John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Transference Exercise

transference"Think of your boyfriend/girlfriend, or husband/wife, or a close friend. Think about some aspect of their personality that you have a strong reaction to, either positive or negative. Now write that down on a piece of paper. Describe what that aspect of their personality is like, and how you react in your thoughts, feelings, and behavior toward that part of their personality."

After the students are finished, I tell them to draw a box around what they have written, and to write at the top of the box, "Is this transference?"

At this point, they are usually a bit puzzled. "Now think about your parents. Is the personality characteristic of the person you wrote about, and your reaction to it.... is it a kind of replay or recreation of something that went on in your relationship with one (or both) of your parents? For example, does your parent have that same personality trait that you react to so strongly? If so, maybe this reaction to the person you described is a kind of transference from your relationship with your parent."

Some students immediately see the connection. Some will not. To increase the power and complexity of the exercise, I explain that the transference may be more tricky than simply reacting to others the way you reacted to your parent. Here are several possibilities (which I write on the board):

With this added depth, a few more students make the connection. But a significant number still don't. That's OK. There might not be any connection, or they might be unable to see it.

It's important to point out that the way "transference" is being used in this exercise is a bit different than how it is applied to psychoanalytic therapy. We're not talking about a neutral or "blank screen" therapist onto which the patient projects and recreates patterns from childhood. The person that the student describes in the exercise might indeed be something like the parent. Nevertheless, the "transference" may still be evident in the fact that the student has chosen someone with whom to recreate an old parental relationship, in how strong the person reacts to that characteristic of the other person, or in the whole variety of ways the person thinks, feels, and behaves in reaction to that characteristic in the other.

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