What psychoanalysis has taught us about transference, and some thoughts on transference at the beginning of therapy:

A lot of clients come to therapy with already activated transferences- transferences to the therapy setting; to the actual therapist; or to the idea of therapy.

Transference, loosely defined, refers to the client’s preconceived ideas, feelings, reactions, and expectations about therapy (or the therapist) based on past experiences. Sometimes transference can help and sometimes it can be a problem…you can read more about that here

I like to think of a client’s first few sessions as the opening act of a play.

Clients tend to come in with preconceived relationship scripts (sometimes known to them and sometimes unconscious) waiting and ready to be played out…and along with this, clients have both a desire and a fear of the therapist actually playing along.

When a new client comes in, I try to orient myself to any cues I am given; to the rules and roles of the opening act I find myself in; to the dreads and hopes my clients bring with them.

Some come with the hope I can be an expert or a guru; someone who can give all the answers; a possessor of knowledge who knows things others do not. Others expect to be judged or disappointed. And some feel nervous and confused, perhaps for lack of knowing what to expect of me or of the therapy…after all, don’t we all get a bit anxious when faced with new situations that leave us wondering about our roles?

And then of course there is the transference to the fee, to the money the therapist charges for his or her time, service, help. For some clients it’s too much, for some it’s too expensive, for some it feels like a waste of money, for some it reassures them they must be seeing someone good. Some want a discount, some feel taken advantage of, some want to know why so and so charges more, and some get to work judging the value of each session to see whether they’ve gotten their money’s worth or not.

Transference can include judgments about things like the therapist’s office, clothing, age, approach, training, gender etc…along with curiosities about the therapist’s life, marriage, divorce, status, finances, hobbies, and more. And the length of each session is not exempt from transference either…is 45 minutes or 50 minutes or an hour too long, too short, fair or unfair, enough or not enough, etc…

Then there are those clients who need to prepare before each session; to make sure it’s “productive”, or that they sound a certain way, or that the therapist will understand them perfectly; there may even be a hope or excitation, a wish for each session to bring some type of relief, release, rescue, or enlivenment.

Some want to reverse the roles, which becomes evident almost immediately, and this at times points to feelings of envy, or dependency fears; a situation is created in which, despite there being a therapist in the room who is being paid to do a job, it seems the client feels the need to do all the analyzing themselves, to be self-sufficient in the room…as if letting the therapist say something they don’t already know might be either too much to hope for or too much of a threat.

As you can see, each client comes along with a unique mental set that includes expectations and projections, idiosyncratic rules of engagement, and specific desires and fears. There are tests the therapist is expected to pass, understandings that must be seized, if things are to manage to even get off the ground. And the therapist is often faced with a number of implicit demands; demands the client may not know they have but that are present, nonetheless. Demands like: Will you love me? Will you help me? Will you save me? Will you get me?

Indeed, the job of the therapist is to walk a very fine line, a line between acceding to the client’s demands (so that hope can be instated and the client can engage), while simultaneously managing to not lead the client on with false promises of hope that can never be realized because some fantasies really just can’t come true.

More often than not, clients come in for help because they are so tired of compulsively repeating the past; of making the same mistakes again and again; of trying so hard to get past their misery but finding that they never can. Clients sometimes want a way out from painful and primal existential struggles; they want their pain to go away; and they want something better for themselves despite having almost lost hope of that ever happening.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t try to offer magic answers to my clients; nor do I make seductive promises of filling voids that can’t be filled or masking losses that can’t be masked. Rather, I’ve come to believe that the kindest thing I can do for someone is offer them a place where they can say the things they can’t say anywhere else; a place where self-expression is permitted in its most raw and messy forms; a place that bears a mandate to speak; and a place where I invite them to let me in just a little bit…if and when they can bear to do so.

When I listen, I listen for patterns. At times I’ve been known to even give my clients practical advice. And most of all, I try to offer my clients some straight and honest talk…because I do think people are hungry for that…and not everyone these days is willing to tell it to us straight.

Please know that if you’ve been struggling with things like anxiety, or depression, or a relationship problem, or trauma on your own…well, it can truly be such a relief to get help or a new perspective.

And one more thing I want you to know: there’s no shame in acting out your problems in your therapy; there’s no shame in having a transference to your therapist even if it’s a negative one; and there’s no shame in just being yourself. Actually, on some level the only way therapy can work is if your therapist gets to see your problems in real time…because how can wounds be healed if they’re undercover, and how can patterns be broken if they aren’t brought into the light?

So, if you’re thinking about therapy…well, come on in, and just be you!