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Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Transference

Transference is... | Three types of transference | So what?


Transference was identified by Sigmund Freud when he noticed that his patients often seemed to fall in love with him - including the men. Fortunately, he realized that this was caused by something other than his magnetic personality...

Transference is...

Transference occurs when a person takes the perceptions and expectations of one person and projects these onto another person. They then interact with the other person as if the other person is that transferred pattern.

In the way we tend to become the person that others assume we are, the person who has patterns transferred onto them may collaborate and play the game, especially if the transference gives them power or makes them feel good in some way.

Typically, the pattern projected onto the other person comes from a childhood relationship. This may be from an actual person, such a parent, or an idealized figure or prototype. This transfers both power and also expectation. If you treat me as a parent, I can tell you what to do, but you will also expect me to love and care for you. This can have both positive and negative outcomes.

Types of transference

Paternal transference

When we create paternal transference, we turn the other person into either our father or an idealized father-figure. Fathers are powerful, authoritative and wise. They protect us and tell us what to do. They know many things. They provide a sense of control in our lives. They make us feel safe.

We often transfer as a four- or five-year old child, where 'father knows best' and the pattern is one of trust and compliance. When we regard higher-level leaders (e.g. a company CEO, the transference may be as a baby, where the father is distant, powerful and protective.

Male managers in companies often encourage paternal transference by taking on the mantle and behaviors of classic fathers. They assume wisdom. They speak with authority. They reassure us that all will be well if we do as they tell us.

Maternal transference

We develop relationships with our mothers at much earlier dates, and so take on roles of babies more than children.

In our early years in particular, mothers are the source of unconditional love. After the separation of birth, they recreate unity by holding us and making us feel as one. Mothers also are the source of ultimate authority, and the threat of separation is very powerful.

Mothers appear in myth as both the fairy godmother and also the wicked witch, and we often have ambiguous relationships with them. We can also become Oedipal in our desire to be the sole focus of attention of our mothers.

Maternal transference is thus often deeper, with more primitive and emotional elements than paternal transference. Women managers often have excessive expectation put on them that they will nurture their staff, who then become disillusioned when this does not happen (hence the manager becomes cast as a witch).

Sibling transference

When parents are absent in our childhood, we may substitute these with sibling relationships, either with brothers/sisters or with friends. This is an increasingly significant pattern as families fracture and mothers spend long hours at work and are often away from the child during the critical early years.

People with preferences for sibling transference work well in horizontal, team-based organizations, as they do not fall into the leader-seeking behaviors of parental transference. This can also lead to greater anarchy as we ignore leaders and work through networks rather than needing a controlling authoritarian hierarchy.

A note: Bill Clinton was the subject of sibling transference more than other US Presidents. He could thus get away with being the 'naughty older brother' that is secretly admired for his boldness.

Other transference

We also transfer non-familial patterns onto other people. In fact we invariably treat others not as they are but as we think they are, and often as we think they should be. Thus we form stereotypes, and transfer these patterns onto others. We also form idealized prototypes, for example of policemen, priests, doctors and teachers, and project these onto people when we need the appropriate roles. Thus when a person is hurt in the street and another stops to help, they may have a doctor pattern transferred onto them.

Counter-transference occurs where a person who is a recipient of a transference activity accepts this and engages with the client at an emotional level.

So what?

First, of course, notice the patterns of transference in yourself. Who do you want others to be? How are you thus interacting with people?

Then decide what transference you want others to put on you. Do you want to be a father, mother or sibling? Start behaving in the pattern and you are likely to create the relevant transference. Remember the reciprocal nature of this: if you want to appear as a father who is unquestioningly obeyed, you also need to show that you are wise and protective.

You can promote sibling transference by creating a common enemy. When they see that you are threatened by the same things that they are, they will identify with you more as a peer than as a leader. Don't, however, make the enemy too scary, or they will seek the protection of a parent (unless, of course, that is what you are seeking).

See also

Counter-transference, Projective Identification, Projection and Introjection, Freud's Personality Factors, Conditioning, Defense Mechanisms, Looking-glass Self


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