Transference in the Therapeutic Relationship: What Is It and How Can We Use It?

By Kristen Quinones, LMSW

The term transference in therapy refers to feelings a client experiences in their world coming up in their feelings towards their therapist. Your relationship with your therapist is a professional one, but it is still a relationship. So it is important to recognize that you will have different feelings come up during your time together. Think about who we choose to be our therapists. Do we choose someone around our age for relatability? Someone older for wisdom? Someone of our gender, ethnic background, or shared religious views?

We all enter the therapeutic relationship with preconceived beliefs about the therapist, and then our interactions with them can initiate transference. For example, your therapist may say something in a way that reminds you of a parent or former teacher, which makes you feel challenged or leads you to react in a rebellious way. Or perhaps they remind you of a friend from high school who you idolized and you find yourself very attached to them or wanting to impress them.

Sometimes transference can be confusing or feel quite random. However, it is normal and should be used to fuel the therapeutic work. Bringing these thoughts, feelings, and insights to your therapist can help them understand your experience in relationships outside of therapy. This is valuable information for your therapist, and working through transference can be healing.

Perhaps you chose this therapist to have a restorative experience. For example, maybe you grew up in a family of many women and decided to choose an older male therapist to work through what it would mean to have a strong male role model or father figure relationship in your life. This is something clients can make a conscious decision about when choosing a therapist.

Another way to use transference is to practice skills you need to apply in your life with your therapist, such as breaking avoidance patterns. If you avoid conflict, practice confronting uncomfortable feelings with your therapist by voicing your needs and feelings to them. This could be stating that you aren’t finding a particular strategy they are using helpful and would like to explore other techniques. This will help you build confidence in your ability to advocate for yourself, which you can then be applied in the workplace or with family.

There are many ways to use the experience of transference. Ask your therapist how they like to work through this with their clients.

Kristen Quinones is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.