“You were never there for me growing up,” Natalie manages to muffle through her tears. “A good father isn’t just present and financially supportive—he’s loving and emotionally supportive too.” She reaches for a tissue and wipes off the makeup running down her face, whilst maintaining her glare at the man across from her: Dr. Stevens, her therapist.

One might have expected it to be her father sitting opposite of Natalie—instead, it is her long-time counselor, who is helping Natalie move on from this ill will. So why is she talking to him as if he is her father? Well, for the time being, he is Nathalie’s father—at least in her eyes. This is a classic case of the psychological phenomenon, transference, whereas an individual unconsciously redirects their feelings or emotions onto another. This can occur in therapy, like in the circumstance above, in that a patient applies feelings for another onto their therapist and then begins to interact with them as if they really are the other person—the source of their emotions. It can also occur, however, in other relationships and everyday interactions.

4 Types of Transference

As mentioned above, transference can occur in therapy or outside of therapy in various situations, which are categorized into the following:

  • Paternal transference: This is when an individual views another as their father; they may idealize them as wise and powerful, or channel negative feelings they had for their real father figure like in the situation above.
  • Maternal transference: Similarly, maternal transference is when someone treats another as their true mother, oftentimes idealizing them as loving and nurturing.
  • Sibling transference: This typically occurs when parental relationships are strained or lacking. Only this type of transference is characterized by a team effort, rather than a difference in authority like in the parental transferences.
  • Non-familial transference: In non-familial transference, an individual treats another as a romanticized or idealized version of who they’re expected to be, which can lead to stereotypes. For example, we typically expect philanthropists and activists like Mahatma Gandhi to be all-righteous and hold them to unrealistic expectations. The same is true for police officers, whom we expect to follow the law flawlessly, and teachers, whom we expect to have all the answers.

Common Examples of Transference in Everyday Life

The degree of transference one experiences and displays can vary. For example, the opening scenario depicts a more severe degree, whereas the individual doesn’t only experience internal feelings and push those onto another, but goes on to engage in an in-depth conversation with that person according to those emotions. More commonly, however, one experiences more subtle feelings toward another based on past experiences or other relationships. Consider the following scenarios:

  1. You’ve started a new job and your boss feels strangely familiar. After a few weeks, you realize he looks exactly like an old classmate of yours, whom you found rather arrogant and irritating. Without meaning to or even realizing you’re doing so, you start to associate your boss with the former colleague and push your negative feelings onto him: you become increasingly agitated by and uncomfortable around him.
  2. After three wonderful years, you and your significant other break up rather suddenly. You found out that they had cheated on you multiple times with multiple people and knew there was nothing to salvage. A few months later you start seeing someone else, but you grow increasingly convinced that they’re lying to you and going on other dates behind your back. You have no real grounds to suspect this—instead, you’re transferring mistrust in your previous partner onto them.

Harmful Effects of Transference

The truth of the matter is that we all push our feelings onto people who don’t deserve it every now and then. Whether it’s directing built-up aggression toward your absent mother onto your step-mother, channeling past feelings of mistrust into a new relationship, or taking out your anger for one friend on another friend. Whatever the case, doing so can be harmful: it can hinder one’s relationships, negatively affect mental health, and ultimately create unhealthy thinking and behavioral patterns. Therefore, it’s important an individual avoids doing so (if they can help it) and is also open about their feelings with others: doing so will lessen their chance of directing vent-up emotions for one individual onto another.

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