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Transference in the therapy room - the past repeated in the present

Freud is often considered the father of psychoanalysis, and he described the transference process. This was in response to hearing his colleague's struggles with a client. He noticed that clients were replaying the past and his colleague was responding to that invitation and behaving in the fashion expected by the client, but unusual for the therapist.

Transference is a term used in counselling and psychotherapy to describe how past relationship experiences influence the present ones. These can often be hidden from our direct view, meaning we act them out without realising, because they are a type of unfinished business. Some counsellors and psychotherapists give a great deal of emphasis to this, others less so. For instance, a relational psychotherapist, like me, would use this in service of a client. However, a CBT therapist might be less likely to do so.

Transference can be experienced in different ways. Have you ever noticed a familiar feeling rising up when you are with another person? It might be a positive, warm and friendly feeling you get with a particular type of person, or perhaps it could be a more irritable feeling. For example, you feel that many other people are looking down on you or are being deliberately difficult and obstructive. Why does this happen? Of course this can be a real thing - the person you are with could really be that way and the way you feel is appropriate. However, it might also be a mistaken repetition of the past. You might be responding in a way that is familiar but doesn’t necessarily serve you well.

A common transferential experience is acted out at work. Your boss can represent an authoritative figure from the past. The following example is fictional, but it is a common human experience.

Sandra has started a new job and really likes the work. When she meets with her line manager, Chloe, they can discuss her work and whether it is going well and how she can develop. However, when Sandra meets with Mark, a senior manager, she feels tongue tied and embarrassed. She is unable to convey her ideas with him like she can with Chloe. Sandra notices that Mark is quite dismissive of her and he isn’t like that with other members of staff. Sandra is really disappointed because she felt like this in her last job, and feels like it must be something to do with her. She feels that perhaps she isn’t good enough and that is why it has happened again.

We can see that it is the relationship with the male authority figure which Sandra is responding to, since her relationship with Chloe works well. Moreover, this has happened before. This is likely to be transference, and we can think of various past relationships with authoritative figures which might be the source of this response.

This can happen in the therapy room too. A client may have expectations and feelings about their therapist which are recreated responses. The client might also long for a type of response from the therapist towards them, which replicates past relationships but turns out differently this time.

Sandra discusses this work relationship with her boss in her therapy session. When she discloses this, she feels like her male therapist dismisses her too, not taking this experience seriously. In fact it makes her pretty angry to be dismissed, and she is seriously thinking of changing her therapist.

Of course Sandra is free to change her therapist if it isn’t working for her. However, it may be worth hanging on for a while longer to confront the issue. Clients can feel love, anger, hatred and many other feelings towards their therapist. Disclosing these feelings can feel overwhelmingly shameful, and even impossible to express. Dealing with confrontation can feel like a nightmare; something to avoid. Yet disclosing these feelings in therapy can create an opportunity for change. Sandra might be able to see that it is actually her expectation of the relationship which recreates the past. Her therapist is likely to listen to this disclosure and take it seriously, without reacting angrily. This can make a difference. Sandra cannot change the past but she could respond to Mark differently once she can notice the pattern, and it is likely to impact upon them both.

Taking a risk in a trusting therapy relationship can be transformative. Being truthful about feelings you have towards your therapist has the potential for a deeper connection to yourself and understanding of why we react and respond the way we do in the rest of our life. Good luck!

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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