Understanding the Role of Transference in Career Counseling

By Lynn Friedman

During his junior year of college, Mr. Smith, an English major, sought assistance at the University Career Center. Characterizing his relationship with his parents as close, he described how they encouraged him to pursue his passions. “As an adolescent, I wanted to play the guitar – I didn’t realize that I was tone deaf. They chauffeured me to guitar lessons, band practices and concerts. Eventually, I realized I lacked talent. I think my parents knew that. But, for them, it wasn’t about my becoming the next Springsteen; it was about having fun and learning about myself. Later, when I wanted to study English, I was afraid my job prospects would be bleak, but they said, ‘don’t worry, do something that you enjoy and you will find your way’.” He forged a good relationship with his career counselor, identified a professional goal, and by graduation, he had secured his dream job.

Ms. Miller, a talented career counselor, tried to launch her own practice without success. Frustrated, she sought career counseling herself from a skilled advisor. She reported, “my entire life, my parents have been critical and demanding. Even now, they complain, ‘honey, that expensive Ivy League education we bought you is going to waste’.” Bristling, she added, “it was always about winning prizes and ‘bragging rights’. It was never about my happiness.” A challenging client, Ms. Miller often canceled, arrived late and “no showed.” She would agree to assignments and then come to meetings empty-handed. Criticizing her counselor, she lamented, “this isn’t going anywhere.” When the counselor asked about her assignments, Ms. Miller told her, “they are as useless as you are.” The counselor felt hurt and exasperated. Though clients like Ms. Miller may seek out professional guidance in earnest, they may be compelled to sabotage the career development process.

The Concept of Transference
In our early years, we learn about the world from our primary caretakers. Toddlers with nurturing parents anticipate supportive teachers; those with harsh parents expect strident ones. As we go out into the world, we discover that not everyone is like our parents. However, at a subterranean level, we anticipate a repeat of family relationships and may inadvertently provoke this repetition. It is as if a template for our relationships has been established. Expectations spring not from the interactions of today, but from an earlier well; this is known as transference.

Transference is most profound in our closest relationships, and in stressful and ambiguous situations. Positive transferences to the people in our lives are helpful. For example, Mr. Smith recognized his parents’ support of his developmental quest to define and pursue his passions. Not surprisingly, he transferred these unconscious expectations onto his counselor; this led to a good working relationship. In contrast, Ms. Miller’s relationship with her parents led to a more problematic transference. She experienced her parents’ as being more invested in her achievements than in her happiness. Likely, she viewed her career counselor’s wish to be helpful as one more attempt on the part of an authority figure to use her to bolster his/her own self-esteem. Unconsciously, it was gratifying for Ms. Miller to deprive the counselor of the satisfaction inherent in helping a client, just as it was gratifying to deprive her parents of “bragging rights.” Ultimately, however, she ended up feeling stymied and unfulfilled.

Working Through Transference
Fortunately, negative interactions like these can be avoided by recognizing that not all career-related problems can be resolved through career counseling alone. Ms. Miller, for example, was so caught up in transference that she was unable make good use of her advising sessions. For psychodynamic counselors and psychoanalysts, the cornerstone of treatment is helping a client to become aware of the transferences at play in work, love, and treatment itself, thereby making the unconscious conscious. Mental health counselors often create an atmosphere designed to foster the development of transference so that these feelings can be relived, examined, and emotionally understood. Only then can a client be liberated from the shackles of negative early experiences. In contrast, in career counseling, we often want to minimize transference so that we can focus on the tangible exploration and job search tasks at hand. There are, however, thoughtful ways that career counselors can help their clients work through instances of transference towards positive outcomes.

Beyond the traditional evaluation of the client’s current and past work and school experiences, clarification of personal and family background, as well as parental attitudes toward school and work, should occur. From this, the counselor can attempt to make inferences about the possible transferences at play. For example, if the client reports that a parent was impossible to please, the counselor should remain alert to the idea that the client may experience the counselor’s interventions as overly critical. To reduce this transference, the counselor can say, “given your history of feeling criticized, it’s likely that you may feel criticized in our sessions; if that happens, it would be helpful if you would let me know so that we can talk about it.” Another way to reduce transference is to establish clear expectations. Educating new clients about the counseling approach will let them to know what to anticipate from the counseling relationship. Give examples of the kinds of difficulties that can be resolved through career counseling and those that are more likely to yield to psychotherapy. Finally, establish referral relationships with private practitioners, including school or university counseling staff and low-fee psychoanalytic clinics, so you can help clients to obtain the kind of interventions that are most likely to allow them to achieve their goals.

Some unconscious conflicts can doom career counseling to failure, no matter how skilled the counselor. Understanding and recognizing the role of transference in counseling conversations can help make sure that a client makes the most of advising sessions and gets the assistance they need to make professional and personal progress.



Lynn FriedmanLynn Friedman, Ph.D., developed the Psychoanalytically-informed, Career Assessment Model. She is in private practice in Chevy Chase, MD, on the Washington, DC, border, where she sees people in career counseling, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. She teaches in the mental health counseling program at Johns Hopkins University. She and Heather Myers, Ph.D, an experimental psychologist & statistician, are of developing a tool to help to assess whether a client needs career counseling, psychotherapy or both. Lynn has had over 50 career columns published in the Washington Post. Her work can be found at www.washington-dc-psychologist.com. Lynn can be contacted at drlynnfriedman@verizon.net



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Janet Scarborough Civitelli, Ph.D.   on Tuesday 06/02/2015 at 11:32 AM

Excellent article! I appreciate content focused on the intersection of psychodynamic psychology and career counseling.

Angel Roman   on Tuesday 06/02/2015 at 12:07 PM

This was a terrific article and one that demonstrated the linkage between career and mental health issues.

Giulana Zago   on Tuesday 06/02/2015 at 12:21 PM

Very insightful article! Thank you for sharing.

Gail Liebhaber   on Tuesday 06/02/2015 at 01:52 PM

Very helpful to hear your analysis and suggestions. I want to emphasize that this is also good to understand for those of us who see middle age and older clients as well.

Rachel Soleil   on Wednesday 06/03/2015 at 03:42 PM

Really wonderful article. Thank you for sharing!

Mary Somers, MS   on Wednesday 06/10/2015 at 10:02 AM

Thanks for sharing such a valuable point of view. Career choice is influenced by many factors, and as career counselors and coaches we must remember to include discussions of the potential impact of familial patterns and expectations.

Ann Cochran   on Monday 06/29/2015 at 06:46 PM

I imagine that many clients coming for career help would have no idea why a therapist would be asking about childhood and parental attitudes and interactions. This article explains it all, and might serve as an occasionally helpful handout.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.