Working with Transference

I don’t like to get too technical in these postings – that would make for pretty boring reading. But I did want to talk about a technical aspect of psychotherapy which I am fascinated about. That is called transference.

It was Freud who first hatched the idea of transference. The idea basically being that we learn certain relational patterns in our relationships with significant others in our youth – most notably our parents – and continue these patterns with others throughout our lives. We superimpose these models of relating on subsequent significant relationships.

So if we learned to anticipate criticism from a harsh and critical father, we carry that unconscious expectation with us in our interactions with other authority figures. We tend to expect, and sometimes to emphasize, criticism from a teacher or boss. Likewise, if we associate caring and nurturance with our early interactions with mother, we will look for this in subsequent relationships (and not only from females).

These relational patterns persist. And, obviously, they can cause trouble. We find ourselves drawn to particularly authoritarian people; or we are overly dependent on nurturance form others. Romantic relationships are saturated with transference. We react to our partner as if she or he were some significant person from the past: a critical parent, a jealous sibling…

These relational patterns emerge in the relationship between client and therapist, and that relationship becomes a good way to see these patterns and make changes. Not all therapists are trained to work with transference. I am very glad to say that my training and experience enable me to work with my clients with these relational patterns. When we are working this way, the work is very intense. There are usually very strong feelings, negative or positive, that the client is feelings.

This work takes time. It is not simply a matter of pointing out that now the client is reacting to me as if I were his father or mother. Rather, together we live in the moment. The client has these feelings – such as fear of my rejection or anger at me for being critical. These feelings are real; it is never my intention to dismiss the client’s feelings as pertaining to someone else. Eventually we are able to experience and identify these patterns – and then see which patterns to change. In this way, a person can respond to his or her partner in a fresh way, no longer superimposing a past relationship onto the current one.

Working this way is extremely alive and exciting for me. Sometimes it is painful and almost always it involves some risk on the client’s part. But working this way, and experiencing true change in the client, is highly rewarding and gratifying.

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