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Transference is the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present. The process is at least partly inappropriate to the present. The psychiatrist utilizes this phenomenon as a therapeutic tool to help the patient understand emotional problems and their origins.

“The process of transference is not conscious, and the patient unwittingly projects a needed aspect of a previously experienced or wished-for relationship on to the doctor . Because it is a relationship that is “transferred”, the patient and doctor are expected to take complementary roles. So a patient who is afraid that he or she is seriously ill may adopt a helpless child-like role and project an omnipotent parent-like quality on to the doctor, who is then expected to provide a solution.” (Hughes and Kerr, 2000)

Anxious and vulnerable patients may project their unconscious feelings onto the therapist. Understanding transference helps staff maintain boundaries and prevents acting out.


A patient with borderline personality disorder is seen weekly by the doctor. The patient tells the doctor that she has been let down by people several times in her life. The doctor reassures her that he will continue to see her weekly. The doctor in the future goes on leave and the patient takes an overdose.

See also countertransference.