Transference is a concept that refers to our natural tendency to respond to certain situations in unique, predetermined ways–predetermined by much earlier, formative experiences usually within the context of the primary attachment relationship. These patterns, deeply ingrained, arise sometimes unexpectedly and unhelpfully–in psychoanalysis, we would say that old reactions constitute the core of a person’s problem, and that he or she needs to understand them well in order to be able to make more useful choices. Transference is what is transferred to new situations from previous situations.
As a result, a person’s relationship to lovers and friends, as well as any other relationship, including his psychoanalyst, includes elements from his or her earliest relationships. Freud coined the word “transference” to refer to this ubiquitous psychological phenomenon, and it remains one of the most powerful explanatory tools in psychoanalysis today—both in the clinical setting and when psychoanalysts use their theory to explain human behavior.
Transference describes the tendency for a person to base some perceptions and expectations in present day relationships on his or her earlier attachments, especially to parents, siblings, and significant others. Because of transference, we do not see others entirely objectively but rather “transfer” onto them qualities of other important figures from our earlier life. Thus transference leads to distortions in interpersonal relationships, as well as nuances of intensity and fantasy.
The psychoanalytic treatment setting is designed to magnify transference phenomena so that they can be examined and untangled from present day relationships. In a sense, the psychoanalyst and patient create a relationship where all the patient’s transference experiences are brought into the psychoanalytic setting and can be understood. These experiences can range from a fear of abandonment to anger at not being given to fear of being smothered and feelings of
One common type of transference is the idealizing transference. We have the tendency to look towards doctors, priests, rabbis, and politicians in a particular way—we elevate them but expect more of them than mere humans. Psychoanalysts have a theory to explain why we become so enraged when admired figures let us down.
The concept of transference has become as ubiquitous in our culture as it is in our psyches. Often, references to transference phenomenon don’t acknowledge their foundation in psychoanalysis. But this explanatory concept is constantly in use.
For example, in season three of the television series Madmen, one of the female leads is romantically drawn to a significantly older man just after her father dies. She sees him as extraordinarily competent and steady.
Some types of coaching and self-help techniques use transference in a manipulative way, though not necessarily negatively. Instead of self-understanding, which is the goal of psychoanalysis, many short term treatments achieve powerful reactions in clients by making use of the leader as a powerful, charismatic “transference” figure—a guru who readily accepts the elevation transference provides, and uses it to prescribe or influence behavior. Essentially, this person accepts the transference as omnipotent parent and uses this power to tell the client what to do. Often the results obtained are short lived.