What is Transference?

The experiencing of feelings, drives, attitudes, fantasies, and defences toward a person in the present, which are inappropriate to that person and are a repetition, a displacement of reactions originating in regard to significant people of early childhood.
— Greenson (1967), p. 156

I had recently spent some time explaining the concept of transference to a number of individuals who were keen on furthering their psychoanalytic knowledge, and deepening their appreciation of process work in psychotherapy.

According to FreudQuotes, Transference 1. (German: Übertragung) is a very useful word from psychoanalysis which describes the process whereby we react to situations in the present according to a pattern laid down in the past, usually in childhood. Getting to know our own particular transferences is key to understanding ourselves.  It is further defined in the Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis as, the process by which a patient displaces on to his analyst feelings, ideas, etc., which derive from previous figures in his life (see displacement); by which he relates to his analyst as though he were sorne former object in his life; by which he projects on to his analyst object-representations acquired by earlier introjections (see projection); by which he endows the analyst with the significance of another, usually prior, object. 2. The state of mind produced by 1 in the patient. 3. Loosely, the patient's emotional attitude towards his analyst.

To quote a bit from my own doctoral dissertation, transference is defined as the process by which existing mental representations of significant others resurface to influence new social interactions (Anderson & Cole, 1990), and these transference processes influence emotional, motivational, and behavioural reactions to strangers (Anderson & Glassman, 1996). 

However, when traumatic stressors are experienced, such as interpersonal violence and exploitation, it can have a highly negative impact on one’s capacity to develop and maintain relationships. It has been shown that attachment-specific feelings, defences, and expectations (i.e., attachment styles) can be transferred from one relationship to another (Brumbaugh & Fraley, 2006), and these effects are compounded when the sources of distress (i.e., violence, neglect, or abuse) come from significant others or caregivers (Hildyard & Wolfe, 2002; Holt, Buckley, & Whelan, 2008).

The developmental sequelae for individuals who experienced severe cumulative interpersonal transgressions comprise alterations in relations with others, including the ability to connect with other people in ways that foster relational security and stability (Pearlman & Courtois, 2005). Such alterations may impede the formation of healthy relationships (i.e., social support and supportive relationships) that have been found to buffer and ameliorate the ill effects of instability and chaos along with additional abuse, victimisation and loss (Bowlby, 1969; Wortman, Battle, & Lemkau, 1997). 

Despite growing evidence of these processes and theory that purport to explain its dynamic phenomena, and further, a developed methodological paradigm for investigating transference in the past two decades (Andersen & Baum, 1994; Andersen & Berk, 2000; Hinkley & Andersen, 1996), there is little empirical evidence to suggest that these interpersonal processes are existent in psychotherapeutic work with complex presentations.  Nevertheless, little evidence does not mean no evidence!

This post is intended to whet your appetite for more and no single post may completely satisfy or provide a comprehensive definition of this phenomenon.  But let's start with something simple - learn why and how transference matters, and its impact on us in our interpersonal relationships.  Enjoy!

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