NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: The Effects of Parental Transference in Therapy and at Work

In my earlier articles, I've discussed different types of transference that clients develop in therapy, including Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference and Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference: Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist.  In this article, I'm focusing on another common form of transference, the parental transference.

The Effects of Parental Transference at Work and in Therapy

As I've mentioned in my prior articles, developing transference isn't limited to therapy.  People form transferential feelings in other relationships, including with mentors, teachers, a supervisor, in a relationship with a spouse or romantic partner, and so on.

Transference is usually unconscious--at least, at first.  Over time, the client and therapist usually become increasingly aware of the transference and can use the transferential feelings in therapy as part of the therapeutic work.

What is Parental Transference?
The parental transference often develops where the client experiences the therapist as either a maternal or paternal figure.  Often, this has nothing to do with age.  A therapist can be younger than a client and still evoke a parental transference.

The parental transference can be either positive or negative or it can alternate between positive and negative at different times in the same therapy.

When a client's parent is deceased, the parental transference can be especially powerful and often provides an opportunity for a client to work through unresolved feelings toward the parent.

When an adult client has unmet childhood needs, it's not unusual for him or her to develop a parental transference towards the therapist.

The counterpart of transference is the therapist's countertransference.  If the therapist is psychodynamically trained, s/he is usually aware of the client's transference and any countertransferential feelings s/he might have towards a client.

Just as a client can develop a parental transference, a therapist can also develop countertransferential feelings towards the client.  In that case, the therapist has parental feelings towards the client.

A Fictionalized Vignette
Let's look at a fictionalized vignette to illustrate how the parental transference can play out in therapy and how it can be worked through.

John came to therapy because he felt anxious around his new director at work.

Although he was successful in his career, he had developed anxiety-related symptoms when the new director replaced the former director, who had retired.

John had a very good relationship with his former director, Joe.  Joe was a mentor and helped John to move up in the company.  Even though John maintained contact with Joe, he missed their talks and his Joe's easygoing style.

John's new director, Nina, came from another company.  She had a reputation for being very talented and innovative in their field.

When John first met Nina, he felt that their meeting went well enough, so he couldn't understand why he felt uneasy with her.  There was nothing objective that John could pinpoint that could explain his anxiety around her.

Even though Nina praised his contribution to a big project and let him know that she was pleased with his work, John was anxious about falling short of her expectations.  No matter how he tried to convince himself that there was no objective reason why he should feel this way, his anxiety increased over time, which is why he came to therapy.

Initially, John was able to form a good therapeutic alliance with his therapist.  But, after a few weeks, he began to worry about how she saw him.  He worried that he wasn't being "a good patient" in therapy because he couldn't figure out why he was anxious around his new director.

The Effect of Parental Transference at Work and in Therapy

John's therapist assured him that they were just at the beginning of their exploration of his problem, they would explore this together, and she had no expectation that he would figure it out on his own.

Objectively, John knew that therapy is a collaborative process and that clients aren't expected to determine the underlying cause of their problems.  But, on an emotional level, he felt he was falling short in therapy and that his therapist would soon feel disappointed in him, if she wasn't already disappointed.  He couldn't understand why he felt this way.

Transferential Feelings Are Unconscious and Can Be Difficult to Understand

As John and his therapist explored his family background, it soon became apparent what was happening at work as well as in his therapy.

As an only child, John grew up feeling closer to his father than his mother.

Whereas John and his father spent a lot of time together camping, going to sporting events and building models, John spent relatively little time with his mother.  She spent long hours at the office and on weekends she was involved in community events.

Whenever John spent time around his mother, he was acutely aware of how impatient she was with him.  She tended to be aloof and critical of him.  John felt like he was a disappointment to his mother, so he felt anxious whenever he was around her.

After John's father died, when he was eight, he missed his father a lot.  He spent many hours alone in his room.  Dinner time with his mother was a lonely affair because she hardly talked and when she did, she would criticize John for falling short in some way.  As a result, John felt like a failure and that he never met up to her expectations.

As his therapist talked to John about parental transference, John began to understand his relationships with Joe and Nina and how he had unconsciously superimposed his parental relationships on them.

John realized Joe was like his father.  Joe was warm, generous and kind, just like John's father.  He also spent time helping John to develop in his career, and he had nurturing qualities similar to John's father.  So, it was easy to see how John would form a positive paternal transference towards Joe.

But Nina was nothing like his mother.  Even though Nina was different than his mother, she was still an authority figure, similar in nature to how a mother is an authority figure in a child's life.  Unconsciously, he kept waiting for her to morph into his mother.  As time went on, John's anxiety increased because of his unconscious anticipation.

John and his therapist also discussed how his anxiety towards her was similar to his anxiety around his mother.  Even though he and his therapist had a non-hierarchical relationship and she was nothing like his mother, he still feared that his therapist would be disappointed in him, similar to how his mother was disappointed in him.

As they continued to explore these feelings, John realized that his problems in romantic relationships often involved his fear that his partner would become disappointed with him.  He realized how this hindered him in terms of starting and maintaining relationships.

As John and his therapist continued to work together, John became aware that he had unresolved trauma related to the loss of his father and his unmet childhood emotional needs with his mother (see my article: What is Child Emotional Neglect?)

He and his therapist did inner child work to mourn what he didn't get as a child, especially after his father died, and to nurturing that younger part of him that felt unloved (see my article: Nurturing Your Inner Child).

Further exploration about his parental transference towards his director and his therapist helped John to differentiate his feelings for his mother and his feelings for his director and therapist.

It also helped John to distinguish who his mother was when he was growing up and who she was now.  He realized that his mother had softened over the years and that she had become a warmer, kinder person with age.

The more John was able to make the differentiation between his mother from his childhood from his mother now, the better he felt.

Working Through Transference and Feeling Confident

Rather than doubting himself, John began to feel confident at work and at ease with his director.

He felt comfortable with his therapist.

Transferential feelings are a normal part of life, whether they occur in therapy, at work or in other important relationships.

Transference is usually unconscious so, initially, people believe that whatever they're feeling about a person is directly related to the person and not affected by earlier feelings.

Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to work through transferential feelings as well as resolve unmet childhood needs and unresolved loss and trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Transferential issues are difficult to work through on your own.

Transferential feelings are often entrenched, enduring and can last a lifetime if you don't seek help.

Not all therapists work with transference, so if you think that your problems are related to transference (whether this involves transference in a relationship or at work), find out if the therapist that you plan to consult with has been trained psychodynamically (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychodynamically-trained psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.