Therapeutic Approaches

Understanding Transference and Projection in Therapy

This article briefly defines transference, projection, projective identification and countertransference, and explores how these concepts can both hinder and inform the therapeutic process.

By Mental Health Academy

Featured image

Receive Australia’s most popular mental health e-newsletter

13.0 mins read

In this article, we briefly define transference, projection, projective identification and countertransference, and explore how these concepts can inform the therapeutic process.

Jump to section:


It’s tempting to think that our interactions with another person are exactly what they seem. Whether gratifying, angry-making, or disturbing, the emotions and behaviour coming from the other person seem to be all theirs: nothing to do with us. Yet a whole century ago, Sigmund Freud made the discovery that if we do not look beneath the surface to the unconscious patterns re-playing themselves in an encounter, we are likely to miss the whole point of it. If we similarly fail to acknowledge our psychological “shadow” – the denied aspects of ourselves – it may be those which we are unknowingly viewing in another. Consider, for example, these situations.

Amanda readied herself at the wheel. Her partner was there to help start her car by pushing it uphill while advising her on how to “pop the clutch”. The car was at the bottom of her driveway, and she needed to get it up the steep drive to get it out on to the street. “Ok,” he said matter-of-factly, “I’ll start pushing and you pop the clutch when I say ‘now!’.” Already nervous, Amanda started crying. “Heck, what did I say?” her partner asked, dumbfounded. Amanda suddenly realised that the situation had taken her back to similar ones of her teenage years and earlier, when her father would try to help her; he would inevitably end up shouting at her and criticising her for “doing it all wrong”.

Jordan had been coming to see his therapist for several years, and thought that he had made some good progress, especially in the beginning. He was pleased about this, because he knew he had had a rough start in life and had some big issues to deal with. While he had not been physically abused, his father had been mostly absent (often away on business trips), and his mother had been cold, critical, and even emotionally abusive. Jordan mostly bore it all stoically, but began therapy when he had a crisis, getting into trouble with the law while on an atypical drunken rampage. At first the therapy had seemed to go well, but in the last year or so, Jordan thought that his therapist had seemed on numerous occasions to be quite angry with him. Jordan didn’t believe that he had done anything to deserve this, and was put off by it. He wondered if he should say something to the therapist.

The phenomena of transference and projection, although solidly accepted in the analytical and psychodynamic schools of psychology in which they originated, are nevertheless complex and often misunderstood concepts in psychotherapy. Yet some claim that projection, at least – especially in its severe form of projective identification – is the single most important phenomenon in psychotherapy (Ogden, 2005).

Why understand transference and projection?

It is ever more widely understood that the client fails to achieve competence and lacks self-esteem because his or her decision-making process is obstructed by traumatically induced patterns of expectation (related reading: Assessing and Treating Trauma). Translated, that statement means that the client’s damaging relationships with others early on have constrained his or her ability to make the most of abilities and opportunities. These counterproductive “programs” for relationships are unconscious and cannot be dealt with directly, either by the therapist or the client. Eventually, however, these pathological patterns find their way into the client-therapist relationship, giving the skilful therapist the opportunity to help the client to recognise and resolve them (or at least make them a little less problematic for the client). This repetition of characteristic but self-defeating patterns in therapy constitutes the therapeutic transference (Basch, 1988).

Because the patterns cannot be dealt with directly, the potential for working in the transferences – the essence of psychotherapy – is actualised through the therapist’s capacity for empathy: the ability to hear, comprehend, and use appropriately the emotional message beyond a client’s words: that is, at the level of the client’s (traumatically-induced) expectations. The therapist’s empathic understanding permits him or her to introduce into the therapeutic relationship interventions that address the client’s difficulties in a way that takes into account the client’s level of development in relation to the therapist. It is this that enables the client to integrate what the therapist communicates into his or her “self-system” and use it to attain the needed competence and self-esteem, a process Kohut (1971) referred to as transmuting internalisation.

Doing this work of psychotherapy is subtle, demanding, and complex. While said to be universally occurring in therapy, the notions of transference and projection – and their close cousins, countertransference and projective identification – are often variably defined in the literature and thus difficult to pin down. Certainly not all schools of psychology are equally focused on the notions. Psychotherapists are said to be ill equipped in general to handle the phenomenon, both in terms of theoretical knowledge and also with respect to the capacity to manage it therapeutically (O’Connell, 2011).

Defining transference

Transference is a phenomenon in psychology characterised by unconscious “redirection of feelings” between people. It can occur both in everyday life and also in the therapy room. One example of how it can happen is when a person mistrusts another because the other resembles, say, an ex-spouse, in manners, appearance, or demeanour. Amanda, whom we met above, was undoubtedly transferring feelings of nervousness and fear of disapproval to her relationship with her partner when she responded to him as if he were her father, with whom she is likely to have had unresolved issues.

In a therapeutic context, transference refers to the way in which the client’s view of and relations with childhood objects (meaning: people) are expressed in current feelings, attitudes, and behaviours in regard to the therapist (Sandler et al, 1980). Analysing this transference has generally been seen as the central feature of psychodynamically oriented techniques (Gill, 1982). Freud initially observed and formulated the notion of transference, understanding its importance for better understanding of the patient’s feelings. It was Jung, however, who noted that within the transference dyad both participants tended to experience a variety of opposites, and that the key to psychological growth was the ability to hold a point of tension with the opposites without abandoning the process. It was this tension, Jung said, which would allow a client to grow and transform (Bauer & Mills, 1989).

Defining projection

Projection, also an unconscious process like transference, is considered a defence mechanism whereby intolerable feelings or thoughts are externalised and attributed to others (Boyle, H., n.d.). By attributing to or “projecting onto” others one’s unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and/or emotions, projection reduces anxiety. This occurs because the unwanted subconscious impulses and desires have been allowed expression without letting the (threatened) ego recognise them.

These denied parts of oneself are usually projected onto another person, but psychological projection onto animals, inanimate objects, and even religious constructs also occurs. Jordan, whose case was posed earlier, was probably in denial about his own deep-seated anger (until it came out of hiding during his drunken rampage) and he may have been projecting his own anger and rageful impulses onto his therapist, who appeared to Jordan to be getting angry with him, Jordan.

Both so-called “negative” emotions and impulses – such as sadness, resentment, greed, and lust – and also “positive” emotions and qualities – such as generosity, creativity, and altruism – can be projected. That which is denied in us is often termed our psychological “shadow”, and it is that which comprises the principal material for projection.

Projective identification

This process occurs when a person:

  • Projects an unwanted or intolerable aspect of him/herself (such as, say, anxiety) onto someone else
  • Behaves toward the other in a way that generates feelings in the other which correspond with the projection, and then
  • Unconsciously identifies and feels oneness with the other.

Projective identification is unconscious and more extreme than projection. It serves a number of purposes for the person projecting in such a way. The most important function is probably that of defence: avoiding painful feelings, which have been denied. It also serves as communication: a nonverbal and unconscious means of sharing experience; instead of telling the therapist about their inner world, clients engaging in projective identification get the therapist to experience it. In this way they may be able to evoke empathy and understanding. Third, through projective identification clients secure a container outside of themselves which can hold and manage their unwanted feelings (O’Connell, 2011). Fourth, it is a way of relating to another person (relationships are all-important as a motivator for growth and development in the object relations school of psychotherapy). Finally, if the therapist is able to respond appropriately, projective identification can be a pathway for psychological change (Boyle, H., n.d.).

Some theorists have differentiated between projection and projective identification by noting that, with the former, it is as though the projector is putting something on to the recipient (the object of the projection), whereas with projective identification, it is as though the projector is putting something into the recipient (Klein, 1946; Catherall, 1991). There is a general acknowledgement that, with projection, a person has more choice as to whether or not to accept the projection, whereas with projective identification, there is a strong element of coercion, if unconscious (Hubbard, 1997).


While this concept has shifted over the years, the general consensus now is that countertransference is constituted by the therapist’s emotional reactions in response to the client’s transference and projective identifications. More generally, it can refer to a therapist’s emotional entanglement with a client.

In psychoanalytical and psychodynamic psychotherapies (such as object relations therapy), transference and countertransference are not deemed to be “bad” (Boyle, H., n.d.). Rather, they are mined by the therapist for the exceedingly useful information about the client’s process that they contain.

Key takeaways

  • Transference occurs when a person redirects their feelings from previous relationships onto their current relationship.
  • Projection is a defence mechanism used to externalise accepted or unacceptable feelings or thoughts onto someone else or an object.
  • Projective identification is an unconscious and more extreme version of projection, with the goal to avoid painful feelings by communicating nonverbally.
  • Countertransference are a therapist’s emotional reactions to a client’s transference and projective identifications.
  • Transference and countertransference are an important aspect of psychodynamic psychotherapy and the information they provide about a client’s process is invaluable.


  • Basch, M.F. (1988). Understanding psychotherapy: The science behind the art. United States of America: Basic Books.
  • Boyle, H. (n.d.) Object relations theory. Project for Psychotherapy Interventions II. New York: Appalachian State University.
  • Gill, M. (1982). Analysis of transference. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Hubbard, P. (1997). Lecture on shadow, transference, and projective identification, New Zealand Institute of Psychosynthesis. Hubbard is a teacher and founding director of the Institute.
  • Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
  • O’Connell, B. (2011). Understanding projective identification in psychotherapy, in Inside Out, 63, Spring, 2011. Retrieved on 27 February, 2013, from:
  • Ogden, T. H. (2005). Projective identification & psychotherapeutic technique. New Jersey: Karnac.