated.

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