Transference: Uses and Abuses

A visitor to the site submitted several questions about transference in response to an earlier post, and I thought they were so interesting and useful, they deserved a lengthy reply — hence today’s post. As a prelude, I’d like to say a few things about how I view the transference, which is different from the way Freud thought about it, and different from the way most lay people understand it today.

Although ideas about transference appear in his work as early as the Studies in Hysteria (1895), it is with the case of Dora (1905) that Freud really begins to think about and articulate his vision of the transference: “What are transferences? They are new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic for their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician.”

This is the way most people think of the transference. You are treating me as if I were your father. It is a mis-perception of reality, where the client’s internal unconscious needs, rooted in the past, distort his or her experience of the present. Lay people sometimes use this point of view to invalidate another person’s experience: Stop reacting to me like I’m your mother. I’m not her.

Object relations theorists expanded this view to reflect their understanding of projection and part-objects; but for psychoanalysts nowadays, the transference encompasses an even larger terrain. The relationship between client and therapist, while unique in its own ways, bears a resemblance to other relationships in that similar emotional issues and challenges tend to arise for an individual in all his dealings with other people. For example, if you tend to have have volatile and unstable relationships, with patterns of early idealization giving way to anger, disappointment and devaluation — that is, if you struggle with the issues at the heart of borderline personality disorder — then I assume our working relationship will follow a similar pattern. At first, you’ll see me as the most wonderful therapist in the world; then one day, something I do or say will infuriate you and you’ll turn against me. While modern psychoanalysis views all the emotional transactions between client and therapist as part of the transference, the so-called infantile transference has a special place in our work.

For most of us who struggle with depression, lifelong anxiety or other difficult emotions, these problems took root in childhood, during the earliest years of life, and result from failures of attachment between mother and child. Under optimal conditions, babies pass through a period of helplessness and dependency; as they grow and get what they need from their parents, they eventually become independent, at least to the extent they can stand on their own, look after themselves and find satisfying relationships with other adults. No one is ever completely independent, of course.

When things go awry in early development — that is, when parents are unable to provide what it is needed — the infant instead evolves a set of defenses to escape the awareness of its need and dependency. At one extreme, some people ward off feelings of dependency by merging identities with the loved object and taking possession of it. At the other extreme, some men and women deny their needs entirely and believe themselves completely self-sufficient. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities in between.

As the infantile transference emerges, the client increasingly turns to the analyst as the source of what he needs, experiencing that relationship, in part, as a revival of his earliest encounter with neediness, but also as a real, present-day relationship involving actual dependency. She brings her characteristic defenses to bear on the growing awareness of that need and it is the job of the analyst to shed light on this process. Over time, the client comes to rely less and less upon those defenses, to accept the reality of his or her need for the analyst’s help, and to tolerate the experience of dependency. Eventually, insight and understanding, along with the experience of the analyst’s care and concern within a healing psychotherapy relationship, provide for the client an emotional experience that approximates what was originally needed. In the process, he or she “grows up,” with certain inevitable limitations and handicaps, and eventually becomes independent.

That is a highly condensed version of what goes on in psychodynamic psychotherapy; I hope it makes sense. So now onto the questions posed by my site visitor:

1. Is it possible for a therapist to intentionally cause transference?

Yes. Under normal conditions, if the therapist is doing her job, the transference gradually evolves on its own. An unscrupulous or narcissistic therapist, however, may behave in seductive ways — by causing the client to feel that he is very special to the therapist, or by trying to elicit his admiration. These acts might be conscious or intentional — as with the predatory therapist — or part of the therapist’s unconscious counter-transference. The narcissistic therapist exploits his clients, feeding off their admiration and need for him. No competent, ethical therapist would ever do anything deliberately to induce a transference reaction or to elicit admiration.

2. Do clients have rights to consent to this?

In theory, yes; but since this process is never announced or articulated — and often happens unconsciously on the therapist’s part — there’s no way to ask for and receive consent. With seductive or narcissistic therapists, their behavior may lay the groundwork for a malpractice lawsuit if it leads to any type of unprofessional contact with their clients.

3. Is it possible for therapists to use their power to meet their own needs?

Absolutely. I gave one example in my first answer. I think many therapists also use their clients’ dependency upon them to avoid their own needs, usually on an unconscious level. Because our clients so often idealize us, it’s also easy to use such idealization as a means to bolster our own defenses, especially those that ward off feelings of shame. I’m not damaged and troubled myself — just look at the way my clients adore me!

4. What does it mean for a therapist to bring his “own stuff” into the room?

It can mean a great many things. In addition to the examples I’ve already given, it could mean that a therapist who has a lot of repressed anger will have a hard time helping his clients to face their own hostility and do things in session to discourage the emergence of angry material. A therapist who can’t accept criticism, who always needs to be right, will find ways to deflect criticism in session and make it about the client, an effort often bolstered by the inherent authority of the therapist’s position. A therapist with an unhappy marriage or few satisfying emotional connections in her “outside” life may come to rely too much upon her clients for a sense of intimacy; under those conditions, a client may unconsciously come to feel that he has to “take care of” his therapist.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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121 Responses to Transference: Uses and Abuses

  1. Jodi says:

    Thank you for that post. That helps me make sense of my own issues in therapy. I appreciate your candor.

  2. Brenda Bomgardner says:

    You bog has really evolved since the last time I visited. Nice!

  3. Loveey says:

    Hi Joseph

    Thanks for explaining the concept of transference in plain language. I was wondering if you could expand or clarify on a basic level:

    1. How you know when it is your transference?
    2. How do you know when it is your therapists?
    3. How do therapists address transference in therapy?

    I am asking because I do want to grow as a person but have had the experience of therapists telling me that things were transference and which fundamentally was not what resonnated with me on even a basic level.

    Curious.

    just have one quesiton if we both bring our past to the table how do you know when it is your transference and how do you know when it is theirs?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Those are difficult questions to answer. A transference interpretation that makes you feel as if you haven’t been understood isn’t an effective one. It sounds as if you may be receiving the kind of interpretation that “explains away” your reactions to your therapist, by labeling them as distortions. Many therapists make that kind of interpretation as a means of warding off responsibility for their own contributions to the treatment. If a therapist is making timely and accurate interpretations about the transference, the client will eventually develop a feeling of conviction about them. Maybe not at first, but over time. If you never gain that conviction, it might mean your therapist is off track.

      I think that a therapist has to spend years in treatment him- or herself in order to sort these issues out. You need to know yourself very well and do the best job you can to keep your “stuff” out of the session. You can’t do it perfectly, but you need to try .. and to be open to criticism or “interpretations” that come from the client.

      • Looveey says:

        Dear Joseph. Thankyou so much for your detailed response. That very much makes sense in terms of my experiences. I am deeply grateful for you continuing to model the therapeutic process on this blog.

  4. Cathrine says:

    I find this post excellent and very helpful to me.

    I have some questions.

    Can you explain this statement and bit more? It’s a reaction I’ve had often, and I’m trying to understand why I have it. “Lay people sometimes use this point of view to invalidate another person’s experience: Stop reacting to me like I’m your mother. I’m not her.”

    With regards to number 3, it strikes a chord. It’s embarrassing to admit that this was one of the reasons why I wanted to become a therapist – to feel admired by future clients. Because of my own experiences with my first therapist who definitely brought her own stuff to the room, I got a wake-up call. It may have been the reason I started studying psychology, but it’s not the reason I’m going to finish.

    I’ve experienced transference quite strongly, both in the way described above, as well as with my first therapist, who I saw as my mother. When this transference is abused by the therapist, does it slow down the healing process? How can it affect later therapeutic relations?

    Finally (and maybe you can discuss this in one of your videos) – what does it mean to be a therapist TO a therapist? Is it lonely? Can you separate yourself from your job? Do you want to? Does it benefit your relationships outside work? Why did you become a therapist? I’m curious about your responses!

    Thanks Joe.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      If I understand your first question correctly — I think people react that way in order to disown responsibility. I didn’t really do anything … it’s just your ‘imagination’ in the form of transference.

      When a therapist abuses the transference, it does slow down the healing process and often does even more damage. Over the years, I’ve seen many clients who were traumatized by “bad therapy”; it has taken them a very long time to develop trust in me, to believe I’m different.

      As for the questions in the last paragraph, I think that’s a large subject for another post. Over my vacation break, I had a lot of thoughts about the meaning and satisfaction I derive from my work; I think I’ll write out my thoughts later this week.

  5. Anna says:

    I hope you might forgive more questions about the questions, coming from my point of view as a person who has sought therapy and so far not found it to succeed, as the victim of emotional neglect from birth and severe sexual abuse by parent in childhood. I don’t understand how therapy can in any way redress what was missing/ went awry in early development. One, because the needs of a baby/ young child are so totally different to those of an adult (e.g. basic levels like kind and frequent touch, being helped to do things she can’t do yet like get cleaned/ dressed). I understand that a therapist could show you they were there for you, that you could turn to them for reassurance and help and that might be like a translation of the child’s needs being addressed in the here-and-now but I can’t see how it can be in any way equivalent to, or make up for, the loss of all this happening in childhood. I think therapists only flatter themselves if they think it can in any way make up for that (but maybe that’s just the stage of anger/ grieving that I am in). Two, because the scale of the losses during those early years just seems to great to me to be redressed, if you think of it in terms of 24 hours per day (of being someone’s child) for years. I’m sorry if these questions sound foolish, I feel I really miss the ‘point’ of therapy. The real healing work I have done has been as a (very imperfect) mother, as I have been able to love my son and to give him most of what he needs at the developmentally appropriate age, and it’s a bit like giving it to myself because he is a bit like a part of me (though I strive always to recognize his separateness, but what I mean is I love him as much as/more than I love myself).

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’ve also experienced the kind of healing you describe as a parent. It’s powerful.

      I often say to my clients that the psychotherapy relationship is a distant second-best, not really like having a good mother or healthy family but the closest we can get to it. And while there may be many “infantile” feelings that come up in the transference, the adult client has many resources that no infant can rely on, even if the client had a terrible upbringing. It is not that the therapist is addressing the needs of an infant; rather he or she is helping the adult part of the client understand those primitive emotions, and through empathy, caring and concern, to give something similar to what a loving parent might do.

      That being said, I always stress to my clients that the damage has been done. No matter how good the therapy, you can’t go back and turn someone into a normal, healthy person who had a different childhood altogether. There will always be scars, always be limitations. But real and profound growth does occur. The relationship that develops between client and therapist has deep emotional value for each of them and leads to the kind of healing that is possible. Complete healing is an idealistic fantasy.

  6. It was Noel Mc Dermott who directed me to this post when he posted it on Facebook. This has to be one of the best posts I have read on the subject of transference. I particularly like the answers given at the end of the post to a site visitor. I will now be subscribing to your blog as a result of reading this post. Thank you

  7. Jodi says:

    It’s nice how it makes even more sense after reading your follow up comments especially in regards to Anna’s post above. My therapist can tell me the exact same things you mention but because I am so emotionally entangled in the relationship, I can’t make sense of it. I can only focus on the sheer intensity of the emotions and feelings I have for her. The benefit of reading your interpretation of it (both in response to Anna above, and in general throughout your blog) is that I have no object relation ties with you, no emotional ties with you to override what I can intellectually take away from it. This blog is a valuable resource to a community literally clamoring for some sense of clarity. Please keep on doing what you’re doing.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Jodi. I derive so much meaning and satisfaction from writing this blog that it’s a pleasure to keep it going.

    • Anonymous says:

      Amen! The subject of transference has been addressed more than I care to admit in my sessions with my therapist. I have been with her for over four and a half years and the dependency on her and need for her is so great and so terrifying. It is so dichotomous- I both want to be treated like an adult, yet I want to be loved on like a child. I can intellectualize all of this, and hear her when she tells me that in a sense, everyone experiences transference, and the type experienced in therapy is what is transformative. So, thank you so much for this site, for this post, which I am able to really grasp because I have no emtional ties to you.

      • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

        Your therapist said it very well. All relationships involve some kind of transference, but at least in a psychotherapy relationship, you can try to understand what is going on, rather than just acting the transferences out.

  8. Hermes says:

    Joseph, I feel this is at the heart of the matter:

    ” I always stress to my clients that the damage has been done. No matter how good the therapy, you can’t go back and turn someone into a normal, healthy person who had a different childhood altogether. There will always be scars, always be limitations.”
    “Complete healing is an idealistic fantasy.”

    Your article is fascinating, As a lay-person one knows nothing about transference. Indeed, one thinks of the therapist as someone who is an objective “fixer” of his or her patients, with no emotional involvement.

    Hermes

  9. Richard Oliver says:

    It is interesting to read the varying thoughts on transference. We were just discussing transference this week in my Counseling Theories course, and the stance taken by the author of our text differs from the perspective I gained while an undergrad. From a therapist perspective, I came to understand the transference/counter-transference exchange as an effective tool to understand past emotions of the client. If the therapist allows himself/herself to internally react to any transference, the therapist would gain valuable insight into emotions the client felt during a past event. The idea is that the therapist is feeling the same emotions that the client felt at that time. While the therapist is feeling these emotions, they must have enough control to keep from reacting, preventing counter-transference. The therapist would have to have excellent self-care practices for this to be effective. Even then, I feel it can be dangerous to use transference in this way. I would suspect individuality to cause some discrepancy in how people react to similar situations. Thoughts?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t think of transference as about “past experiences”. It may connect to the past but it’s entirely real and in the present. I agree that a therapist needs to have “excellent self-care practices” — he or she also needs to have had extensive therapy, so you can sort out as best you can what are your own issues and which are those of the client.

  10. Jules says:

    Whoa. Depressed client (afraid of becoming dependent/ needyx100) + narcissistic therapist = disaster, loss of sanity… in direct proportion to level of transference involved in the relationship. Especially when the transference is abused. Maybe I’m not crazy.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      No, you are not crazy. I think that this can easily happen, and be a total disaster for the client, as you say.

      • AW says:

        I had a trauma 27 years ago with a Narcissistic “marriage counselor” and have had PTSD since. I find it appalling that the counseling profession doesn’t require MMPI’s and other psychological testing to weed-out disturbed practitioners exploiting the vulnerability and temporary weakness of clients – for their own needs and folly. I will never trust any “counselor” again unless and until I can be assured of their motivation for entering the “helping professions” and that they have some formal, objective proof that they are not predators. They test police force candidates and other occupations – why not “counselors?”

  11. RC says:

    “At one extreme, some people ward off feelings of dependency by merging identities with the loved object and taking possession of it.”

    By this do you mean identifying with or introjecting the loved object’s identity? Sort of like unconsciously saying to yourself, “well, I see that you can’t meet my needs in order for me to form my own identity, so I’ll just become you in order to have some kind of self, even though it’s more you than any authentic self of my own.”

    I ask because I often find this concept of “taking on” another person’s personality or their own unresolved issues kind of baffling.

    Thanks!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Well, it’s unconscious first of all. In the case you describe, I think the other person is idealized, for starters, so that there’s an unconscious fantasy of taking possession of someone who is perfect — as if that’s the way to solve your own problems. The sort of person you’re describing has no real identity, as you say, so they try to become someone else, all at once. I’ve had clients who start talking like me, adopting my vocal inflections, using words I use. It’s often because they have no hope that any kind of change could occur little by little over time; they also feel hopeless about the extent of their own damage, hopeless that anything can be done about it, so they try to start all over, from scratch, with a different identity entirely.

      But I was also thinking about the kind of merging of identities that occurs in romantic love, where people escape from all their internal pain into a fantasy of perfect union with someone who is ideal.

  12. TPG says:

    Love your new video blog over at PsychCentral, and very glad to see the link to this website. It’s quite spectacular in many ways, not the least of which is your ability and willingness to engage with your readers. May it result both in enlightenment for readers and many referrals for you!

    I wanted to continue a thread here I’d started at PC. I wrote about how you responded to personal questions at the outset of therapy, and you wrote back how you tended not to answer, but to explore their origins. Your answer pointed right to the issue of transference (and explicitly, to people knowing you through your website and blog). Which is how I found my way here.

    My question in response is this (I asked it over at PC, it hasn’t been posted yet, and it’s just fine if you answer it here instead of there): it’s been a principle of American childrearing and American education, especially among good liberals and Democrats, that we teach our children never to judge anyone or prejudge anyone until we get to know them. In the hoaried aphorism, ‘Never assume; you’ll make an ass of u and me.”

    Many of us have taken this to heart. The school janitor could have be Good Will Hunting, or have a cum laude college degree and a million dollars in a stock fund (I personally know someone like that!),the Republican legislator could be a closet swinger, the couples therapist could have a dreadful sex life, the kid who got into Harvard could have paid someone else to take her/his SATs, the black kid in the hoodie in Sanford, Florida is probably just minding his own business….

    You get the drift.

    I wonder what the therapeutic implications of this are.

    For me, it’s very, very hard to develop or allow to develop any feelings about a person who shares practically zero of him/herself — i.e. a therapist — except as related to their listening skills, talking skills, and wisdom/off-the-mark-ness of their interpretations. Not til they share something of their hearts and lives. Other than that, since I know nothing about them, why guess, when guessing makes an ass out of me, and prejudice is obviously not a positive value.

    In Buberian terms, there are mostly those with whom my relationship is I-It, and a precious few with whom it is I-Thou. For the I-Thou to develop, and for me to have I-Thou-ish feelings (sorry, Martin! That’s incredibly inelegant and reductionist), I need to know the person. Otherwise, the skew is to I-It.

    I look forward to your thoughts, and can’t wait to look further through your website.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Sorry for the delay in approving both your comments here as well as on my blog at PsychCentral. As I explained in my response over there, I do eventually share details but consider them almost entirely unrevealing. Even if they never know all the external information about my life, my clients come to know me on a much deeper level than many friends and acquaintances. You get to know the more important “details” about me: my emotional capacities, what matters to me on a psychological level, how reliable I am over time, whether I can bear with you when the going gets tough, etc.

      • Erika says:

        Wow, this is the most enlightening perspective I have ever encountered re: whether or not we “know” our therapists in spite of the “blank screen” they maintain with their patients. As a client, I have felt envious of imagined random people who are not my therapist’s clients, but who get to share small talk in the grocery store line or hair salon with her, or more particularly those who get to share meals or activities with her. I’ve really had a hard time understanding how I’m supposed to trust someone I know “so little about.” Your post makes me reconsider all of this; perhaps I know much more about her than even those people she invites to dinner parties…. Thank you. This may really help me move through my trust issues.

        • Joseph Burgo says:

          Good. I hope so! I often think my clients know the very best part of me in fairly intimate ways (though they probably have little sense of what I’m like when I’m angry, irritable, self-absorbed, etc.) And what’s so great making small talk anyway?

          • TPG says:

            It’s a bit of a false definition to call the kinds of truths that we share about ourselves, about the things that lead to the attitudes we have, our histories, our secrets, our hopes and fears, our faith in God or lack thereof., “small talk.” Actually, it’s big talk. And without it, I know that I can never know a person at all, no matter how connected, psychological, or interpretive that person appears to be.

  13. Zoe says:

    Wow, what a great blog. I kind of just stumbled upon it and am glad I have…I just bookmarked it and will be back. I am going through a hard time in therapy at the moment. I suspect after much reading that I may have borderline tendencies. I am currently inwardly raging that my therapist didn’t return an email I wrote to her last week but promptly returned an email requesting an additional session this week. She is a good therapist (my rational self knows this) and I think she knows that after each session I feel separation anxiety with the need to reach out via email with detailed accounts of new revelations I have had. She is trying to get me to not need her so much, I think, maybe that is why she doesn’t always reply. I may have also freaked her out somewhat, in that I confessed to her that I feel attracted to her. I have no agenda with her (my rational side always keeps me in check…), but I felt I needed to bring it up since it makes me feel uncomfortable (I am married with kids). I have sexual abuse (female babysitter) and abandonment (father) and emotional neglect (mother) in my past and I am constantly wondering how all this ties together. I also have a daughter with Asperger’s and wonder if there are epigentic ties to my high stress cortisol levels and her issues…which makes me feel so bad. I now am wondering about these bisexual tendencies and I just feel that I am a mess. I think about my therapist a lot, I admire her, love her, then resent her and think her responses to me seem contrived and stupid. I am in school right now, coming up on finals, and studying is impossible with all my emotional baggage dragging behind me. I appreciate your thoughts on transference, and look forward to delving into other posts here on your site.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I hope your therapist can wade into all these feelings with you. Having a safe relationship where you can feel and express such confused emotions is a big part of growth in therapy. I understand about your “rational” side keeping you in check, but you probably need to keep your therapist informed about the different ways you feel about her, at different times.

      • Zoe says:

        Thank you for replying. I know I should probably keep her updated on my feelings but they change so often and tend to be positive when I am with her, negative when I am away from her. I think if I were to be totally honest with her that I would get terminated fairly quickly, because it’s scary to be around someone who is so volatile emotionally. I never raise my voice or physically act out in any way, but if I were to tell her that one minute I fantasize about her then the next minute she reminds me of those stupid vacant cheerleaders from highschool, she would probably politely refer me to another therapist, which would not matter in the least because I would probably develop transference for him/her too. So I may as well just stay where I am and not reveal too too much, and I will feel out the situation as it goes along. But I will keep your advice in the back of my head in case I am feeling particularly brave during a session…

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          If your therapist actually did refer you out because you told her how you really felt, you’d be better off with somebody else.

          • Zoe says:

            I guess that is the answer I expected…but I love her too much (yes I get that it’s not “real” love) to say the hurtful things I feel…sometimes my thoughts are brutal.

  14. sarebear says:

    Over a year ago, I told my med-check only but she often did 10-15 min mini-therapy along with that (unwanted, I have a psychologist) that I was afraid of her because my mother used to hit me. I thought framing it that way would be understandable by a psychiatrist, and show some insight on my part.

    She yelled at me, and harangued me with a series of attacking questions, and I emotionally curled up into a little ball, into survivor mode, ironically just like I’d do when my mom used to hit me as a teen, and answered in the ways I thought would get me through it faster.

    I was trying to improve our therapeutic relationship, having realized that my fear was interfering in it.

    She was SO offended, yelling that she wasn’t my mother, did she look like my mother, and stuff. You know, even if she DOESN’T believe in the concept of transference, she could have set aside her personal objections, and the transference part of telling her, and heard the, “I’m afraid of you,” part, and dealt with that. But she didn’t.

    Ironically (since I think she’d disagree with the insights I’ve gained from her) I’ve recently learned some things myself because of her, that I’m grateful for; I believe learn what you can from who you can, even if the experience may suck at the time, there’s always something to learn.

    http://sarebear.typepad.com/blog/2012/02/what-you-need-isnt-always-what-you-want.html

  15. Nance says:

    I’ve been struggling with transference in my relationship with my own (male) therapist for years. I’ve definitely had what I consider one of the more obvious manifestations of transference–a feeling of attraction. This ranges from a somewhat general sexual interest to a wish to be taken care of by him. I felt ashamed to find myself feeling this way and did not “confess” any of it until it had been going on a long time. He did have a proper, professional reaction when I explained it, and he has explained to me a few times why transference is a valuable tool. At the same time, quite often I have waves of shame about my vulnerability and feel humiliated that I am so dependent on him. It is worse when I see other clients coming and going, for example, or observe any other reminders of his life outside of my session. Once I inadvertently learned some details about his wife that made me feel inadequate, and ever since I have struggled with jealousy of her (even though I have never seen her and he doesn’t talk about her). I think these things remind me that what I experience for 50 minutes is a substitute for a “real” relationship, and that when I leave, and I am vulnerable and aching, he is on to the next person. I sometimes think that if I could keep a better emotional distance from him, that if I didn’t care how he felt about me, I wouldn’t suffer through these endless mini-rejections. Any comments are welcome. Thank you!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      As painful as it would be, these feelings you’re having need to be taken up in your treatment. How you feel about needing someone, the shame you feel about dependency, your struggles with jealousy — these are all therapeutic issues and the transference is the place to understand them. I realize this is “easier said than done,” but eventually, all these feelings will become more bearable, less agonizing, and you can manage them much better.

  16. Nance says:

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, I realize that there is a lot of work to be done in my therapy. My concern is that it’s been a long time since my therapist and I acknowledged the transference in our relationship, but I’ve never felt much relief from painful emotions. Sometimes I wonder whether it would have been better not to confess my feelings to him. So I’m wondering, (1) Is it possible that the benefit of transference as a therapeutic tool is overstated on your side of the couch (so to speak)? and (2) Should the therapist be addressing the transference issues head-on, or do the changes occur more gradually? How do I know he’s in control of it?

    Thank you. I discovered your ‘blog recently and have read many of the entries. I appreciate the careful and thoughtful writing.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Once an intense transference like yours develops, it becomes a focus of the work. Every session would include some reference to it, the ways that whatever you’re talking about also applies to the relationship between you. An occasional reference to the transference fails to make use of it as a primary tool for understanding and working through core issues.

  17. Anon says:

    I just had a very difficult experience when my therapist of 15 years went on vacation. He is also getting older and has recently cut back his hospital hours. He has told me that he is not retiring any time soon but I got really concerned. I pretty much decompensated and was hospitalized. I have not been a hospital for 15 years. It was pretty awful. Post hospitaliztion, my immediate reaction was to terminate therapy with him. He feels that I experienced transference neurosis. After three weeks, post hospitalization, I decided to go back to see him to discuss options. I hate my dependency feelings toward him. I am very worried that I will never resolve my abandonment/ dependency issues and will end up stuck alone with these issues.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It sounds as if your therapist may understand the concept of transference neurosis but not how to work with it in treatment. It takes time and needs to be a focus of the work you do. For instance, there would need to be observations made about how you’re reacting during the lead-up to his vacation, probably quite a lot of them given the strength of your reaction. Then there would be a lot of discussion about how you coped during his absence, and how long it takes you to “recover” once he’s back.

  18. Anon says:

    Thank you.

  19. iTunes says:

    I do not know whether I had attachment or transference, but when I exited therapy … I hit rock bottom and have been upset for three months. When I went to talk to therapist, she looked at me like “a deer in headlights”. I told her I either had attachment or transference issues.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It seems that so few therapists actually know how to understand and work with the transference. They recognize it but don’t know what to do with it. I’m so sorry.

  20. iTunes says:

    Thank you for your understanding. I think what has compounded my issue of transference/attachment … boundaries were crossed. I think and correct me if I’m misunderstanding boundaries. The receiving of many text, emails and one phone call (having nothing to do with therapy) during and after exiting therapy have compounded my sadness. It was after exiting therapy while still receiving emails, I decided to go back and talk to therapist about transference/attachment. This is when therapist entire attitude changed and I felt I had messed up … my gut said we had both messed up. Can or does boundary crossing cause transference/attachment to be more painful?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, it can. The communications that went on due to poor boundaries had communicated the message that you were accepted and deserving of this special kind of treatment; then your therapist yanked it away from you. Rejection.

      • iTunes says:

        Thank you Dr. Joe … You are so right I feel rejected and by someone I trusted. How do you stop feeling that I earned the rejection I received because of some fault in my personality?
        Perhaps boundary crossing or rejection might be another subject for your blog. This senior citizen thanks you … ;)

  21. Rose says:

    Thank you for your suggestions and practical help here on your blog.
    I am a therapist and having to deal with issues of transference and counter-transference in one client. I would like to express my viewpoint on these very important aspects. It is true that such a transference arising in a client is fundamentally helpful with the potential to heal. But a couple of points: 1. The client needs to WANT to heal this aspect in the therapeutic and life situation (intention to heal), and 2. The therapist needs to be able to look at those deep unhealed places within him/her, without blame or judgement, just accepting that they are present and may be mirrored in client(s). If 2. happens in a deep way, then the therapist does not counter-transfer onto the client and can accept the mirror of their own projections and seek appropriate supervision/therapy for themself.
    However, some clients come to therapy with such deep pain, hate and bitterness that it is hard to be the object of such feelings. Therapists are human beings, not gods or angels. In this case peer support and supervision becomes vital for the practitioner so that they are able to process their feelings and then deal with the client’s hate and anger. So, it’s a big responsibility for one’s own healing and cleaning to be a therapist.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, it is a big responsibility, and you make some excellent suggestions for how to cope with it. Thanks!

  22. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for replying to my questions on such depth,
    You actually helped to clarify exactly what I thought and knew the answers to be,
    I actually hoped to be wrong as the truth hurts, I am sadened to know and to experience that a therapist can abuse his power in such ways.
    What I meant about the clients consent was as the client do we have the right to consent to what treatment after observation your therapist can use, such as mi/ motivational interviewing, I found this treatment manipulative, patronizing also almost chid like,
    Would I be right in saying so? I put alot of my questions forward but all I got was silence, as I too feel this is a form of manipulation feigning ignorance,
    As I believe a therapist is there to help you to explore your concerns even if the concerns was to do with his countertransference.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think you have a right to ask whatever questions you want, to raise any issues that matter to you, and if you feel you’re not getting the answers or understanding you need, to leave. Therapy is a consensual relationship between two people; if you feel manipulated and misunderstood, move on.

  23. Sun says:

    I have gotten a lot out of your post. Working with transference is it normal for a therapist to remind the client that it a professional relationship?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s not something I would do. That sounds like the therapist is treating the client’s feelings as a distortion or misperception of the “professional relationship,” rather than real and meaningful in their own right.

  24. Therapist person says:

    Thank you for posting on issues of narcissistic therapists. I had a collegue that did just what you mentioned and it made me ill. work at a community clinic where we have an area for people to hang out and he would even try and help people on the side and would tell me “such and such wants to transfer to me”. He would tell them I wasn’t doing a good job and he would fix things. he even took on a client that named their child after him (he helped them in a previous role case management) when another therapist left. He approached the client and asksed if they wanted to work with him vs giving them the choice to pick a therapist. He would take calls in therapy sessions (administrative ones), walk in and out of groups we were co-leading to take important calls, do notes on his computer while it was my turn to co-lead. As one provider told me “he treats his clients like a rag doll” in regards to putting them in with whatever doctor he thought was best vs who they were working with at the time. Lets just say he was unethical (huge power issues) and he is now at a new job. new job though is still a therapist, and still administrative and in charge. go figure.

    • Therapist person says:

      wanted to add he knew the person had named their child after him and even after that wanted to take them on. he loved the attention and being idealized. it was so ill!!!in a group we co-lead he would also use his power and relationship w/a probation officer to indimidate the clients in that particular group (was an offender group)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      There’s unfortunately no shortage of bad therapists out there. He sounds like a pretty blatant narcissist.

  25. aoife says:

    Hi, I’ve just turned 18. I think I am experiencing trnsference with my CBT therapist. I went to her about 10 times the last one being 1 month go, but she told me I can ring her whenever I want. When the transference started my other issues started to fade and that’s why I decided to end the therapy. I never told her how I felt about her I was way too embarased and anyhow I didn’t understand it then. I really admire her but it is not in a sexual way at all, I just like her as person and I guess I want her to care about me and know me. I think about her all the time and I hate it! It really saddens me to think that I will never see her again, but I have to pass her office a lot as it is very near where I live. Will this feeling eventually pass? She is female as am I and she’s in her fifties, is it awfull weird that an 18 year old feels this way about an older women? Since I was about 12 I have had various “crushes” on older women especially teachers and no I don’t have and major issues with my own mother, also the crushes are never sexual. I very vaguely mentioned this to my therapist and she told me it was normal. Now my previous issues are starting to resurface again and I want to contact my therapist but I’m afraid maybe I’m just looking for a reason to ring her. Any comment would be appriciated. Thank you.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I understand your therapist’s wish to “normalize” your experience so you feel no shame about it, but a pattern of such crushes certainly has a deeper meaning. I’d question your statement that you don’t have any major issues with your own mother; the fact that you seem to be looking for a substitute suggests that something was missing.

      I expect the feeling will pass with time, although it sounds like it might resurface in relationship to someone else. Maybe you need to seek out a psychodynamic (not CBT-oriented) therapist who can help you explore this area.

  26. anon says:

    I gather from what your write that there is a “real” component of the relationship between therapist and client. But how does one distinguish between what is real and what is transference? I have developed a strong attachment to my therapist, and really feel a close connection and bond when we are together. How do I know that is real? How do I know my therapist feels it also? Is it ok to ask her ? I have hinted around it but she has never come out and told me how she feels about me, or how our realtionship compares with her other clients. Fundamentally this is such an important issue to me because it tells me that either a)my feelings for her are real, and are reciprocated (which would be great) or b) my transference is stronger than I thought, and I have alot of work to do.
    If I could pose another (somewhat related) question – I worry that this could progress into an erotic transference – if it did I would want to leave therapy, especially if it interefered with my ability to get the work done. Is there any way to prevent this from happening? And if it does happen – what criteria should I use to “tell me when I should go”.
    Sorry for the long post – these questions are consuming my thoughts and your opinion would really help.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “close connection and bond.” As you go on, when you refer to the other clients, it sounds as if you mean it’s something special, and different from what she would usually have with her clients. That could be a fantasy, an aspect of transference, but if she really does feel something special and it’s heading toward mutual sexual feelings, you’re in trouble.

      But if not, there’s nothing wrong with an erotic transference and it’s not a reason to end therapy. It needs to be understood. Reading your comments, my intuition tells me that you’re having trouble being needy and dependent upon your adored therapist for help, deeply attached to her when you are but one of many clients; your fantasy of a special relationship with her saves you from those feelings, and the developing erotic feelings put you on an adult level, rather than feeling, say, like a baby with siblings.

      • Kate says:

        4 years ago, I went to see my GP for my tennis elbow. I had received various treatments, unsuccessful. He wanted to refer me for further treatment, but I refused. He then started to ask me some questions, age, degree…It seemed to me that he was sort of making his mind up. He then sat back and made eye contact. I remember clearly thinking: ‘ I’m not going to look away. I need help. The next thing that came to mind was ‘you’ve got beautiful eyes’. I also remember feeling my heart chackra open. (It felt like when you pull a muscle).
        We had a long chat and he referred me for psychodynamic therapy. I have to add that he also is a trained homeopath, accupuncturist, provocative therapist, hypnothist and therefore has a holistic approach to medicine. At the end of the consultation, I thanked him and he said: you probably thank me for not giving you a cortisone injection. I replied that I might have declined. He said that I wouldn’t as he is the doctor and know best. I made a face that silently said ‘yeah, right’ at wich he laughed.
        I started therapy. I found the therapist very cold, no handshake. I transfered my father on to her (an intelligent man, very occupied with his work). I brought this in a dream as her sitting behind a desk. She asked me why it was that clients always transferred their father onto her, as she was not sitting behind a desk.
        I also started to talk to her about the very strong connection I felt with my GP. It became clear that she didn’t approve of his way of working. I did tell her that I wanted to talk about him (I had felt like this before with my first boyfriend at the very young age of 15).
        She told me that I should talk to her, that she knows him, but are no friends. I couldn’t, so I left.
        I went to see a provocative therapist (his teacher , fellow doctor and homeopath). He did say that it had happened to him that he was attracted to a client and that he had managed to refer her to another therapist ( I remember thinking, did he tell her the reason, as surely she must have felt something).
        The next therapist I saw, said that I shouldn’t start an affair, as that would not be good for his carrier. I responded by saying that I have a lot of respect for my husband (28 years together) and that I do not believe in affaires ( my GP had done some workshops with this therapist and also knows her doctor brothers).
        In the meantime I continued to see my GP. I found this all very confusing. I told him about me feeling my hartchackra open, about the beautiful eyes, which I didn’ t understand as I do not think he has beautiful eyes. I’m not physically attracted to him. I remember a few coments:’that’s not something you normally hear in a doctors practise, I could be struck off, you with your antennas, I can not help you, you are very sensitive…).
        I would like to add that whenever I needed a physical excamination, I would see one of the female doctors.
        I also would like to add that all the other therapists helped me with my other issues (inappropriate touching by babysitter, emotional neglect by parents…)
        I read about love transference and counter transference, but for some reason it only ressonated with me when I changed the words of ‘therapist’ with ‘patient’. I very much recognize that it happens unconsciously and that it has a purpose. I have no problem with it, it seems to be useful tool, if dealt with it properly. I find it scarry though that so many therapist still find it uncomfortable to deal with. If trained therapist do not know how to deal with it, what about all the other professions in care taking ? ( in my case a GP). I have no doubt that my GP realized what had happened and worked on it. I do find it very frustrating that their didn’t seem to be a possibility to have a honest two way conversation. I do have the need to understand what has happened. I know they take the oath, but is it not more harmful not to talk about it? It certainly feels that everybody is walking on eggshells.
        I’ ve now come to think (after 4 years) that maybe the roles have been reversed and that I had a counter transference. I find this quite unsettling as I have no training. And maybe I am just delusional. Also for once in my life I would like to be looked after. It very much seems to be the red line in my life that people supposed to look after me, don’t (be it patents or professionals).
        I really feel their is a need to adress this issue in an more open environment.

  27. anon says:

    Thank you for your reply. Ihave read and re-read it many times. You are right on many levels. I do have a strong attachment to my therapist, and am starting to let myself need her in ways I have never felt with anyone before. She has never done or said anything inappropriate, but has agreed with me that there is a chemistry between us that would likely exist independent of this theapy. Why is it so important for me (or any client) to feel that there is something unique and special just between us? Thank you especially for saying there is nothing wrong with erotic transference. I can’t tell you how frustrated/angered I have been with myself that I could even entertain such feelings.

  28. matrix says:

    Thanks for your post. I recently started going to therapy about 6 weeks ago, and right away I started to feel transference for my therapist (who is the same sex as I am). This has happened to me since I was a teenager… with certain teachers, a former boss, my veterinarian … and I never knew what it was until I somehow came across it in a google search recently after starting therapy. This made me feel infinitely better because most of those scenarios of transference were erotic (including with my current therapist) which always threw me for a loop because I’m heterosexual. I felt a great sense of relief though once I could put a “name” to it.

    I’ve read as much as I can on the issue of transference and know I have to talk about it with my therapist. The thought of doing this is humiliating/mortifying even though logically I know what it is, that I really don’t have those sort of feelings for my therapist, and even more importantly, she should be completely understanding and receptive to the whole conversation.

    That said, how does the conversation start? Does she know at this point that I have feelings of transference? I know therapists are not mind readers, but is it likely that she suspects it? What will working through my transference issues look like? Will I have to tell her all the details? I almost wish she would simply address it herself.

    Also, can you please explain the relationship between a therapist and client a bit better ? I read that it is a “real’ relationship between two people, but how can that be if the therapist is obligated to always be in “professional” mode? You hear that it is one of the most intimate relationships you could have – and I get that due to the volume of personal information you have to share – but do therapists feel that way, too? I’m just new to therapy and am still learning what to expect.

    I am very thankful for the strict professional boundaries in which therapists have to keep of not disclosing personal information about themselves, and I have been very good to not engage in small talk at the end of my sessions so as to prevent learning more information than I should. This takes self control on my part because it’s part of my nature to actively get to know someone. I feel rude not doing it but know it’s a necessity. I have an incredible memory for personal details for folks, and coupling that with transference issues, would be a very bad combination. Anyhow, I would appreciate your feedback and am thankful for your taking the time to respond to my post.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know if I can answer all your questions, but the transference feelings you’re describing are probably a defense against some other feelings. Often you see the erotic transference come up because it feels better (in an odd way) to experience sexual desire as one adult for another, rather than to feel small and needy, like a baby in relation to her mother. In other words, the erotic transference is often a defense against the infantile transference.

      I can’t explain how it’s possible for the relationship to be both professional and intimate, how we can feel extremely close to our clients without revealing a lot of detail about ourselves, but it is. I feel as if my long-term clients know me extremely well, even better than many people in my personal life, even if they don’t know the external facts.

  29. News Of Hope says:

    My journey in analysis started 5 years ago which our sessions were conducted on a daily basis. 2 sessions in person 5 phone sessions 7 days a week for 5 years and it has saved my life. Why so much ? The psychological trauma through out my life were devastating and led me to life threatening addictions that were killing me. I say all of this because analysis works however there seems to be another problem created by this intense work.
    The last year my rage towards the therapist has risen 10 folds to the point that I want to hurt myself to hurt her and am more angry these feelings of anger towards her were not resolved by our sessions. I communicated my anger and said I don’t want to hurt myself to hurt you and left every session disappointed, Angry and worthless. Is my analysis finished and need a different kind of therapy which she is not giving me and is creating anger for me ? I want to learn and am done talking about the past any thoughts would be appreciated

    Prior to this journey I was

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s hard to know how to answer your questions without hearing how your therapist is addressing this anger. Her ability to tolerate your anger and the interpretations she makes about it would be the key to working it through.

  30. Helena says:

    I started to read your posts these days, and it’s so inspiring, and want to say thank you for your insight as a therapist by yourself and also thank people above who shared their valuable stories.

    As I read through comments, I was deeply surprised by aoife’s comment, because I have exactly the same issues with her.

    I’m having a counseling in my college, not exactly a psychotherapy, but anyway…
    I started my counseling the last spring because of depressive and numb feelings I had, and had about 10 sessions, then I temporarily quitted because of the two months of travelling promising I’ll come back, but I didn’t go back to her for an year before I developed anxiety and panic attacks, and many somatoform symptoms this year. 15 sessions are usually the maximum amount for the counseling center in my college, and I thought about termination after I got somewhere around 10 sessions(yes, again!), because my anxiety symptoms certainly got better and because I felt I had nothing more to talk about myself thinking that she knows me enough, and because I was afraid that I’ll be too dependent on her. She said she doesn’t agree that I don’t have nothing more to say, but since the issues I have needs a long process which has more to do with the real-life practice, but I can’t have this counseling for years given the circumtances of her(she’s pregnant. 6 months), of me(I’ll be graduating in an year), and of the counseling center, which is the limit of the college counseling, she said.

    So we went to the termination process, and tomorrow is the final session(the 15th session). But during her 3-week vacation after we agreed to terminate, I found I developed transference towards her.

    I have had so many crushes on significantly older teachers and professors from 30s and even to 50s in their lives since I was a middle school student and until now(22 years old). While all my friend somehow found so-called “adult attachment” in their life, almost all the people I fell in love were “untouchable” people like teachers, professors, and my best friends(these days, but mostly were authority figures), most of them being females(same as I am). I tried to date with guys or girls around my age, thinking that I’ll develop emotion towards them but it never worked. Also, the emotion towards authority figures was always serious, but the funny thing is that everytime I moved into a new environment, I found a new love. And here it comes again, I have a crush on my counselor!

    Those 4 sessions after the vacation were most intensive than 20 sessions I had earlier. Somehow I’m now so into the couseling, thinking about the session and her all the day. I was rather a passive client before. I just went to the counseling, I didn’t write a journal, nor tried to think what she said outside her room after the session, but somehow these days I come up with a lot of insights about myself (maybe too much), and keep journaling after the session. Also, I feel our relationship became more intimate ever, because I opened up myself these days. And I became so dependent on her. When somthing occured to me in my daily life, I feel like it’s meaningful only if I tell her about it, waiting for the session all the week. Moreover, even my future career has been greatly influenced, although I recognize it might be because I want to replicate this relationship, acting as if I’m her, being a therapist myself, and might be because I’m addicted to this relationship, being seen, as you mentioned on other post.

    I told these feelings to her last session and she didn’t say something special except she said “It must have been hard to say this.”. It’s so funny I feel such a deep and complex emotion towards her regarding that I have no idea about her personality at all nor about her personal information except her job and her name. It’s especially true because she’s CBT-oriented, so about 90% of the time, the talking person is me, and her job is usually to throw a question, to repeat my statement, or sometimes to scold me if I have self-destructive thoughts.

    Thinking about the relationship with my mom as you advised on aoife’s comment, maybe it’s because I seek for the “perfect mom” from them. All the women I had crushes had something in common: they seemed emotionally stable, charismatic, self-confident, and calm, while the main issue between my mom and me is our unstable relationship- she’s so happy and loves me at some moment, and very next moment she curses and yells at me being upset with something I say. For example, she told me to clean my room, and I said I’ll do it later because I was so tired, then she suddenly yells at me, swearing some bad words. Also, she’s obsessed with my personal life to a great degree, but at the same time if I whine a little bit when I have a hard time, she says it’s not her business, and I should deal with the problem by myself and not annoy her with my own emotional problem.

    Back to the relationship with my counselor, I was shocked by my own emotion that I even feel jealous when I see her belly, because the fact she’s pregnant reminds me that she has another person in a committed relationship who knows her true-self while I can’t interact with her in a “normal” way, and I won’t be able to see her after the termination tomorrow because she’ll quit, at least take a rest from her job after giving birth and I’m gonna graduate, so I might not be able to see her in my life ever.

    I know this feeling towards my counselor will dissappear as time goes by as it did with many other people, but I’m so tired of this recurring relationships, and just want to move on to more mature, adult, reciprocal relationship, not one-sided, fan-like ones.

    (I’m sorry about all the grammatical mistake. English is my second language and though I have no hard time understanding your posts, writing correctly is much harder!)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I understand that you want to have more reciprocal relationships, but what you need is a therapist who can tolerate and explore these feelings with you. You need to regress and feel like a baby with a therapist who can help you with those feelings. It sounds as if you have some good insights into the origin of those feelings; you need someone who can further your understanding of them, and that won’t be a cognitive-behaviorist. You need someone with a psychodynamic orientation.

  31. LISKA says:

    I AM NEW. FIND MY TRANSFERENCE INTERFERS WITH RESOLVING MANY ISSUES.
    WHEN I BROUGHT UP MY FEELINGS OF THIS TRANSFERENCE MY PSYCHIATRIST BECAME QUIET AND DID NOT RESPOND. I FELT DEPRESSED AND THE ROOM WAS SILENT. I THINK AFTER TWO YEARS WITH THIS DOCTOR THAT HE FEEL THATSILENCE MEANS NO COMMENT. I FEEL UNABLE TO GET AT CAUSES OF MY
    PROBLEMS WITH HIS TECHNIQUES. I WAS DIAGNOSED AFTER YEARS OF
    DRUG MAINTENANCE AND THERAPY. I FEEL I AM MORE THAN IDEATION OF
    SERIOUS BEHAVIOR. WHAT CAN I DO TO REMEDY THIS SITUATION?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      If you’re having a strong transference reaction and your psychiatrist doesn’t know how to deal with it, you might need to find someone else. Most mental health professional don’t really understand how to work with the transference.

  32. Francesca says:

    I am not a regular reader, I came across your site in the prices of trying to work something out for myself, and you seem like you might be qualified to answer, I hope you can help. I have been the family scapegoat and have serious physical and mental health problems. One reason for this is becoming more and more clear to myself and others: I have a narcissistic mother. One reason it took a while to realize it is that she is also a psychoanalyst. I cannot for the life of me understand how she trained for 10 years at a respected institute in a major world city and graduated. After her training (which included many years of analysis) she seemed to have “changed” and admitted to being narcissistic: she maintained a ‘reasonable’ though very controlled persona. However she has recently become flagrantly manipulative and has begun blatantly lying and/or just saying whatever she needs to say to look good. Essentially, it would seem she became a therapist so she could “defend herself” and put others in their place. She also mocks her (few) patients behind their backs and judges them.

    My question is: how is this even possible given the extent and supposedly personal nature of her training?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Oh my, could I tell you stories. Analytic training is no guarantee of anything, and many people who enter the profession end up constructing false “post-analysis” selves to cover over how screwed up they still are. I’m sorry.

  33. SoConfused says:

    Hi! I found your blog while doing a seach on transference. I knew there had to be something to define my “attitude” towards therapy and it appears this may be it. I’ve been in therapy for over a year with my therapist. This T seems to be the first one that I actually “connect with”. Problem is now I have a hard time accepting that I know she doesn’t think the same thing… or that the relationship is SO one-sided… I still have a long way to go in therapy and have not been able to bring myself to the point of “emotional vulnerability” that I ultimately know I will need to experience to heal. Just seems difficult knowing that I’m expected to let these walls down to someone I will never have a relationship with outside of her office, someone that would ignore me if she saw me in public, and someone that I know little about. It’s just such a different relationship dynamic. I’m not sure how to reconcile any of it. And I find myself getting upset with her for feeling that way. I’ve gone from going to therapy to recover to also wanting her to reciprocate “relationship”. Is this a bad thing? Should I stop while I’m ahead and find a new therapist? Thought maybe reaching out to another therapist may be helpful. I’m sure I’m not the first or last client that experiences this or something similar? Would LOVE to hear your opinion or thoughts on if I’m completely wacky or somewhat normal with this… and what to do about it!? Thanks!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Your feelings aren’t so unusual. Part of it is just the peculiar nature of the psychotherapy relationship, but some of it may be transference. My suggestion would be to take it up with your therapist and be as candid as you possibly can.

  34. Mariah says:

    Hi, I am currently seeing a new therapist, maybe a few months now. I feel a so many different emotions towards him (attraction, anger, frustration, empathy) and so on. My gut tells me something is not right. One, he tells me he does not believe in transference and the unconscious concerning transference. The first time I felt extreme underlying anger from him. Then he started making comments about me. “You don’t realize how better your hair looks when it is down”. “Oh, the things I would like to do to you” and so on. At first, I found this very exciting, flattering and almost erotic. Then, I go onto think this is a bad situation, a road leading to disaster. For some reason, I still feel a strong sense of transference towards him. knowing perfectly well all this stuff going on is dead wrong. I left him once already and have since come back. I don’t feel like we accomplish much. Perhaps due to the fact that we are both projecting some level of transference onto each other. I will feel badly if I leave again. I think I will miss him. I know I cannot personally help him and that he surely needs help himself. Do you think I can speak with him about this? In addition to the whole mess, I asked him if he was attracted to me and he said no. I think he said this, because he had to refer me to a colleague for medication and doesn’t want to get into trouble. I would never purposely report him or try to get him into trouble. I am confused and know the right answer, but don’t want to leave. Any advice on how to make a clean escape?

  35. Tammy says:

    Hi,

    I enjoyed your post, and I would be happy to hear your opinion… My husband and I started going to a developmental psychologist, for help with dealing with our son’s problems. The psychologist delved into our world, our difficulties and shortcomings, not only talking about our son. And slowly but surely, I started feeling very strong transference towards him.
    I started reading about it and tried to get over it myself, during his 3-week vacation. I thought that I had gotten through it, but when he came back and the sessions resumed, I felt enormous pain, and that I just couldn’t deal with these feelings any longer.
    So the next session I went alone and talked to him about what I was going through, although at first I didn’t mention transference, only talked about my feelings of confusion, frustration , etc., during the process of our therapy, and also about my realization that I need to start opening up to people…
    At some stage he asked my “So what exactly have you been going through during these 3 weeks”, and it took me awhile, but eventually I managed to whisper “Transference.. but I’ve gotten over it, and that’s it” (although later I realized that I wasn’t completely over it..)
    He suggested that I go to another therapist to deal with my personal issues (not sure if he meant in addition or instead of our sessions..). I was disappointed, which he noted, and said that he could try to deal with my issues during our sessions.
    During the next session (with my husband), I felt very awkward and I wasn’t very cooperative; moreover our therapist seemed uneasy, distracted, like he wasn’t really there.
    I think I may even have felt dislike towards him, and he towards me.. Which is perplexing and saddening….Perhaps it was because of my husband’s presence….

    I’m not sure what to do now – should I ask him about continuation of therapy with him?

    I feel that I may have taken our therapy to directions that weren’t supposed to happen…or that I may be extending therapy duration when it was supposed to over already (our son is receiving occupational therapy and speech therapy… We continued parental guidance with the therapist because I really enjoyed it, and felt that it was important to me…I enjoy the “delving in” and the insights from it….. it is beneficial to me as a mother and a person, but it may be out of his scope?…..).

    Thanks very much!

  36. Sharon Sapen says:

    Hi!
    I have now discovered your blog and I congratulate you: it’s great!
    And this post is very clear, complete and interesting!
    I want to ask you something:
    A psychologist can create transference with those who are not his patient?
    Let me explain: if a psychologist makes me compliments and tells me I am a special person (and who has achieved it due to his great knowledge of psychology) this creates in me the transference even though I am not his client but only friend ?

    Thank you very much!

    Sharon

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know if I would call that particular example a transference, but the transference is a regular occurrence in everyday life, between all sorts of people (not just therapists). I should probably write a post about that topic.

  37. raylin says:

    First time reading this blog, Please let me know if my thoughts are okay or not. I’m a 32 year divorced female. My therapist is a female too shes about 60.
    In the outside of therapy I’m a very happy person have lots of friends, have a good job, my friends call me for advice, have a wonderful son etc. what nobody knows is that I’m numb inside i don’t cry i don’t feel joy i guess its a way of coping i have to much pride to show anyone that i have issues. when I started therapy i never believed i would open up and become so vulnerable, i started feeling I didn’t know how to deal with it, I imagine her being my mom, I love when she treats me like a child, I’m feeling so attached to her, i hate leaving therapy, She knows i have 2 parts to myself my smart competent side, and my vulnerable little girl side, i told her openly how i feel and i think something is wrong with me. she believes my attachment to her is because she is the only one who believes in me knowing all my secrets she claims once i will heal i won’t be so dependent on her! I’m not sure if i will ever heal and i can’t imaging myself living without her in my life! shes my rock. am i i sick or something that i like the fact when my therapist treats me like a child? and find excuses to call her and sometimes and lie to get her love and attention strictly in a motherly way not sexual at all.
    please be honest with me.

  38. Sarah says:

    I’ve recently started to feel like my therapist is throwing a monkey wrench in my progress and I don’t know why. The last couple of sessions I have gone in feeling great, and came out feeling angry and resentful. The issue is that I am getting a lot of recovery out of AA, a 12 step program, and I talk about my progress in session. I talk about how things are going well and it seems like he always has some sort of caution or criticism about 12 step programs. Believe me, I get the criticism. They aren’t perfect. But for me personally, they are helping me immensely. So shouldn’t he wait until I’m NOT doing well to throw in warnings about 12 step programs? Why would he say anything to disturb the progress I am making unless, on some level, he is resentful that the 12 step program is helping me more than he is.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You may be right. I hope you’re sharing your concerns with him about the way his remarks are affecting you.

  39. Johannes Pomegranate says:

    Is it considered ethical as a therapist who knows all the possible outcomes and that a client might “fall in love” with them to repeatedly lead clients into this hole and then turn abandon them. If so what is going through the therapists head?

    Shouldn’t a therapist at least tell the client about transference if the client doesn’t know about transference instead of leaving the client in a state of depression?

    An example would be a client who saw a therapist to help with some life struggles as well as some help getting over an X. The therapist tells the client she/he will be friends with them when the therapy ends, and the client tells the therapist his/her life story. The session lasts 7 months.

    When the therapy ends the client has an outpour of feelings and emotions for the therapist to which the therapist responds by completely “firing” the client and never talking to them again. In her/his final letter the therapist tells the client they are simply too busy and refers the client to another therapist. After this the therapist ignores all emails, and phone calls from the client. The client falls back into old patterns briefly but continues to have emotions for the therapist for months to come to which the therapist completely ignores.

    Do you think this is ethical? Is this beyond narcissism? Does the client have a right to be upset?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      This is not ethical. First of all, a therapist should never tell a client that they can be friends after therapy ends. In my view, that is never appropriate. The therapist you describes obviously doesn’t understand transference, felt uncomfortable when it came up and then got rid of the client.

      • Johannes Pomegranate says:

        So if the transference fails and the client is stuck, the therapist for whatever reason has moved on and won’t help the client, then what does a client do to become unstuck?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          If the former therapist won’t help and has moved on, there’s no choice but to find someone new, and hopefully more effective, to help.

  40. Fiona says:

    Hi there,

    I found your article very interesting and wondered if I could ask a question. From a young age I experienced strong attachments to female school teachers (I myself am female) who were kind to me, and I think I was projecting a lot of stuff onto them and although I couldn’t have said it at the time, I guess I felt mothered by them and grew attached. I was always extremely attached to my own mother and very clingy as a young child. For the past 2 years I have had a therapist who has helped me through a lot of difficult times, and I have grown very attatched to her to the extent that I miss her when not with her and imagine having conversations with her because I find the idea of being with her incredibly calming. The strength of my attatchment to her has at times made me question my sexual orientaiton or I’ve wondered if I am truly in love with her. My attachment to her is purely emotional though and not at all sexual. The idea of her being my mum is what appeals to me at a deep level rather than the idea of her being a partner. Does what I am experiencing sound like infantile transference or is it something more? I suppose I have been worried that maybe I am gay or bi because I am so attached to her, although I’ve identified my whole life as straight and never felt sexual attraction towards any woman. I do feel almost broken hearted sometimes when I miss sessions with her, and I suppose I feel embarrassed about the strength of my attachment to her. Really i do think it’s mother transference and something I should talk to her about, but I don’t really know how to approach telling her. Thank you very much for your article, Fiona age 18.

    • Fiona says:

      Also to add to my comment, with my own mother I am very attatched to her but also frightened of her, so I think that the motherliness and safetyness of my psychotherapist is what I find so comforting and desirable perhaps? And I see this as a similar explanation for why I was often attatched to female teachers as a child.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Fiona — yes, that sounds just like it’s the infantile transference. Be brave and talk to her about it. I think it could be very revealing, and probably relieving, once you get past the initial embarrassment.

  41. Sanna says:

    Hey Dr. Burgo,

    are CBT-Therapists allowed to discuss and address transference- and counter transference when it occurs? In my therapy i try to overcome a toxic relationship with a man and I noticed that I was subtly trying to make him jealous towards my sexuality. When he recently tried to explain some basic dynamics in my relationship to that particular man he seemed to become angry. I immediately pointed out that he is acting pissed off towards me but he only responded with an “yes, you´re right”, went on with his explanations and overrun the session almost 30 minutes…I feel quite irritated and misunderstood right now, especially because he won´t reply to my last email in which i considered to MAYBE stop therapy although I think we have already touched and revealed important issues.

    many regards,

    Sanna

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      As a CBT therapist, he probably doesn’t have the tools to understand transference and counter-transference.

  42. Ann Cooper says:

    I am positive that my therapist purposely was the catalyst for my erotic transference and pain initially because he wore his black chino pants so tight I could see the size and shape of his penis and testicles and after I mentioned this he turned around and wiggled his behind.
    Why would he do this. It was cruel and painful.

  43. Shaun says:

    Hi I cannot get my therapist off my mind. I get better flies in my belly every time I think of her. I am transgendered and she knows this. My relationship with my fiancé is up and down. I tried to tell her about the transference but froze up. She then guessed I had inappropriate feelings asked me and told me she is going to be ethical. My problem is I cannot get her off of my min still it drives me crazy. I have seen her 5 times since then and it hasn’t come up again. How do I get over this and move on to healthy therapy? I trust her and it took a lot for me to go to therapy. Should I start all over with someone new? Or just talk about it to start the healing process? I am so confused.

  44. A. says:

    Very interesting discussion on transference. I saw a female therapist in British Columbia Canada with my wife in 2005 and I went through all of this. According to Dr. M. Conners, I has a complete transference meltdown.

    The therapist definitely went out of her way to seduce me, very subtly. When it was all revealed she acted defensively (she is a self professed perfectionist who doesn’t make mistakes apparently). She was a registered professional, and I complained and she was required to seek supervision for six months on boundaries in couples therapy. All the while I was completely obsessed and this condition has not stopped to this very day.

    I’ve seen many therapists, including psychologists and a psychiatrist, and I still see the latter regularly. There apparently is no fix to this problem, aside from the obvious and I have a wife and three children to support.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      The cure is to develop a transference relationship with a different therapist, someone who understands how to work with it, and uncover the unconscious feelings behind it.

  45. Jeff says:

    I have been in therapy about 7 years. I am still deep in the throes of love for my therapist. She recently told me that she thinks transference has failed. What does that mean?

    Also, I have an intense desire to be friends with my therapist when my therapy is finished. I truly feel that it is she that I love, not some representation of my mother. Do you know of anyone who has had a friendship with a client after therapy is completed? If so, how did it play out?

    Thank you.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      I can’t imagine what she means that the “transference has failed.” To my mind, it sounds as if it hasn’t been worked through yet.

      In psychoanalytic training institutes, it’s often the case that former clients and their analysts come to socialize in a professional setting, but I don’t know of anyone who has successfully made the transition to friendship. For me, at least, even after all these years, the relationship is still too charged.

      • Jeff says:

        Thank you for your comments. It is discouraging to read that you don’t know of any transitions from client/therapist to friend/friend. I don’t know if she would even want to, but all I can do is hope that she and I can “beat the odds”.

  46. Renee says:

    Dear Joseph,
    I think transference abuse or boundary violations are much more common than the field acknowledges, especially for poor clients like myself. Out of seven therapists so far only one has not said or implied they were doing me a favor just for taking my insurance. Also six out of seven told me about their own problems, including what they did not like about their job and clients. When I read your articles about payments and not taking insurance, do you think as a poor client I just got what I deserved?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      No, of course not! Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad professionals in my field and you’re right about how common boundary violations and transference abuses are.

  47. Elizabeth says:

    Happened upon this site and opted to read the postings. Finding transference fascinating in a bit of a scary way. As a fairly dependent (or so I thought) mom, wife, and physician, who started therapy initially for marital discord, I would not have imagined that I could develop any dependency on an unknown entity (took some time, to be sure). In retrospect, I can see where I developed similar (transference) relationships in the past with college professors or professional mentors (similar in how I felt, not the actual interactions). If I understand all of this correctly, the feelings of dependency (no matter how mild or innocuous) will ultimately pass, right, as I become more aware of the source of my thoughts and behaviors? [Interesting that I did not describe myself as a daughter and yet the majority of folks with whom some sort of transference has more obviously occurred for me have been educated women, as was my mother].

  48. Flicker says:

    I find your article to be exactly what I needed to read. I am in therapy, and I must be in the middle of some uncomfortable transference. I am ashamed to say I check my therapist’s facebook profile and pinterest account several times a day. I used to find comfort in checking her professional profile on her website, but she took that down, so I now I just feel like a crazy web stalker. I am afraid to work through this with her. I brought up the fact that her facebook profile was not as private as she might like, and she did make some changes, but I can still access several pictures on her profile. I think her pinterest account is what is the most comforting. She pins things daily, and I check several times a day for a connection. I am nervous about bringing this up because I am embarrassed, and I can tell she enjoys these social media outlets, and I don’t want to ruin them for her. I’m not sure how to work through this horrible addiction though. I have read extensively about transference, and the information doesn’t seem to shed light for me so I can let this go. My husband and I joke about me getting a second therapist just so I can make some progress without having to tell my current therapist. DO you have any thoughts or suggestions?

  49. W says:

    Hi, I have read many of your blogs particularly in relation to attachment and transference within the therapeutic alliance. I love your thoughts and practice perspectives. They are very humane. I am one of those nightmare needy clients who develops attachment which then becomes transference and then I get overwhelmed by fear and feelings of loss. My current t has largely detached from me and now I feel caught in a cycle of seeking validation, feeling rejected and then feeling overwhelmed. How can you lessen transference. Is this level of intensity and repitition constructive and what strategies exist for reducing transference. I don’t want to seek someone new because I’ve worked so hard at building trust and exposing my vulnerabilities but I’m concerned the transference will sabotage the ts willingness to work with me. And I can’t keep feeling this way. I can’t see it as productive. Please respond.

  50. Water lilly says:

    Hi. Great blog- thanks for the information. I had a fabulous psychotherapist who i developed a really trusting, caring and deep bond with. I thought he was a very skilled and professional therapist and also saw a genuine compassionate side to him. He made me feel respected, nourished and cared for. However, suddenly out of the blue he had to end therapy with me and only then did i realise the true extent of my attachment to him. I was shattered. It is 6 months on now, but the pain has really embedded in me and naws me away inside. I am still in a state of shock and disbelief, i simply can not get over it. I lie awake all night and am preoccuped to the point of obsession with the sense of disbelief that he could do this to me and the intense feelings of abandonment. Is this normal ? what can i do to move on? I don’t want to start seeing anyone else at all except him.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      See my reply to your other comment. You might just need to continue grieving for him for a while. Eventually, you’ll let go and move on but it might take a good long while.

  51. TxSamllTwnGrl says:

    I’m a 47 yr old female who went to a 45 yr old single male therapist for grief therapy. Therapy lasted a year but transference developed during the therapy. I did not tell my therapist, rather, i gave him a lot of STRONG hints. My therapist would ask me to bring him home made desserts/treats for holidays and of course I would do that. I still see him because the clinic I go to for med checks is where he works. I also attend a frequent peer support group there. In recent months, I noticed he developed “elevator eyes” for me..Looking my body up and down when he sees me..Always seeming to find a reason to find me in the office and talk to me. He has gotten two inches from my face and asked me about bringing him xmas treats..and truly it seemed he missed me when I no showed last xmas and didn’t bring him the usual treats. He has divulged personal info about himself without my asking…Like things we have in common, the fact he is single with a son (x-wife has custody). Finally, on this last Valentines day, I made him a cheesecake he asked for, put a very generalized card inside..with my phone number. I wrote nothing else inside. I noticed afterward, his office door is always shut now..He rarely comes out to find me like he used to (but when he does, he is always kind and smiling). I feel he is now avoiding me like the plague and yes, it feels very much like rejection..isn’t it??? Meanwhile, my erotic transference for him has strangely converted to primarily thoughts of hand holding, cuddling and eye gazing with him. This conversion took place after I had a one night stand with a handsome 28 yr old guy. I feel stuck as this has been going on for over three years now (transference).

  52. Kerri says:

    I realize that therapists are human and make mistakes and am not sure if it is ok for them to get angry at their clients? My therapist is mad at me and has been mean to me and admitted it was because he is upset. I didn’t handle him forgetting to inform me until the last minute that he had to cancel a session. He knew the week before just forgot to let me know. He said my reaction ruined his weekend and he is angry?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      That sounds messed up to me. He made a mistake and then blames you for ruining his weekend? Take a good hard look at the person you’re trusting yourself to.

  53. tee says:

    Is it wrong to tell the client that you are experiencing transference with them in sessions.

  54. Jo says:

    I’m a 36 year old woman and I am finding it very difficult to get over my feelings for another woman.

    I had a difficult childhood and was in an abusive marriage for 12 years, my husband left me for another parent at the school our children went to. At the time I had support from the headteacher of that school and it felt like she was the only person who had ever listened to me, she always made time for me. She was so kind and caring it felt like she was the only person that could save me. She said she thought a lot of me and would often comment on how nice I looked, I think she knew I had low self esteem. I think we became quite close. Then suddenly it was like she she put a wall up between us, she would always reply to my emails but this time they were short and to the point. I knew I had a strong attachment to her at the time and I couldn’t understand it, I thought I must be going crazy. Maybe she realised that I was getting too dependant on her?

    I wrote down my feelings to my therapist as I was so embarassed and she asked if I was in love with her (the headteacher). I said no as that thought hadn’t entered into my head but after the session on the way home I had a wave of feelings so huge it felt like I was hit by a tidal wave, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I felt completely in love and from then on everytime I saw this lady I would feel intense sexual feelings for her which made me anxious to be around her!

    Then not long after the unthinkable happened and she announced that she was leaving the school for a career change. The worst thing was I was asked to make a leaving film for her by the school since I had done things like that for them in the past. I had to interview all the teachers and they would say how much she meant to them. It was an incredibly painful experience to say the least but I did it because I loved her so much.

    She also made time for me one last time before she left to chat at the school and it was as it was before the wall went up so to speak. It made me feel secure.

    After she left I emailed her to ask if she would stay in touch and she wrote me back a lovely long email but there was a definite ending, sort of I wish you all the best etc. I cried for weeks after that, every night. Its been 5 months and I have dreams most nights about her, where she’s at school and ignoring me and I feel so heartbroken, I still cry and I never ever used to. Even though I know there would never be anything (she is married) I wish we could have been friends. My therapist said she is keeping the professional boundaries. I just can’t understand why that had to happen and it hurts.

    Since then I have been questioning my sexuality as I’ve felt so confused. My question to you since reading these posts is that is the love I feel for her real? Is all love transference or something else entirely because I would love to understand this more.

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