The Psychoanalytic Theory of Transference

Transference is the psychological term of projecting your feelings, based on past experiences, onto someone else in the present.

In therapy, this redirection of feelings refers to cases where the client transfers emotions based on previous interactions with figures in their lives onto the therapist (Cooper, 1987). 

For example, a client can begin to view their therapist as a parental figure and display feelings/behaviors similar to what you would observe in a child-parent relationship.

Such processes are unconscious in nature (Ferenczi, S., Ferenczi, S., & Jones, 1990) and require the therapist to identify when/if they occur and gently use this to guide the client in their therapeutic journey.

Psychologist listening to a client in therapy

The reverse can also happen, called countertransference. This refers to situations where the therapist transfers emotions, based on their past experiences, onto the client. This can be highly disruptive to the client’s progress and should immediately be addressed by the therapist to mitigate the situation and avoid further escalations (Loewald, 1986). 

Transference forms part of the psychoanalytic school of thought developed by Sigmund Freud in the 1890s (Makari, 1992). In his writings, he discussed several different forms it can manifest in, with this theory still being discussed and researched today.

Transference Outside of Therapy 

Transference is not exclusive to therapeutic environments but can also manifest in our day-to-day relationships. An example of such transference can be observed across friendships where one begins to identify motherly behavioral patterns (either positive or negative) in a friend. 

Throughout interactions with their friend, they can unconsciously be reminded of their own maternal experiences resulting in them transferring emotions based on that previous relationship onto their friend now. Such projections can be a catalyst for rifts and unhealthy attachments in the friendship if the transference remains unidentified and unaddressed.

What Is Freud’s Theory Of Transference? 

Image of Sigmund Freud

For Freud, transference begins at birth with one’s mother figure and the relationship between mother-child.

This connection has a central role, as she is the first person one has ever made contact with. He argues that while young, we can not differentiate between “mother” and us, so we merge the two identities together.

As we grow older and begin to understand the world, we develop self-awareness and start to differentiate “mother” as separate and something ”other” from us (Klein, 1952). 

How Does Freud’s Theory of Transference Relate to Psychoanalysis?

Freud’s theory of transference is a key concept in the field of psychoanalysis, describing the projection of past emotions, either positive or negative, onto someone else today (Freud, 1920). 

During psychoanalysis, a patient’s transference to the therapist takes on a similar form to their maternal relationship. They regress back to their fetal experience of traversing the world alone and being unable to differentiate themselves from the “other, or in this case, the therapist.

This is termed “narcissistic transference.” Through the therapeutic journey, they develop “object transference,” where they begin to recognize the therapist as an “other” and a separate identity (River, 2018).

Freud argues that transference is a necessary component of psychoanalysis. With therapeutic guidance, a patient can begin to bring past experiences and memories from their unconscious to the conscious level.

Through discussions, they can recognize and understand what transpires when they transfer and ultimately begin to break unconscious repetitive transference cycles (Freud, 1920). 

Resistance and denial are not uncommon. Many patients can be reluctant to admit any ill emotions towards previous figures in their lives but continue to transfer such ill emotions onto the therapist. Caution is paramount, as overtly mentioning that their negative display of emotions is due to transference in relation to ”x” event may lead to a therapeutic relationship collapse (Freud, 1953). 

How Do You Identify Transference in Therapy? 

Transference is identified in therapy through practice/experience, regular supervision, and building a strong therapeutic bond with a client.

It often takes several sessions before transference begins to manifest, so it is paramount that good interpersonal relations are maintained with the client (Silberschatz, Fretter & Curtis, 1986). 

If transference occurs, the therapist must identify the client’s reaction and originating source. They can then better discern if the displayed emotions can be largely attributed to the session, e.g., the client feeling sad when talking about a traumatic experience.

However, if expressed reactions are unmatched by the conversation level, the client may be unconsciously reverting back to bonds with previous figures and instinctively reacting and transferring past emotions. 

Example of transference based on unmatched reactions:

The therapist is explaining something to a client using a particular tone of voice that reminds the client of the way their father spoke to them, whom they did not have a good relationship with.

The client, in turn, becomes more abrupt and aggravated, which does not match the context of the present moment. The therapist must take notice, and through therapeutic discussions, the originating source (in this case, a poor paternal relationship) can be uncovered.

Types Of Transference 

The three main types of transference typically discussed are positive, negative, and erotic or sexual transference (Freud, 1958; Klein, 1952).

It is also possible to have maternal or paternal transference. It is important to note that all of these types can also manifest as countertransference, with the therapist being the one transferring feelings onto the client.

Positive Transference

Positive transference is when a client redirects positive feelings, based on their past experiences, onto the therapist. For example, love, affection, idealization, attachment, etc.

Positive transference may benefit some clients’ therapeutic journey since they can begin to view their therapist as caring, attentive, empathic, and wise. In turn, this can strengthen the client-therapist bond, create a positive and safe environment for the client to express their emotions/thoughts, and ultimately aid in their therapeutic progress. 

Example: A client had a warm and loving relationship with a female figure in their lives, e.g., their mother. They then transfer such feelings of care and trust onto their female therapist, enabling more open, honest, and productive sessions. 

Negative Transference

Negative transference is when a client redirects negative feelings, based on their past experiences, onto the therapist. For example, fear, anger, disdain, disappointment, etc.

This form of transference may still be beneficial during therapy sessions. The therapist can present such transferences as discussion topics for the client to reflect upon, study their emotional reaction, and work towards overcoming their negative past experiences. 

Example: A client has a history of parental trauma/abuse and begins to transfer past emotions of anger, mistrust, and neglect to their therapist. Previous authority figures in their lives (in this case, their parents), instead of providing protection and care, displayed neglect and abuse.

The therapist is now the authority figure due to the power dynamic, so the client demonstrates the same negative emotions they held for previous authority figures.

Sexualized Transference

Sexualized is when a client begins to develop romantic or sexual feelings towards their therapist. For example, sexual arousal, intimacy, romance, sensuality, worshipfulness, etc.

The therapist can use this to guide discussions and help the client uncover underlying past experiences that formed these feelings. It is the therapist’s job to ensure a professional relationship is maintained and to provide guidance (Jenks & Oka, 2021).

If therapeutic growth can no longer be derived because of a client’s sexual transference, a change in therapists may be needed.

Example: A client feels a sense of connection/intimacy with their therapist that develops into romantic feelings. This can result from the nature of therapy as very emotional topics are discussed, so it may be easy for overcharged feelings to be confused with more erotic ones.

Maternal Transference

Maternal transference is when a client unconsciously begins to view their therapist as a motherly figure and develops emotions emulating those of mother-child relationships.

Such feelings, depending on the client’s experience with their mother, may be positive or negative in nature. For example, love, nurture, warmth, and acceptance, or mistrust, anger, frustration, and nagging, respectively.

The therapist is often idealized as the mother figure, which can offer some therapeutic benefit in accelerating a client’s progression, especially if their past experiences stem from a positive relationship. 

This form of transference may also manifest as maternal erotic transference (MET), often leading to clients experiencing shame or worry of being humiliated for having such feelings. (Wrye & Welles, 1989). The therapist must proceed sensitively and gently guide clients to navigate their unconscious emotional projections.

By helping identify any previous unmet needs, an overlap may be often uncovered, hence the combination of 2 types of transferences, maternal and erotic, together.

Paternal Transference

Paternal transference is when a client unconsciously begins to view their therapist as a fatherly figure and develops emotions similar to those in father-child relationships.

Such feelings, depending on the client’s relationship with their father, may be positive or negative in nature. For example, love, wisdom, guidance, and protection, or mistrust, fear, judgment, and anger, respectively.

The therapist is often idealized as the father figure, which can have a therapeutic benefit in accelerating a client’s progression, especially if their past experiences stem from a positive relationship. 

This form of transference may also manifest as paternal erotic transference (PET), requiring work from the therapist to help guide the client through such unconscious emotional projections (Diamond, 1993). It is important to ensure that the client feels supported, understood, and reassured that their emotions are normal and valid.

By helping identify any previous unmet needs, an overlap may be uncovered that led to the combination of 2 types of transferences (in this case, paternal and erotic) together.

How to Deal With Transference

If you are a client experiencing transference during your therapy sessions, it is firstly important to highlight that it is entirely normal. Part of the reason for this concept being so well documented is that it is indeed a common phenomenon observed across countries and mental health diagnoses. 

Being open with your therapist is key, as they can help gently guide you into bringing old unconscious behavioral patterns to the surface, reflecting on them, and discussing old emotional wounds.

By doing so, you can expedite your therapeutic journey and observe an improvement in not only your professional relationship with your therapist but in other interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and loved ones as well.

How Can the Therapist Deal with Client Transference?

Regarding how a therapist should deal with client transference, Freud has made several suggestions (Freud, 1914).

Foremostly, it is imperative that no actions from the therapist contribute to the patient’s expressed emotionality. Hence, regardless if feelings are positive or negative, they must not stem from the therapeutic relationship.

It is thus important for the therapist to clarify that the client’s emotional experience does not apply to the therapist. 

Secondly, once that baseline has been established, the therapist can begin to explain the idea of transference and its basis in previous relationships.

By doing so, the patient can then begin to enter a state of “free association,” during which they start to recognize their transference and notice any repetitive behaviors/patterns.

Finally, they can work with the therapist to move unconscious memories to the conscious level and derive new meaning (Kris, 1990).

What Did Jung Say About Transference? 

Jung’s beliefs on transference center around the ideas of a protected therapeutic space termed the “Temenos” and the unconscious projection of archetypes based on a client’s past relationship experiences. 

This “Temenos” is a symbolic space created to ensure that both the client and the therapist are protected when dealing with matters of the unconscious so both parties are neither too distant nor too close to violating any therapeutic boundaries (Abramovitch, 2002). 

Regarding the archetypes, Jung cautioned therapists to proceed with empathy and ensure adequate differentiation between the projected archetype and the actual client-therapist relationship (Jung, 2014).

Lastly, in Jungian analysis, performing psychoanalytic work is a cognitively and mentally fatiguing task due to the nature of navigating the unconscious collaboratively with the patient. 

Hence, Jung’s suggestion that before someone becomes an analyst for this therapeutic modality, it is important for them to first undergo such analysis themselves to self-develop and work through experiences that remain submerged in their unconscious (Knox, 2003).

In turn, this will minimize the likelihood of mishandling their own unconscious inferences and negatively interacting with the clients’ unconscious projections (Jung, 2013).  

What is the Difference Between Jung’s and Freud’s Views on Transference?

Jung’s thoughts on transference differ in how he explains and understands this concept when compared to Freud’s.

Jung held a more equal and collaborative view of transference, focusing on the mutual relationship between client-therapist (Jung, 2013), with both being two separate entities from the beginning that, over time, build a strong connection and a sense of kinship libido (Jung, 2014). 

For Freud, emphasis was given on neutrality and the therapist being an empty vessel for the patient to transfer their emotions to. Both client and therapist are united into one identity until the patient begins to recognize the therapist as separate. 

Jung’s and Freud’s difference between a collaborative vs singular idea can also be seen in how they conducted their therapy sessions. Jung sat opposite his patients and ensured they could see each other, while Freud largely remained out of his client’s views, who were reclined on a sofa.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Displacement And Transference The Same Thing?

Displacement and transference, while both sharing an underlying emotional cause based on life experiences, are not the same thing. 

Transference is the redirected projection of past feelings onto someone new today who does not share them. Displacement is a self-defense mechanism where someone redirects their negative outbursts onto someone (usually a weaker target) because they are unable to do so for the true person causing them (Neubauer, 1994).

An example of displacement is being angry at your parents, being unable to direct that anger toward them, and taking it out on your younger sibling instead.

Is Transference Always Unconscious?

Transference, by definition, is unconscious in nature, with the person unknowingly projecting their feelings.

However, during therapy, where transference has been identified by the therapist and was brought forth as an agreed discussion point, the argument can be made that the client is developing a certain level of awareness around their emotional projection. 

Consequently, transference can begin to move from the unconscious to the conscious, with the client beginning to recognize when they are engaging in it. Thus, while transference begins in the realm of unconsciousness, it can become part of our conscious awareness.

What’s The Difference Between Transference And Projection?

Transference and projection share the same underlying principle of assigning feelings to someone who does not reflect them back.

However, while with transference, you are redirecting emotions from past experiences onto someone else, in projection, you direct emotions and translate behaviors onto the person you are having these feelings for (Grant, J., & Crawley, 2002). 

For example, you may develop romantic feelings for someone; by projecting, you begin to identify what you believe are signs that they also share those romantic feelings when in reality, they do not.

Is Transference Bad in therapy?

Transference is an entirely normal occurrence that many clients experience and should not be considered inherently bad in therapy.

Clients should feel comfortable discussing such topics and emotional expressions with their therapist, who, in turn, should respond with gentleness and kindness. 

Working with a client’s transference can overall help uncover any of their unconscious projections that can then aid the therapeutic journey progression.

However, if the client is not ready for such discussions to happen, rifts in the therapeutic relationship can appear, which prevent overall well-being progression.

In such cases, thus, it can be argued that transference can have a negative effect on a client’s therapy sessions.


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Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Ioanna Stavraki

Community Wellbeing Professional, Educator

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc, Neuropsychology, MBPsS

Ioanna Stavraki is a British Psychological Society MBPsS member with a background in the scientific publishing industry, NHS service development, community well-being, and postgraduate teaching.