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What is transference?

Transference is a normal occurrence which happens among a variety of connections between humans. Transference is the unconscious association of someone in the present with a past relationship. Because of the nature of therapy (e.g., discussing emotions and exploring past relationships), transference is very common in the therapy setting. However, people can experience transference in various environments and across multiple different relationships. In therapy, your therapist may remind you of a teacher you had, so you view your therapist as caring and nurturing. In your personal relationships, transference can explain certain relationship patterns you experience, like continuously seeking partners who have similar traits.

Is transference harmful?

Like many things in therapy, transference is neutral. Transference can be a good thing if you find that you are associating enjoyable memories and emotions with your therapist. You come to see your therapist as caring and trustworthy, which are two very important traits of the therapeutic alliance. However, if you find that you are associating negative experiences with your therapist, it may have the opposite effect. For example, if your therapist reminds you of your parent who was neglectful, you may redirect your anger to your therapist by canceling sessions, arriving late, and being resistant in treatment. Similarly, if your partner reminds you of a previous partner, you may find that you redirect some past hurt and anger in new arguments.

How can I navigate transference?

Regardless of whether you believe that the transference you are experiencing is negative or positive, it may be helpful to bring up, but it is especially crucial to bring up any negative forms of transference. If you are experiencing negative transference towards your therapist, chances are that they have picked up on it, but it can still be helpful to let them know. Transference can stem from unresolved traumas or past hurt, so letting your therapist know you are experiencing this can be instrumental for the therapeutic process. Your therapist can help you unpack the trauma and heal from it. Similarly, if you find you are redirecting anger to s current partner, it may be helpful to discuss it with them, so they can better understand where the hurt is really stemming from.

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.