Transference in Therapy

By Tony Vasquez, MSW, January 2015

Throughout the therapeutic process there are many interactions, consciously and unconsciously, that take place between the client and therapist. One phenomenon that has been known to occur in therapy is called transference. This happens when unconscious feelings of earlier experiences are redirected from one person to another, usually client to therapist.

The subject of transference in therapy can be tricky because not all transference can be labeled as “bad”. Transference is a naturally occurring phenomenon that takes place as the relationship between therapist and client becomes more intimate. A successful therapeutic intervention with clients often depends on the therapist getting to know some of the deepest and darkest feelings of the client, and then helping the client work through them. However, transference that goes unaddressed does not help the client progress toward their therapeutic goals. When a client begins to unconsciously direct their own feelings onto the therapist such as fear, trust, mistrust and anger, even love the process of therapeutic healing has the potential to stall.

Managing Transference in Therapy as a Therapist

When the therapist is able to work through the transfer of the client’s thoughts and feelings in therapy it is a progressive step toward reaching a positive outcome. This “good” transference means that the client and therapist are able to have a productive and respectful relationship where the client is comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings. In many ways addressing the transference will help the client to form healthy coping skills.

Therapists have the professional obligation to assess if the clients transference is interfering with therapy. Usually the therapist will seek supervision and consultation from colleagues to help direct the path they need to take to address the issues arising from the incidence of transference and move forward with the client. Sometimes it is necessary to refer the client to another therapist or terminate the relationship with the client. This can be a difficult decision for a therapist, but therapists must maintain professional boundaries and make decisions that will most benefit the clients healing.

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