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Feelings of Love in Therapy? Transference.

Updated on May 6, 2013


The dictionary describes transference as a "shift of emotions" from one person or object to another. The most common example of this is the shift of emotions from patient to therapist.

Transference is one of the most complex areas of therapy that has many interpretations. There are many different types of transferences but I am mainly focusing on the feelings of love a patient has for his or her therapist. This is not the first article I have written about transference. In fact, this article has been written and rewritten approximately five times now (that is how broad and complex transference is). My reason for rewriting my article so frequently is because, like many of my readers, I am experiencing this phenomenon; however, I have discussed and worked through many root causes of my transference.

I will start this article off by explaining what I have learned, through my experience and research, what transference is.

Transference is one of the hardest, most humiliating, and beneficial issues one will ever experience in the therapeutic setting. The only way I can convey any sort of genuine understanding is by sharing my experiences past and present but first I will share a brief history on this topic:

Transference has a deep-rooted history dating back to Sigmund Freud, possibly before. Freud discovered ‘transference' by crossing ethical boundaries within his private practice; nonetheless, he termed one of the most beneficial aspects of therapy that is used by many psychotherapists to help their patients heal from traumatic, neglectful, abusive, and/or disappointing childhoods. According to Freud, transference develops because of a lack of love, nurture, support, empathy, and acceptance in one's childhood.

During transference, people turn into a biological time-machine. A nerve is struck when someone offers, in the present, what was never offered in childhood. This creates an emotional time warp that transfers their emotional past and their psychological needs into the present (The Source, 2001).

With me, transference starts with past history. I grew up with an abusive father whom my mother left when I was two-years old. My mother endured verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that caused her to become very cold and distant. I never felt that I received the love, nurture, empathy, acceptance, and care that a child needs. Traumatic events happened within my life that I never felt received appropriate attention by any members of my family. For example, I used participate in self-mutilation where I would cut my arms and legs and even attempted suicide; however, neither issue received adequate care or attention.

As a child I felt unnoticed and as a teenager I felt that I was a burden within my family. One thing lead to another and I eventually began to dissociate from my feelings (meaning that I stopped myself from feeling). As a young adult, I sought help from a compassionate and caring therapist (who I presently see). Suddenly I was receiving the care, love, acceptance, empathy, and support that I had never received before. She immediately became a symbol for all the things I had lacked in my childhood and I was beginning to feel that I was "falling in love" with her. When I think of the word "mom" I think of my biological mother; however, when I think of the characteristics of what I feel a mother should be, I think of my therapist.

My therapist was giving me all the things in the present that I needed as a child which fueled my attachment and love for her. In addition, she was giving me the support and acceptance that I needed as an adult—I was completely overwhelmed in my feelings for her. What more did I need? I found everything I needed in her. Speaking to you now, your therapist is a role-mode of what you may have wanted but he or she is also a teacher. Transference is part of your healing process in that, eventually, you will be able to take the behavior he or she modeled for you as well as your feelings for your therapist and expand it to your everyday life.

The therapeutic relationship is very strong and symbolic and is used to mend the past while building a bridge to the future. Going through transference, however, can be painful, humiliating, and uplifting all in one. Your feelings are not abnormal and there is nothing wrong with you for feeling them. How could you not have feelings for someone who is always there for you? Who supports you? And who shows you acceptance, empathy, and compassion? Your psyche and emotions are only reacting to the things you never received as a child and still desire as an adult.

Transference is a completely normal, healthy, and beneficial part of the therapeutic process that should not be held back from the therapist.

My suggestions?

Acceptance: First, you have to accept how you feel. My therapist constantly reminds me, "Feelings are just that—feelings. They are not right or wrong; rational or irrational. They are just feelings and have to be genuinely felt and accepted." Let that be your first step. For now, do not worry or stress over whether to tell your therapist. Take care of yourself and accept your feelings before doing anything else.

Talk: Once you have accepted and come to terms with how you feel about your therapist, it is time to talk about them. Everyone hates this answer but talking to your therapist about how you feel is the most important part. Your therapist most likely already has an idea that you are experiencing these feelings but is waiting for you to bring them to the surface. I will give you an example by expressing a dialogue between my therapist and I when I first told her:

Me: "I'm really afraid to tell you what I am thinking…"
Therapist: "It's okay, take a risk…"
Me: "I'm afraid of how you will react."
Therapist: "That is a common fear but how I react is out of your hands. Worry about you and how this will help you."
Me: (very long pause) "…I sometimes feel that I am in love with you."
Therapist: (no pause or negative reactions) "I thought there may have been some feelings ever since you gave me that card for Christmas but I knew you would bring it up when you felt ready."
Me: (quiet and obvious expecting more on what I had just said)
Therapist: "There is nothing shameful in that and my feelings about that are that I'm flattered you have such strong feelings for me and have made me such an important part of your life."

From thereon, my therapist and I worked together in exploring my transference feelings and uncovering the reasons behind them. If you are scared to talk to your therapist about your feelings, tell him or her that but do not neglect to tell him or her how you are feeling. The consequences of that could ultimately stop your healing process and be much more painful and frustrating. To ease your minds, while most therapists are in graduate school, they vigorously study transference and are actively ready to handle it when it comes up in the therapeutic relationship.

Most therapists expect their patients to experience transference and will never abandon or condemn their patients for it. There are instances, however, where a therapist will ‘refer' a patient to another therapist after disclosure about transference. This has nothing to do with the patient and their feelings but with the therapist's lack of training to deal with transference (this is rare). A therapist takes a vow "To do no harm" and by not referring the patient they may be acting negligent.

To sum it up, transference is the feelings of love a patient feels toward his or her therapist based on the patients past and present life concerning love, affection, trust, nurture, closeness, and empathy. Transference is a normal and healthy part of the therapeutic process that reveals a lot about one's childhood experiences and should be discussed with the analyst no matter gender or sexual orientation/preference.

Here is an excerpt from a paper that I wrote on transference for school. It is a lot more "clinical and factual" and may sound a bit repetitive to what I have already said:

When it comes to therapy, transference refers to the shift of emotions from patient to therapist. In most cases, transference manifests as an erotic attraction towards the therapist, but it can manifest in many different forms: Rage, hatred, mistrust, paternal, extreme dependence, and even placing the therapist in a god-like or guru status (Wikipedia, 2010). When transference is recognized in the therapeutic relationship, the therapist and patient work together to discover the meaning of the patient's transference as a means to better understand how the patient feels. "Since the transference between patient and therapist happens on an unconscious level, psychodynamic therapists who are largely concerned with a patient's unconscious material use the transference to reveal unresolved conflicts patients have with childhood figures" (Wikipedia, 2010).

There are many different theories as to where transference truly begins. Many believe transference begins due to what the patient lacked in their childhood relationships such as love, affection, nurture, etc. Others, such as Jungian theorists, believe that transference is caused because an individual resembles a particular person from the patients past; thus, causing them to feel a transfer of feelings and emotions toward the individual. My favorite theory comes from Sigmund Freud and that's: "a reproduction of emotions relating to repressed experiences, especially of childhood, and the substitution of another person…for the original object of the repressed impulses" (Wikipedia, 2010).

To sum it up, transference starts because of past memories of a specific individual that are sparked by the therapist, the lack of emotional gratification during childhood, and/or repressed emotions from the past that mix with future needs and are placed upon the therapist. As complex as transference is, everyone's trigger and reason for developing transference is different and can only be discovered if explored together with the therapist.


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      amazing insight! 3 years ago

      being a therapist this material is quite insightful and thanks a lot for sharing...