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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Transference vs. Encounter in Psychotherapy

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 18th 2010

Transference vs. Encounter in PsychotherapyThere 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.

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


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Transference - Andrew - Jan 24th 2011

My therapy has reached a highly emotional place. My love toward my therapist is disturbing. Yes it does feel similar to love,when viewed as an observer I see I am reexperiencing a childs feels when parents devorce and the fathers continual absence and the mothers stress and inattentiveness leave the child with nowhere to turn but inwards where I created coping mechanisms that alleviated the stress. The love I feel is real and it is what I need, however there is an underlying fear of losing it and a fear that it will end as the therapist is an instigator of the this feeling and not part of it. Tonight I intend to discuss this feeling indepth with her to try to find some clarity.

Shared experience - Beth - Oct 19th 2010

I think there is something to be said for having a shared experience with another human being. The word "transference" used to trigger me, but no more. I truly believe there is an element of this in all relationships, but that the nature of the client-therapist relationship makes these responses more intense. My own therapist once said transference was "just a word".

I think there is a love that goes beyond knowing someone, but involves loving them "just because". My feelings for my former therapist have not changed despite being out of therapy for close to 2 years now. He reminds me of the possibilities in life. He reminds me of all that I have to offer. He was there with me on my journey of self-discovery. The genuine relationship we shared as client and therapist is something I'll always hold in my heart. The technical term of transference applies, but experiences can transcend the technical. I love him and always will. Call it what you will...

:-) - La - Oct 19th 2010

Hi, Allan,

This article came in the period of time when I'm in the so far deepest analysis of my relationship with my therapist. It could be nice to share my own texts about it, but it would took me too much time to translate them in English :(. Never mind; I'd like at least to say that I agree with what you've written.

Maybe some more comments: One of my conclusions was: I understand why my therapist tells me that he doesn't want to use the word transference but wants to talk about what I'm experiencing, feeling, "what happens between us"... Now I feel that it has been right: The word transference would force me to convince myself that what I feel is not real - and this would confuse me even more. I used a comparission to fallacy (- when we see something but it's, in reality, something different): Nobody would argue if I see/perceive it, we all know that our brain has mechanisms that make us see it that way - the same is with love to therapist: We really feel love and it's because of some 'mechanisms' in our brain and because the therapist, as we know him, is lovable. So there is no reason to deny it; all we need is to understand the reasons, the mechanisms - as in the case of the fallacy (for exapmle, one type of them are caused by so called 'lateral inhibiton' - we see couours darker on a pale backgroud, but paler on a dark backgroud - even that it's allways the same couour 'in reality'). We need to find out, what new we can learn about ourselfs from the 'love' and what can this kind of relationship give us - and (this seems very important to me!) what can it give to the therapist (in general: to another human being).

I remeber how surprised I was when my therapist once told me (and explained the reasons!) that he likes me. Some weeks ago, I was even more surprised when he told me that he was afraid that I could harm myself when he was reading a page from my diary (that I gave him) about my wish to kill (or at least to cut) myself. This 'revelation' of his worries was so impressive for me! I wouldn't expect him to be afraid. I write these few examples to illustrate that sharing of therapist's feelings can be very important. And that the relationship really needs to be experienced as real. We can use terms as transference, but only appreciating that it involves real feelings, not only some "depersonalized mechanisms".

Thanks, Allan, for your text :-)!


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