Transference and countertransference in psychoanalysis

Published Jun 10, 2024 • By Victoire Schultz

During therapy, when the relationship between a patient and their therapist is well established, there is often this strange phenomenon of the patient's emotional outpouring onto their therapist.  

The patient projects their feelings from their past relationships, such as hate, desire, passion or anger, evoked during the session, onto their therapist. This emotional exchange is called transference (the transfer of emotions from the patient to the therapist) and goes hand in hand with counter-transference (emotional response from the therapist to the patient). 

This projection of emotions exists in any relationship between two individuals, but is all the more important in therapy between a patient and a therapist.

How do transference and counter-transference work? What are the mechanisms involved in these two processes?

We explain it all in our article!

Transference and countertransference in psychoanalysis

A transfer of emotions? 

Psychoanalysis, a discipline founded by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, explores the depths of the human mind with the aim of understanding the unconscious motivations that influence our behavior and emotions. Among the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, he describes the transference mechanism, which would be redefined by his contemporaries, the French psychoanalysts Laplanche and Pontalis, in their Language of psychoanalysis.

An unconscious displacement of past emotions  

Laplanche and Pontalis define transference as ‘a process through which unconscious desires are displaced onto certain objects in the context of a certain type of relation established with them’.

It is the displacement of feelings, desires and relationships previously experienced with important people in the person's psychic life, onto another person. According to Freud and his contemporaries, transference is one of the conditions for ‘healing’, as it brings to light the emotions buried in the person's unconscious.

Positive and negative transference

There are two types of transference:

  • Positive transference, which concerns the displacement of affectionate feelings,
  • Negative transference, which involves the displacement of hostile feelings.

The psychological process at source: the projection 

Transference is fueled by an archaic process known as projection. It consists of transporting an element of a person's internal psychic space (in this case the emotions of a relationship) into a world outside the person, i.e. onto an object or a person.

A response: countertransference 

A therapist is also involved in the relationship that develops between them and their patient. Contrary to the well-known image of a cold, neutral psychoanalyst, a therapist is not indifferent, nor are they without reaction to their patient's transferential attitude, whether it be positive or negative.

Freud defined counter-transference as ‘all the reactions of the analyst to the transference of their patient, including the feelings projected into them by the patient’.

Counter-transference manifests itself in subjective reactions that go beyond the role of a therapist, revealing their sensitivity to the patient's projections. For example, a therapist may identify too much with the client's stories and share too much information about themselves, or become too critical or too supportive of the client. These non-professional types of behavior are often the expression of counter-transference.

Transference and counter-transference go hand in hand

One cannot exist without the other. The therapist-patient relationship induces past, unconscious resonances in both. Counter-transference may refer specifically to the therapist's reactions to the patient's transference, or more broadly to the therapist's transferential phenomena towards the patient. These reactions are unconscious and are more difficult to handle or control.

If it is not clearly identified, counter-transference can become an insurmountable obstacle. If the transferential bond becomes too strong, the psychoanalyst is obliged to end the therapy for the sake of the patient.

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avatar Victoire Schultz

Author: Victoire Schultz, Health Writer

Victoire holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and is currently pursuing a master's in health data sciences.

Today, Victoire works at Carenity as a Data Scientist intern, where she leverages her knowledge in... >> Learn more


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