“If there is something that characterizes the psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud, it is the emphasis he 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 inopportune effects of having an unconscious too “rebellious”. An unconscious that, surreptitiously, is guiding and influencing our way of acting at every moment. 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 transfer and the countertransference.
What is transference in psychoanalysis?
According to Freud’s theories, whenever we experience new sensations we are evoking part of the past experiences that left a mark in our unconscious. The transfer is, precisely, the way in which the ideas and feelings about links with people with whom we have related before are projected towards another person, although it is the first time that we see it.
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, the transfers are closely related to the earliest and most emotionally relevant bonds for people, which in most cases are the relationships with the parental and maternal figures. The interaction with the parents (or their substitutes, according to Sigmund Freud) would leave very important marks in the unconscious, and these could manifest themselves in future transfers.
Transfer 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 psychoanalytic sessions. After all, Freud believed, the context in which the therapy is performed does not automatically cancel the functioning of the unconscious, and this continues to be governed by its rules.
Therefore, during the sessions the transfer may occur, which would mean that the patient projects into the analyst contents of his unconscious and revives affective links of the past. In this way, according to Freud, the patient will see how his relationship with the psychoanalyst will be reminiscent of relationships already lived, however illogical it may seem. You can fall in love and fall out of love with the analyst, feel an aversion for him, hate him as you hated an important figure in the past, etc.
But for Freud it was not bad that a transfer from the patient to the analyst was initiated. 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, the transfer would be a necessary ingredient for the therapeutic relationship to be oriented towards the resolution of patients’ problems.
The types of transfers
Two types of transfer have been hypothesized: the positive transfer and the negative transfer.
The positive transfer is one in which the affects projected towards the analyst are friendly or related to love. This type of transfer desirable if it is not very intense, but if it becomes too intense is very harmful, as it leads to romantic infatuation, obsession and an extreme eroticization of the therapeutic relationship that supposes the end of this.
The negative transfer is based on feelings of hatred and aversion towards the psychoanalyst. Of course, if it occurs with a lot of intensity it can ruin the sessions.
The countertransference has to do with the feelings and ideas that the analyst projects on the 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 their way of relating to patients and their motivations when dealing with them. After all, he believed, analysts do not cease to be human beings because they have a specific profession and knowledge about 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, based on his own subjectivity and the network of unconscious meanings, memories and beliefs, to use his own point of view to reorganize the patient’s discourse into a whole with a meaning that expresses what is the root of the ailment. In this way, countertransference can be understood as one of the processes that intervene in therapeutic daily life.
However, some authors have decided to use a more restricted definition to refer to what the term “countertransference” means. In this way, countertransference becomes the way in which the psychoanalyst reacts to patient transfers. 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.
Transfer and countertransference in psychology
Both transference and 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 inherited from 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 no transfer or countertransference. They are concepts that can only be used to describe states of subjectivity that, because they are so, can not be verified or quantified or used in hypotheses that can be validated scientifically. Therefore, these concepts are alien to current scientific psychology and, in any case, are part of the history of psychology and the humanities.