Transference Dance In Therapy: What Is Transference?

In the introductory article on Transference, I talked about the importance of making the concept of transference public knowledge. Now, let’s talk about transference itself, how the mental health profession defines it and what it really is.

In the nutshell, the classic definition of transference that is widely accepted among therapists is that transference is a combination of all unconscious projections of early childhood experiences on one’s therapist.

Our early childhood experiences with our primary caregivers (parents, in most cases) create a set of hopes, desires, beliefs and expectations that we bring into our relationships with others throughout our lifetime. If we were neglected in childhood, we will have a tendency to get strongly attached to people and could be perceived as clingy and needy. If we were abused, we will tend to give others confusing, contradictory messages: on one hand, we will seek love and acceptance and will get attached to those who are kind to us, on the other hand, we will try to protect ourselves from possible rejection, abandonment or abuse by pushing away the same people we are attached to and whom we are afraid to lose. If our parents continuously communicated to us, explicitly and implicitly, that we can be loved only if we behave “nicely”, we will expect others to treat us the same way. We will act “nice”, as we were taught, just to avoid rejection. The list of how our childhood experiences shape our adult behavior goes on. All of the above examples are examples of how transference manifests itself in our relationships with others.

When we start therapy, not only we bring the agenda to solve a specific problem into a therapy room, but we also bring hope and expectations that the therapist may and would be able to fulfill our deepest needs and desires that have remained unfulfilled since childhood. Most of those hopes and expectations are unconscious. We are not consciously aware of them, but they exist and influence our behavior to a great extend. As I said in the beginning, by the classic definition, any projection of the unconscious desire, need, hope, expectation, belief, thought, fantasy or feeling that was originated in early childhood onto the therapist is transference.

Now, the classic definition of transference is not very useful. It creates more problems in therapy than opportunities for healing, as therapists wish to believe.

The first problem comes from dismissing the fact that people project their unconscious material  such as unconscious desires, feelings, beliefs, fantasies etc. onto everyone, not just a therapist. Therefore, transference exists in every human relationship, not only in a therapy room. In fact, we don’t even need to have a relationship with a particular person in order to project/transfer all kinds of mental energy onto them. We project our deepest hopes and expectations onto political leaders, our desire to be perceived as “cool” onto celebrities, our anger for having been hurt in the past onto those we perceive as wrongdoers a.k.a “bad guys” and the list goes on. We even project our mental images onto things and animals, not just people, and so, on the broader scale, transference is seeing and making sense of the external world through the prism of our past experiences.

When therapists reduce the definition of transference only to a projection of the client’s early childhood feelings onto the therapist, they fail to see the bigger picture of the client’s situation and the client’s relationship with the therapist. They miss a lot of important information and can’t accurately assess the reality of what is going on in the client’s life and in therapist-client interactions. A narrow definition of transference creates a narrow mind frame through which a therapist looks at a client. It reduces a client to a young child, who is completely controlled by their immature emotions and primitive instincts. It completely dismisses the client’s adult experiences, their mature feelings and wisdom they have developed over the years, their resilience and capacity to move forward and live on despite of the variety of adverse, traumatic and tragic experiences they have had.

Seeing a client only or primarily as a young child is, by definition, disrespectful and disempowering, and, therefore, eliminates any possibility for healing. Empowerment is one of the major factors contributing to one’s capacity to be resilient and to effectively deal with life’s adversity, and it is mind-boggling why mental health professionals believe that reducing clients to little children can be empowering and helpful. Not only this way of seeing and treating people is not helpful, but it is often harmful.

When people start therapy, they tend to comply with the therapist’s explicit or implicit suggestions, because the therapist is a professional, an expert, and, therefore, knows better how therapy is supposed to work.  Even when some of the therapist’s suggestions don’t make sense, the client still tends to comply. They accept the premise that their early childhood experiences are the most important thing to be focused on and start seeing themselves the way their therapist sees them, mostly, as little children.

When the child’s part of the client’s personality is the only part the therapist is focused on, this establishes a child-parent dynamic in the therapist-client relationship that encourages the client’s regression. Regardless of how developed and intelligent the client is, they end up feeling like a helpless child dependent on the “parent”-therapist. When such dynamic becomes a major part of therapy, which is often the case, especially in psychoanalysis, this, at best, doesn’t promote healing and, at worst, causes great harm to the client, even when the therapist is a decent person, who acts with the best intentions at heart. Needless to say that when the therapist isn’t ethical, the premise of the client being a young child produces the dynamic of “abusive parent-abused child” in the therapist-client relationship. In those cases, clients end up being profoundly damaged and may deal with the consequences of that damage for the rest of their lives.

Apart from producing an unhealthy dependency on the therapist, the narrow definition of transference makes professionals oblivious to the fact that not only our childhood feelings and experiences get projected onto the therapist but also the adult ones, the ones we accumulate throughout the whole course of our life up until the present moment.

Being bullied, for example, has nothing to do with our early interactions with our parents (unless they were bullies). Bullying can happen at any time during school years, it happens in workplaces, it could happen anywhere and everywhere at any point in our life. If we had to endure continuous bullying for a long time, this by itself can have long-term consequences regardless of what age we were when this was happening. Even one incident of bullying if it was exceptionally humiliating can produce significant trauma that would require a long time to heal.

Discrimination is the other example of adverse experience that leaves permanent traces in our minds and hearts. Any instance of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental conditions etc. is a traumatic experience which also often has a lifelong effect on the individual.

The betrayal of a friend or a partner is another traumatic experience that has its own adult significance regardless of whether it’s related to our childhood history or not.

All of the above examples and many others describe events that carry a special adult meaning in addition to but separate from the impact of childhood traumas on our adult life. They carry their own adult significance, because, as adults, we can recognize those experiences as opportunities for spiritual growth, as they carry the lessons that we are supposed to learn in our lifetime. When we learn those lessons, we become wiser and stronger and more equipped to deal with future life challenges. When we don’t learn them, we get bitter, but the opportunity to learn the lesson will be presented to us over and over again until we learn it.

It’s very misguided on the part of professionals to look at those situations only from the perspective of exploring their connections to clients’ childhoods. This approach produces implicitly (and often not so implicitly) condescending and infantilizing attitude toward clients that keeps them stuck in the regressed state where there is no way out. When the therapist doesn’t recognize the spiritual significance of the client’s adult experiences and the unique lesson each one of them holds, they misjudge the client’s situation and move the therapy in the wrong direction.

The classic definition of transference that only refers to the projections of early childhood relationships with parents onto the current relationship with the therapist doesn’t allow practitioners to recognize the client’s projections from their adult experiences. For instance, the therapist might believe that he or she reminds the client of their abusive parent and, therefore, the client reacts to the therapist the same way they reacted to their parent when they were children. The reality, however, could be very different. The therapist might remind the client of their high school teacher or a college professor they hated and that may trigger similar reactions to the therapist they had to that teacher/professor back in the day.  Many other examples can be given to illustrate the point that there have been people in our lives other than our parents, who left deep imprints in our minds and that those experiences and images have their own importance that has to be recognized in therapy.

In the end, I want to sum up the main points of this post:

1. Transference is much more than just a combination of projections of our childhood feelings onto the therapist.

2. The use of the traditional definition of transference makes therapy at best ineffective and at worst harmful.

The other big mistake the psychotherapy profession has made in regards to defining transference was the invention of the term “counter-transference” that refers to all the projections of the therapist’s feelings originated in the therapist’s childhood onto the client. Let’s discuss next how the concept of counter-transference is being used by practitioners and whether it really helps them to do their work.



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