Apr 1, 2019
What is transference?
Historically the term “transference” refers to the feelings, fantasies, beliefs, assumptions and experiences unconsciously displaced on the therapist that originate in the patients’ past relationships. More recently, transference is seen as the here and now, valid experience the patient has of the therapist.
It is “a mixture of real characteristics of the therapist and aspects of the patient’s figures from the past—in effect, it’s a combination of old and new relationships.” (Gabbard)
How does transference work?
The patient’s early experiences develop organizing principles, constructing a framework for future interpersonal interactions. (Maybe their dad was an abuser, so they project that you will abuse them.) Transference is the continuing influence of these ways of organizing and giving meaning to experiences. They crystallized in the past, but they continue in an ongoing way in the here and now. The therapist’s actual behavior is always influencing the patient’s experience of the therapist because of this.
When a patient visits a therapist, they seek a new developmentally needed experience, but they expect the old, repetitive experience.
There is often misattunement to painful circumstances that can't be integrated into a person’s emotional world. For example—a child who can’t demonstrate his emotion in a way that his parents can handle causes the parents to move away from the child, creating distance. The child then subdues the emotion and creates a new “ideal self” so they can interact with others and no be rejected. The child then doesn’t know how to deal with strong emotion, even moving into adulthood.
Unintegrated affects become lifelong emotional conflicts and vulnerabilities to traumatic states. To handle the difficult situation, they develop defense mechanisms. Those defenses against affects become necessary to maintain psychological organization.
That “ideal self” will stay in place with others until you come along. If they see you as a safe person, they will express their emotions—anger and all—towards you.
This is where it’s important to understand transference, and to be able to give your patient a safe place to express their emotions.
When we understand transference is happening, we can listen from the patient's world, acknowledge their subjective perspective, resonate with them, look for their meanings, and form and alliance with the patient's expressed experience.
Of course we must expect their hesitations to trust us, avoid us, have feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment...it is uncomfortable to share what one feels.
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