An important aspect of psychotherapy, especially psychoanalytic and psychodynamic counselling, is a phenomenon known as transference. Put simply, this is when we 'transfer' a feeling from a situation or person in our past to a similar situation in the counselling session.
As human beings our feelings are crucial to our survival and bring meaning and richness to our lives. Fear, for example, can help keep us safe, joy in sex can ensure human reproduction, compassion can enable helping others and ourselves, and anger can give us the energy to make changes in our lives when something is not right for us.
As babies, then growing through infancy to childhood and even into adulthood strong feelings can be provoked by certain people in our lives (often Mum and Dad, and brothers and sisters), and in certain situations...
...the Mum who never came when we cried at night as a baby for instance may have provoked feelings of anger, or abandonment, or terror. The coach who mocked us in front of the school team for fluffing a penalty may have provoked the feeling of shame in us. The brother or sister who got away with things when we didn't may result in the feelings of bitter resentment and fury. When our grandparents made a fuss of us and gave us sweets and cuddles we may have felt gratitude, warmth and love.
In our past there are countless examples of important people in our lives, and events we have lived through, that have an emotional imprint for us. The curious thing is that these emotions that are connected to our past lives can be re-activated by similar events or people in our current lives. For instance, the co-worker who got away with poor performance when we didn't may result in the same transferred feelings of resentment and fury as our childhood experience with our sibling.
In the counselling room we can experience transference too. As the sessions unfold and the therapeutic relationship between the patient and therapist develops feelings are generated. The patient may feel gratitude and warmth toward the counsellor as he did for his caring grandparents. Or she may feel abandoned when time is up and she has to leave, just like she did as a baby when she lay unfed at night. Or the patient may feel ashamed when he thinks he is getting something wrong or letting himself down, just like the time he missed a penalty.
It is these feelings, or transferences, that can guide the way in therapy as they come from some of the deepest parts of our psyches. What is particularly fascinating is that the therapist will experience his own emotions as a result of the patient's transferred feelings, and these are called the 'countertransference'.
This interplay between the patient's transference and the therapist's countertransference is like an artistic dance through the patient's inner world, pointing the way to damaging past experience. If we mindfully watch out for them, explore them and follow them, these transferences can lead the way to healing.
By David Abrehart
(c) Copyright 2016. All rights reserved
Perhaps the most important aspect of both Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Psychodynamic Counselling, is that they both strive to better understand the patient, and it is this deeper understanding, and the therapist and patient process of uncovering it, that paves the way to healing.