Transference Isn’t Just For Therapy

by Mental Health

Transference is the projection of feelings from one person onto another due to conscious and unconscious empathic connection(s). There are variations on this behavior, the counseling psychology professionals in particular being concerned with distinguishing “transference” and “counter-transference,” where the former is from the client to the counselor and the latter is the reverse. For purposes of discussion, differentiating the direction is important, but it’s still the same process. Beyond that, I find such distinctions to be needlessly complicating and based far more on distinguishing the power dynamics of the client/therapist relationship than with offering any clarification of the process. Transference is an inevitable and necessary component of any and all relational dynamics, our humanity makes it so.

Transference as Energy Flow

We do not so much move through life in a single direction as move in conjunction with every person we’re connected with. That means we’re much more like amoebas, tendrils of life connecting us to each other and moving along through subtle and sometimes not to subtle vibrations of movement. The flow of information and energy here is therefore inevitable. Dealing then with transference begins with first acknowledging the reality of it. So often people act in the world of “as-if”, ignoring or unaware of how our brains interact with others and every connection is first instantiated through the narrative structure of our internalized self-images. People act “as-if” we are all autonomous beings who only form connections at a conscious level. This means of looking at the world “as-if” is most commonly seen in the phrase “I can’t make you feel anything” or “your feelings are your own.” While the latter is certainly accurate at the level of identification or ownership, it is not at all accurate in the sense of origin. Like any other object in our possession, emotions do not just pop into existence by strength of will, they arise out of the bubbling soup of relational reality, of which each of us exists as individual ingredients.

Transference is an outgrowth of empathy, meaning each facet of the connection occurs only because there is something in a person’s self-narrative to connect with.

“…humans come to develop their intentional, meaningful, and meaning-constituting lives always and only in the context of a given sociohistorical context, a common background, or a set of shared habits, and embedded in a world in which they participate, and which they possibly aim to individually or collectively transform” (Santo & Moran, 2015).

Without any similarity there can be no empathy and therefore no transference. What’s beautiful about humanity is that empathy doesn’t require strong similarities to latch onto, we all of us have a great deal of similarity between one another by virtue of our shared humanity. We are one species, one group, one enormous genetic family. The differences between us are drowned out by the vast similarities, yet like in the sense of “as-if” autonomy, we tend to act “as-if” the similarities are secondary to the differences, when rationality leads us to the exact opposite. When determining a moving object in vision, looking at the things that don’t move will help identity that which is. Were the focus to be constantly shifting there’d be no way of seeing the change happening in movement.

Transference as Distortion

Unfortunately, transference is often looked at as a negative or something to be wary of.

“However, in the same way that we can say transference is a kind of ‘distortion’ of the here-and-now reality of the therapeutic relationship experienced by the client, countertransference can be said to be a kind of distortion of the here-and-now reality experienced by the therapist. Whether or not this distortion is used for good or ill will depend on the awareness, insight, integrity, and skill of the therapist” (Clarkson & Nuttall, 2000)

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Here we have transference being looked at as a “distortion,” as if it is hiding a truer reality beneath it. This comes from the “as-if” thinking mentioned above, where people operate “as-if” living in autonomous bubbles where the permeability is utterly under the control of conscious choice. We do not live in such a reality, the very notion is immediately obvious as to its impossibility when followed to practical conclusions. How much time and energy would it take to consciously deliberate over each and ever impinging variable upon our senses? We’d be catatonic, incapable of moving in any direction. As our lives are guided by and constructed through our personal narratives, it would be like having the worst case of writer’s block.

Rather than a distortion, transference is simply an identifier for what happens each and every relational moment of every day. Just as we take in the projections of others so they do the same with us, a constant flow of information and energy manifesting in different ways dependent upon the particular socio-historical variations with each person involved. Whether or not good or ill develops from it is not contingent upon getting to an underlying truth, it is dependent upon slowing down to see the potential behaviors open to us that each connection allows. “Social cognition is typically not just cognition but, rather, affective and embodied interaction. Similarly, collective intentionality and group agency involve not just coordination, team-reasoning or rational agency, but may also involve shared emotions and values” (Santo & Moran, 2015).

Moving Forward in Relationship

The need for correction is only found when, often due to the constancy of transference being ignored, such starts interfering with a healthy relational dynamic. Our decisions always and forever dwell within relational contexts, our very thoughts and emotions being guides only after having developed through relational lenses. An old dietary injunction is “you are what you eat.” Relationally, the phrasing would be “you are who you’re connected with.” Neither phrase is completely accurate, thankfully, but as a basic rule for considering our relational lives, one could do much worse.

When we consider the inevitability and constancy of transference we do well to remember this reality when we look upon another, whether in kindness or in negative judgment. Just as our thoughts and actions are shifted and changed by the projections we take in from others, so then we exist in that same dynamic, projecting upon others and therefore changing how they may proceed. Our responsibility for our lives is not found in determining our actions, but in expanding our awareness of the constant flow of transference that guides which actions are possible. We can never do more or be more than we are today if we don’t look at the near-infinite possibilities residing in our relational reality.

Featured Artwork: elreviae


Clarkson, P., & Nuttall, J. (2000). Working with countertransference. Psychodynamic Counselling, 6(3), 359–379.

Forthcoming in: T. Szanto & D. Moran (Eds.): The Phenomenology of Sociality. Discovering the ‘We’. London/New York: Routledge 2015.

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