What is Transference in psychotherapy – placing emotional reactions related to another onto the therapist


Quick summary: Transference = when you transfer an emotion meant for one person onto a different person. Transference is unconscious = the person is not aware that they are doing it (though they can be made aware). Transference happens in psychotherapy when a client places an emotional reaction that is related to someone in his or her personal life onto the therapist (ex. the client claims to feel belittled by the therapist when in actuality the client feels belittled by his/her father… transference can occur before the therapist has a chance to “do” anything to incite the given emotional reaction). The client believes that the therapist is the source of their emotional reaction when in fact the emotion has nothing to do with the therapist, as the therapist was generally not present when the emotion was initially created.


Note: therapists are trained to handle situations involving transference… there is no need to feel guilty; sometimes transference can be very useful to therapy… once transference is brought to a person’s conscious awareness the emotion can be processed.


Transference happens all the time outside of therapy… all of us have emotional reactions to people that are at least in part the result of us transferring an emotion related to one person onto another person.

  • If you emotional reaction to a person’s actions feels exaggerated or excessive, there is likely a bit of transference going on.


Transference can occur when the therapist has a similar attribute to a person in the client’s personal life… the client then treats the therapist as if they were the person with whom he or she has such a heightened emotional reactivity.

Sometimes transference is a bit more global… ex. a person will transfer there emotional reactions related to their father onto all men.

Transference might also occur if the therapist encouraged the client to process an emotion related to someone in the client’s life… the client will at time believe that the therapist was responsible for the creation of the emotion though in truth the therapist simply encouraged an already existing emotion (a repressed or avoided emotion) to present itself.

Counter-transference is when the therapist transfers his/her emotions related to someone else onto the client.

Freud came up with the idea of transference, and perhaps he made the topic a bit too focused on sexuality… for the generally public perhaps it is easier to understand transference with out Freud’s interpretation of the phenomenon being primarily related to clients repressed sexual feeling being transferred onto the therapist.


  • If a client feels controlled by her male husband she might feel as though she is being controlled by the therapist though the therapist is not engaging in controlling behaviors.


  • If a person had an un-empathetic mother they might feel as though the therapist does not care about him/her.


  • If a person believes there spouse never listens to them they may feel as though the therapist is ignoring them.


The point is that an emotion meant for another person is placed on the therapist.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.