Transference: Are you a biological time machine?

Revised: January 01, 2009

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D


Sigmund Freud first identified the psychological process of transference and brought it into what is now modern day psychotherapy. As a therapist he noticed that people had strong feelings and fantasies about him that had no basis in reality. But Freud died before there was such a thing as "rock and roll." Transference has become a more modern concept since Freud. In fact, many people believe transference is actually something that happens in life - and not just psychotherapy.

What is Transference? During transference, people turn into a "biological time machine". A nerve is struck when someone says or does something that reminds you of your past. This creates an "emotional time warp" that transfers your emotional past and your psychological needs into the present. In less poetic terms, a transference reaction means that you are reacting to someone in terms of what you need to see, you are afraid of or what you see when you know very little about the person. This all happens without you knowing why you feel and react the way you do.

What Is Projection? Some people refer to transference as a "projection." In this case you are projecting your own feelings, emotions or motivations into another person without realizing your reaction is really more about you than it is about the other person. In a life filled with transference, your job may be "the family reunion you are avoiding and you are forced to go to each day." In other cases of projection, your girlfriend may remind you of all the irritating things your mother did when you were growing up. Love at first sight is usually a projection Ė especially if it ends in disaster and you could have seen it coming.

Harmful Patterns. Transference reactions are caused by unmet emotional needs, neglect, seductions and other abuses that transpired when you were a child. In some forms of psychotherapy, a therapist will intentionally create or allow transference to form. When done properly, this helps a therapist to understand and find a connection between the patientís past and how the patient misreads the present and may react ineffectively. Once you discover a transference pattern, you can chose to respond in terms of what is really happening instead of what happened 20 or 30 years ago. People who donít recognize the difference between past and present can end up in the same messedĖup relationships over and over or with the same problem over and over.

Extreme Transference. In an extreme form of transference, you may conclude that someone is an awful or evil person when in fact that personís favorite food and television show reminds you of an emotionally abusive mother and a sexually abusive brother you have been trying to forget since childhood. Thatís an example of negative transference. A warm, supportive and kind person could remind you of what you are missing and wanting in their life. You might then idealize that person and begin to see him or her as wonderful beyond belief. The idea is that you will react to your therapist based on your experience with another person. This is usually a parent that the patient has an unresolved conflict with. In extreme cases a patient will become overly attached to their therapist or they will enter into and create conflicts without realizing how.

Transference Melt-Downs. Extreme forms of transference can turn into a full-blown obsession if it is not dealt with. Transference "meltdowns" can result in accidents, dangerous choices, nightmares, fantasies, stalking someone, psychotic reactions and sometimes violence. While it does not happen frequently in therapy, it can happen in the patient's personal life.

How Can You Tell? How do you know you are having a "transference reaction"? Itís not always easy, but you probably are if you know very little about a therapist (or anyone) and you are having a powerful reaction that is not justifiable to a reasonable person. It can be difficult if the patient can rationalize their reactions. Having a strong sexual attraction to your therapist is almost always a transference reaction, unless of course your therapist is actually hitting on you Ė and theyíre not supposed to do that on purpose. Intentionally seducing a vulnerable patient in sick and wrong! In fact that applies to any health-related profession or any employer-employee relationship. Becoming angry at you therapist as if they were a parent is a good sign that there is a transference reaction. Termination of treatment pre-maturely is another sign of transference - unless the therapist is just doing a bad job.

Counter-Transference. Therapists and other health care professionals can also have transference reactions while treating a patient. Itís a two way street. Counter-transference is basically a therapistís "emotional time warp" around their patientís transference. In other words, counter-transference is a therapistís counter- reaction. Thatís why some therapists think they are falling in love with their patients. Thatís also why older guys become obsessed with younger female employees they barely know.

Ethics And The Law. A therapist, counselor and even a physician could possibly lose their license for seducing or sleeping with a patient they are treating. Trying to seduce an employee on the job may result in a successful lawsuit. You can also sue a licensed mental health professional for sleeping with you if you are their patient. And employers must follow the law. On the other hand, unlicensed therapist can do almost whatever they want and there may be nothing anyone can do about it. Itís hard to sue an employer and win. Unlicensed therapists do not have a "duty" to act within a standard of practice. Employers may not know the law.

Unseen Dangers. Transference can sometimes produce a powerful love or a destructive hatred based on a complete illusion. There can be a loud and painful thud when people act on their transference reactions and the bubble finally bursts. In addition to being embarrassed, it can also backfire. Sometimes people will end up stalking, assaulting or killing someone. Please donít kill yourself or anyone because of some transference from your childhood. And if you think your therapist, or an employer for that matter, is seducing you, tell your therapist, or contact a licensed therapist to talk about it.

Should I or Shouldnít I Risk Transference. Transference is really difficult to recognize, deal with and understand, but it is incredibly interesting. I tend to avoid people who are "oozing" with transference potential. Working with transference, or creating transference in therapy can make a therapist look mystical and brilliant. Cult therapies are based in part on generating positive transference to control and manipulate people. I avoid treatment approaches that artificially inflate my ego, would allow me to control anyone and make me feel powerful. But not everyone feels the way I do about transference. Some counselors and therapists love the power and think they can handle it. A therapist must face transference issues and encourage patients to deal with them as much as possible. In some cases a patient is not able to deal with transference issues and will terminate therapy. While it is regrettable and potentially a lost opportunity, it must be supported.

copyright 2002 to 2008, Michael G. Conner