Transference And Countertransference In Psychoanalysis

What do these concepts that Sigmund Freud developed consist of?

If there is something that characterizes the psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud, it is the emphasis that it places on the psychological processes that theoretically occur unconsciously and direct our way of acting, thinking and feeling. 

Psychoanalysis was born as an attempt to understand human psychology, but it was also proposed as a tool made to deal with the untimely effects of having an unconscious that was too “rebellious”. An unconscious that, surreptitiously, is guiding and influencing our way of acting at all times. In addition, there are two concepts created to monitor the effect that unconscious forces have on the relationship between patient and analyst. These are the transference and the countertransference.

What is transference in psychoanalysis?

According to Freud’s theories, every time we experience new sensations we are evoking part of the past experiences that left a mark on our unconscious. The transference is, precisely, the way in which the ideas and feelings about ties with people with whom we have related before are projected towards another person, even if it is the first time we see them.

Therefore, transference is the way in which the human mind relives certain experiences related to links (which have been fixed in our unconscious) when interacting with someone in the present, according to Freud.

Based on the ideas of Sigmund Freud, transfers are closely related to the earliest and most emotionally relevant links for people, which in most cases are relationships with parental and maternal figures. Interaction with fathers and mothers (or their surrogates, according to Sigmund Freud) would leave very important marks on the unconscious, and these could manifest themselves in future transfers.

The transference during psychotherapy

Although theoretically transference is a generalized phenomenon that occurs in our day to day life, Sigmund Freud placed special emphasis on the need to consider the effect that transference has during psychoanalysis sessions. After all, Freud believed, the context in which therapy is performed does not automatically override the unconscious, and the unconscious continues to be governed by its rules.

Therefore, during the sessions the transference can occur, which would mean that the patient projects the contents of his unconscious onto the analyst and revives affective ties from the past. In this way, according to Freud, the patient will see how his relationship with the psychoanalyst will have reminiscences of relationships already lived, however illogical it may seem. He may fall in love and out of love with the analyst, dislike him, hate him as an important figure from the past was hated, etc.

But for Freud it was not a bad thing to start a transference from the patient to the analyst. In fact, it was part of the therapy, since it created an emotional bond from which the therapist could guide the patient in the resolution of psychological conflicts and  blockages based on trauma. In other words, transference would be a necessary ingredient for the therapeutic relationship to be oriented towards solving the patients’ problems.

The types of transfers

Two types of transfer have been hypothesized: positive transfer and negative transfer .

  • The positive transfer is one in which the emotions projected into the analyst are friendly or related to love. This type of transfer is desirable if it is not very intense, but if it becomes too intense it is very harmful, since it leads to romantic infatuation, obsession and an  extreme eroticization of the therapeutic relationship that is the end of this.
  • The negative transference is based on feelings of hatred and aversion towards the psychoanalyst. Of course, if it is done with too much intensity it can ruin the sessions.


Countertransference has to do with the feelings and ideas that the analyst himself projects onto patients from their past experiences, unconsciously.

For Sigmund Freud it was very important that each psychoanalyst knew how to detect the effects that countertransference had on his way of relating to patients and on his motivations when dealing with them. After all, he believed, analysts are still human beings by virtue of having a particular profession and knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, and their own unconscious can take the reins of the therapeutic relationship for the worse.

For example, during  free association, it is normal for the psychoanalyst himself, starting from his own subjectivity and the network of unconscious meanings, memories and beliefs, to use his own point of view to reorganize the patient’s speech into a meaningful whole that expresses what is the root of the ailment. In this way, countertransference can be understood as one of the processes that intervene in the therapeutic daily life.

However, some authors have decided to use a narrower definition to refer to what the term “countertransference” means. In this way, the countertransference becomes the way in which the psychoanalyst reacts to the patient’s transferences. The use of these two meanings can cause confusion, because they are very different: one applies to specific moments, while the other encompasses the entire therapeutic process in psychoanalysis.

Transference and countertransference in psychology

Both the transference and the countertransference, as concepts, were born with the psychoanalytic current that Freud founded. Outside of the psychodynamic current to which psychoanalysis belongs, they are ideas taken into account in some eclectic approaches, such as Gestalt therapy, but they have no real value for the psychology inheriting the paradigms of behaviorism and cognitive psychology.

The reason is that there is no objective way to establish, when there is and when there is not a transfer or countertransference. They are concepts that can only be used to describe states of subjectivity that, because they are, cannot be verified or quantified or used in hypotheses that can be scientifically validated. Therefore, these concepts are alien to current scientific psychology and, in any case, are part of the scope of the history of psychology and the humanities.

Bibliographic references:

  • Roudinesco, √Člisabeth (2015). Freud. In your time and ours. Madrid: Editorial Debate. 

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