As classically defined by Sigmund Freud it is a form of projection. The client redirects her feelings about some significant person in her past from that person onto the therapist. Thus for example if the client feels anger towards one of her parents the client pretends the therapist is that parent then starts getting angry at the therapist instead. This process occurs unconsciously and one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to articulate it in order to attempt to resolve the conflict between the client and the person towards whom the emotion initially was felt. The process of psychoanalysis is the development of a transference neurosis followed by its resolution and generalization to other areas of the client’s life.
When put this way the concept of transference borders on the unintelligible. It might occur in a small subset of cases but this hardly is the foundation for a theory of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Its premise is the client is confused about who’s who in her mental life. The client cannot distinguish between e.g. her father and the therapist. Most people who seek psychotherapy are not confused about the people who populate their mental universe. They are well able to distinguish between imaginal figures and actual individuals who exist in space and time. Wanting to talk about one’s relationships with significant people in one’s past is a mode of discussion, not some weird kind of séance, summoning ghosts or spirits from one’s previous history. Many psychoanalytic works treat it with reverence and speak of “the transference” in awe as if it was some kind of a magical transformation. This not only is unhelpful but also is the kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that casts all forms of psychodynamic therapy into grave doubt and suspicion.
A more sensible definition of transference is set forth by Robert Stolorow in Psychoanalytic Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach (2000). At p. 36 Stolorow writes:
“In our view, the concept of transference may be understood to refer to all the ways in which the patient’s experience of the analytic relationship is shaped by his own psychological structures – by the distinctive, archaically rooted configurations of self and object that unconsciously organize his subjective universe. Thus transference, at the most general level of abstraction, is an instance of organizing activity – the patient assimilates the analytic relationship into the thematic structures of his personal subjective world. The transference is actually a microcosm of the patient’s total psychological life, and the analysis of the transference provides a focal point around which the patterns dominating his existence as a whole can be clarified, understood, and thereby transformed.
“From this perspective, transference is neither a regression to nor a displacement from the past, but rather an expression of the continuing influence of organizing principles and imagery that crystallized out of the patient’s early formative experiences. Transference in its essence is not a product of defensive projection, although defensive aims and processes (including projection) certainly can and do contribute to its vicissitudes. The concept of transference as organizing activity does not imply that the patient’s perceptions of the analytic relationship distort some more objectively true reality. Instead, it illuminates the specific shaping of these perceptions by the structures of meaning into which the analyst and his actions become assimilated.”
Stolorow’s concept of transference has so little to do with the classic Freudian definition it really ought to be called something else. The best way to characterize it is a form of empathy, similar to that described by Carl Rogers. Two people are in congruence if they are at the same level of discourse, i.e. one isn’t pretending to be more knowledgeable, or an authority figure, or in a dominant power relationship over the other. When the therapist is in congruence with the client, he is capable of empathetic listening and supplying unconditional positive regard. The client feels understood and the therapist radiates this feeling of being understood back to the client.
In “Therapy Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships,” a chapter in the textbook Psychology: A Study of a Science, Rogers states a condition of the therapeutic process is the client perceives (at least to some degree) the therapist is experiencing unconditional positive regard toward the client; the therapist is experiencing an empathetic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference; and the client perceives (at least to some degree) the therapist’s unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding. The therapist’s congruence or genuineness in the relationship means the therapist’s conceptualization of his own experience in his relationship with the client must be accurate. The therapist accurately must “be himself” in the relationship and express or communicate to the client an accurate conceptualization of her own experience. The greater the communicated congruence of experience, awareness and behavior the more the ensuing relationship will tend towards reciprocal communication with the same qualities, mutually accurate understanding of what is being communicated, improved psychological adjustment and functioning (of both parties) and a mutually satisfying therapeutic relationship.
This last component is crucial. Without it the client lacks evidence her communication to the therapist has been successfully received. In supplying this evidence it is appropriate for the therapist to draw analogies from his own experience. Thus, the therapist might say something like: “I understand what you are saying. You are saying (briefly reparse what client said). The reason why I understand it is because (brief self-disclosure by therapist).” Rogers provides the key to understanding transference in the sense Stolorow uses it and vastly improves on Freud’s puzzling initial formulation.