Transference-Focused Psychotherapy

Many therapy modalities encourage clients to use their new skills or mindsets outside of session to progress towards their mental health goals. Transference-focused Psychotherapy, however, asks clients to use those skills while in session with their therapists. This gives them a relationship upon which to practice connecting with others in healthy, meaningful ways.

What is Transference-Focused Psychotherapy?

Transference describes when someone redirects their feelings about one person or a group of people towards another person – in this context, the therapist. All clients experience transference and it is normal for clients to make judgements or assumptions about their therapists while conversing with them. The psychological concept of transference has roots in object relations theory, which posits that all humans strive for social connection.

When transference happens, it can either build a client’s attachment towards their therapist or break it. For example, when a client has a strong relationship with their grandmother, working with a therapist who resembles their grandmother (i.e. around the same age) may mean that they feel a stronger relationship with their therapist. Conversely, when a client has negative emotions about a past toxic relationship and their therapist uses similar language to their ex, they might shut down any feelings of closeness with their therapist. This is also called projection.

Transference is generally an unconscious reaction for clients. Transference-focused Psychotherapy brings it into the spotlight for the client and therapist to engage with and make sense of. By calling attention to these beliefs assigned to the therapist automatically, the client can learn more about their instincts when it comes to social connection, which may shed light on any current relationship conflicts outside of therapy.

What happens in a Transference-Focused Psychotherapy session?

Transference-focused Psychotherapy sessions begin very similarly to other therapy types. The therapist and client get to know one another and build a strong rapport. Therapists may ask clients about their backgrounds, their presenting issues, and their goals for their mental health.

Once there’s a therapeutic alliance in place, the therapist may begin to introduce the practice of noting instances of client projection. While they discuss the client’s recent thoughts or feelings, the therapist may ask the client to describe if they feel any emotional reactions to what the therapist is saying. The therapist and client will then explore any of the judgements or assumptions made on the part of the client, especially any projections.

By focusing on what’s happening in the client-therapist relationship as it happens, clients learn skills in self-awareness that they can bring into other relationships. They might discover that they tend to react in a certain way with others, which causes conflict or misunderstanding.

What can Transference-Focused Psychotherapy help with?

Transference-focused Psychotherapy is most helpful for clients who have personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder. Because many individuals who have personality disorders develop relationship conflicts with their friends, partners, and families, learning how to better understand their emotional reactions may help them connect with others in healthier ways.

Working within the transference is a tricky task for a therapist. It’s a highly sensitive element in therapy, therefore working with a therapist who is trained or certified in Transference-focused Psychotherapy is vital for the success of the modality.