Have you ever heard of the term transference? Do you know what it means?
Would you know you are experiencing it if you came across someone who reminded you of someone else?
When I ask these questions during my group seminars for parents I often get blank stares. Those blank stares typically occur because the parents either don’t know what transference is, have never heard of it before, or has little insight into if and when it is happening.
This article (and video) will discuss the topic of transference and broach the topic of transference you may be experiencing with your very own therapist.
Have you ever met someone for the first time and felt that you had known them all your life? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Many of us meet people we feel we have met at some point in our lives. When I see clients I often find myself thinking about how similar they are to my family members, previous coworkers, mentors, friends, etc. If I’m not careful or thoughtful in how I relate to these people I can certainly fall prey to transference. I can fall prey to treating this client like I would my adored family member and miss the reality of our professional relationship. The same can happen to you.
Transference is a powerful phenomenon. I once thought it was a concept specific to psychoanalytic theory and Sigmund Freud. But transference is a term many mental health professionals use to describe a series of interactions that are emotionally and psychologically influenced by one’s history or past influences. For example, you may find yourself wondering if you could ever date your therapist because “he’s everything I’ve always wanted in a guy.” These feelings may be encouraged by previous negative relationships you have had with other guys. In some ways, you see your therapist as the exception and this is attractive and appealing. You may begin to flirt with your therapist, ask personal questions, make statements that reveal your subconscious or think about him obsessively. You may then attempt to make something happen by confessing your feelings. Your past experiences/history is influencing the way you are seeing your therapist.
The reality of the situation is that you will never be able to date your therapist. Your therapist may be in a committed relationship, may be happily married, is abiding by their state ethics Board laws, etc.
In fact, the American Counseling Association and American Psychological Association both discourage intimate relationships between clients and therapists. Although the language can be tricky, the general rule of thumb is no contact with clients outside of the professional relationship. It isn’t healthy for anyone involved.
That being said, how do you manage your emotions then? There are a variety of ways to cope with this situation and I discuss this more in the 2 videos below.
I should also add that transference can happen with anyone at any time. It isn’t just with your therapist. When I talk to my clients about transference in their professional and personal lives I often highlight 13 reasons why their interest/pursuit of a relationship with the object of their desire is false:
- You wouldn’t be interested any other time: You’d want to consider the fact that if you met this person in public or somewhere else would you be interested? Most likely not. Your interest is based on historical experiences that you have stored in your heart and mind. At some point during the communication, those historical influences got in the way of how you now view this other person. So, in other words, you’re feelings are real but the object of your desire may not be.
- It’s one-sided: If you begin to have feelings for your therapist the encounters between you and your therapist are one-sided. This therapist conducts sessions with the intent of helping you work things out in a safe and welcoming place. They never tell you about their emotions or any details about their life. It isn’t accessible to you. It isn’t professional to offer you information.
- Your reality doesn’t match up: Your “reality” often consists of your emotions and thoughts about this other person. But is this reality? Could you introduce this person to your family? Could you safely say, for example, that your husband was first your therapist? Would that be awkward? Would that be uncomfortable? Could you see your therapist stating to others that you were once his patient?
- You are struggling with an unresolved inner conflict: The unresolved inner conflict may be guilt or the fact that you are harboring feelings you feel you should not be. Let me first say that transference is normal and it isn’t something to scoff at. Transference can often include counter-transference where the other person begins to “respond” to your emotional advances toward them. It’s as if everyone in the situation begins to lose touch with reality. Feeling that you are “out of place” is often a sign you are.
- Fantasy is better than reality at the moment: If you feel better fantasizing about your relationship and the heights that it could go, you aren’t in reality. Reality would highlight that the transference is the first sign of more problems to come.
- It just doesn’t make sense: As stated above, would you feel comfortable with this person in your life? Is there a power differential? A power differential is present in a client-therapist relationship in which the therapist holds the power in the relationship because of their education, state license, and the responsibility entrusted to them to care for their community and society at large.
- You feel (and know) it is wrong: It’s just wrong and you know it. You can feel it. You don’t want to know it or feel it but you do. It’s wrong.
- You are sneaky about things: You try to hide your feelings from those who might call you out on your behavior. You struggle to share your “fantasy” with others because you know it isn’t real. So you hide things and/or try to cloak some of the details of your fantasy.
- You obsess over the person: Constant thoughts of the person and where your relationship could go can be very dangerous. You are already vulnerable as a result of falling prey to transference and obsessing over the person is going to make things much harder on yourself.
- When you meet in-person something is gone: It’s quite interesting to fantasize or obsess about someone else until you actually meet them in person or get to really know them. The image of who they are is appealing until you find out that he really isn’t as charming as he appears to be.
- You get over them too fast: Transference often dissipates once the feelings and thoughts are worked through in therapy. For example, if you find yourself having feelings for your therapist, you may benefit from talking to him or her about your feelings. Once you do this, you may find your feelings go away.
- You try to minimize the impact of your emotions on your relationship: Denial is never good. Denial is a sign that you know something is wrong but aren’t quite ready to accept that. If you find yourself trying to hide your emotions or deny your emotions by acting a certain way or saying things that aren’t true, this is a problem. Your transference can either make or break your relationship and you should probably address this issue alone or with someone else like a therapist.
- You’re in denial: Denial, as stated above, can be dangerous. If you think there is a real chance between you and, for example, your therapist you may want to think again. I once told an 18-year-old boy who had a major thing for one of my colleagues 8 years ago to “stop daydreaming because she isn’t ever going to be more to you than a helper. The law, ethics, and her values say so.”
So what do you think about these signs?
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best