What Happens in Counseling?

Her head was lowered slightly, so it looked as if she was peeking at me through her bangs when she whispered, “You must think I’m awful.” Not only did I think of her fondly, this was the third time in as many sessions that she referenced the idea that I might be judging her. I was interested. I knew that Jamie had a critical mother, and now it seemed as if she was transferring that critical nature on to me.

Transference is pretty much what it sounds like. People who are doing it unconsciously transfer thoughts, feelings, fears, wishes and conflicts from past relationships (typically childhood) onto current ones, and transference doesn’t only take place in the therapy. It can happen in virtually any relationship that is more than casual like work, school, friendship, dating or marriage.

Outside of her awareness, Jamie was transferring the critical nature of her mother on to me and she expected me to act toward her like her mother did. I’d like to point out that she doesn’t do this to everyone. She probably doesn’t transfer her mother’s critical nature on to her babysitter, or the check out woman at the Circle K. The truth is that aspects of our transference relationship mirror the one she had with her mother, and that makes the transference more likely. She came to me for help with her career. She came to me because she was hoping that I would know some things that she did not know. By it’s very nature the counseling relationship puts me in a position of having some power. She is making herself vulnerable to me, but I am only focusing on her. I don’t burden her with my troubles, and that is very similar to the relationship most parents have with their children. So even though I treat her as an adult and support her choices, there is still a part of her who worries that I am judging her. This is the part of her who takes her mother’s character and transfers it on to me.

It’s interesting to me because in the course of a single day I can be seen as engulfing by one client and abandoning by another. I can be viewed as unduly supportive in the morning or too critical in the afternoon, and all the while I am basically the same, it’s just the attitudes of the clients that are different.

Transference can happen in the workplace as well as the therapy room. Years ago I worked with a man named Sam, and it was immensely important to me that he like me. I really wanted to be his favorite employee. I would go out of my way to do the work he requested, even if it meant working late or ignoring other parts of my life. I longed for his approval, and was destroyed by his complaints. It was not uncommon for him to get upset at our monthly staff meetings, and when he did I would magically transform into a six year old. I would get scared and nervous. I was actually afraid that he would get mad and start yelling at me. Sam often got mad, but in the five years I worked for him, he never yelled at me. I was transferring characteristics of my father (being disappointed and yelling) on to Sam.

In addition to work and therapeutic relationships, romantic relationships often contain a good deal of transference. One of the most growth promoting aspects of couple therapy is the unraveling and understanding of any transference that may be taking place.

How exactly does transference get resolved? The first thing is to become aware of it. Either you notice yourself, or your therapist points it out. Next, make a list of the ways these two people are the same. (Sam was similar to my dad in many ways; both were rather short men, both had more power in the relationship than I did and both expected a lot from me) Then list the ways the two people are different, and hold on to the differences. (When my dad got mad he yelled, Sam did not. But my dad held me in higher esteem than Sam did. He expected a lot from me, because he thought I could do it. Sam almost seemed surprised when I could.) By reminding myself of the differences I was able to see Sam more for who he really was and not who I imagined him to be.

Recognizing and appreciating transference is one of many ways we can know ourselves, and that is always valuable. Robert Terwilliger said it well, ;

“A man finds his identity by identifying.”