Transference vs. Encounter in Psychotherapy

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

There has been much discussion about transference.

Transference refers to the concept that the feelings a patient has towards the therapist are projection of the feelings and behavior that were experienced, during childhood, towards the parents. Consequently, transference feelings are distortions because they are not based on present reality but on the past. 


Many people have a complaint about transference because it feels rejecting. This is a valid complaint because it presumes that the patient is unreal in what they experience and feel. People do not want to told that there feelings towards the therapist are distorted due to transference, they want to have an genuine encounter in which the therapist is not hiding behind a wall.

While transference may be a useful concept for the therapist to think about it is important to accept the fact that people want something more. They want an authentic encounter with the therapist.

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Rollo May, in his book, “The Discovery of Being,” discusses the fact that his approach to psychotherapy was based on Existential Psychology. In other words, there is a real relationship between patient and psychotherapist that must be recognized in the here and now. It is important that the therapist not “hide behind” anonymity because of his own insecurities and emotional difficulties but reveals himself to the extent that it will help the patient.

Just to clarify what May is saying, the therapist is not there to discuss his problems, nor to burden the patient with there’s. Rather, the therapist must notice that fact that there is an interaction that is happening in the office. The therapist does not blurt out his emotions to the patient but understands the fact that what he is feeling stems from the interaction between the two. “If I, the therapist, feel something, the patient may be feeling it too.” As an example, May discusses the fact that if the therapist has erotic feelings towards a patient, then it is a good be that the patient has erotic feelings towards him. This is useful in understanding what the patient is feeling and experiencing.

However, for the therapist, erotic emotions become part of “agape,” or caring about this person in order to help them. Acknowledging the interaction that goes on in the therapeutic office is better than hiding or masking feelings and is better than giving elegant psychoanalytic interpretations that can be experienced as alienation and painful.

Viewed in this way, psychodynamic psychotherapy helps because patient and therapist meet and work together as real people living in the present. In an age of mass culture where relationships are superficial and where there is a demand for conformity, people come to treatment because they are looking for something deeper and more meaningful in their lives and that will help them learn feel and be more authentic in the outside world.

While we talk a lot about cognitive behavioral therapy, in my opinion, there is nothing as psychodynamic therapy handled by someone who is truly skillful and able to be real.

You are encouraged to submit your comments, questions and experiences.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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