Negative Transference

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The term negative transference refers to the aspects of the transference that counter the progress of psychoanalytic treatment. It is thus not a matter simply of the patient's expressing hostile feelings towards the analystwhich may in fact be helpful to the treatmentbut rather negative feelings toward the person of the analyst that strengthen resistances and may bring analytic work to a halt whether or not the sessions are actually broken off.

Freud evoked these difficulties as early as the Studies on Hysteria (1895d): "If, now, this relation of the patient to the physician is disturbed, her cooperativeness fails, too; when the physician tries to investigate the next pathological idea, the patient is held up by an intervening consciousness of the complaints against the physician that have been accumulating in her." Freud described three main types of cases in which this occurred: cases where "the patient feels she has been neglected, has been too little appreciated or has been insulted"; cases where "the patient is seized by a dread of becoming too much accustomed to the physician personally, of losing her independence in relation to him, and even of perhaps becoming sexually dependent on him"; and, lastly, cases where the patient is afraid of "finding that she is transferring on to the figure of the physician the distressing ideas which arise from the content of the analysis" (pp. 301-302).

The actual expression "negative transference" made its first appearance in Freud's "The Dynamics of Transference" (1912b): "We must make up our minds to distinguish a 'positive' transference from a 'negative' one, the transference of affectionate feelings from that of hostile ones, and to treat the two sorts of transference to the doctor separately." The transference onto the person of the analyst "is suitable for resistance to the treatment only in so far as it is a negative transference or a positive transference of repressed erotic wishes" (p. 105).

After 1920, Freud linked negative transference to the repetition compulsion and the death instinct. In his wake, the Kleinians would lay justifiable stress on the analysis of negative transference. Thus Melanie Klein rebuked Anna Freud for not analyzing it in children, and, in "Some Theoretical Conclusions Regarding the Emotional Life of the Infant," recommended that the reinforcement of the positive transference not be systematically pursued, but rather that the analyst should at times allow himself to "stand for frightening figures, [for] only in this way can the infantile persecutory anxieties be fully experienced, worked through and diminished" (1975 [1952], p. 90, n. 2).

The two aspects of the transference always coexist, but they do not always appear simultaneously. Hostile feelings towards the analyst does not inevitably mean a negative transference; it may indicate reaction formations, which can augur well for the progress of the treatment, since they are in fact defenses against a positive transference. Conversely, negative transference may have an indirect role only, in the background to a manifest positive transference, yet effectively undermine all therapeutic progress. The absence of forward motion in an analysis may indeed be the only sign of negative transference. Freud himself pointed out that "Bitterness against men is as a rule easy to gratify upon the physician; it need not evoke any violent emotional manifestations, it simply expresses itself by rendering futile all his endeavours and by clinging to the illness" (1920a, p. 164). The negative transference thus means that "the ego treats recovery itself as a new danger" (1937c, p. 238). It may also have a retroactive impact: "If the negative transference gains the upper hand," the successes of the therapy "are blown away like chaff before the wind" (1940a [1938], p. 176).

It is essential to underline that in Freud's eyes negative transference was an aspect of the transference in the fullest sense: it represented a repetition of a relationship in the patient's childhood and had to be interpreted accordingly. Thus the analyst should offer very little gratification to the patient, as this complaisance might hinder the externalization of the patient'shostile feelings and deprive the analyst of opportunities to tackle them.

Most authors concur that inadequate analysis of negative transference or of hate in the transference are at the root of psychoanalytic failures. As Freud observed, "Under the influence of the unpleasurable impulses which [the patient] feels as a result of the fresh activation of his defensive conflicts, negative transferences may now gain the upper hand and completely annul the analytic situation" (1937c, p. 239). When Sándor Ferenczi reproached Freud for not having analyzed the negative aspects of his transference onto him, Freud's response included the following: "A certain man, who had himself practised analysis with great success, came to the conclusion that his relations both to men and women . . . were nevertheless not free from neurotic impediments; and he therefore made himself the subject of an analysis by someone else whom he regarded as superior to himself. This critical illumination of his own self had a completely successful result. . . . But then . . . trouble arose. The man who had been analysed became antagonistic to the analyst and reproached him for having failed to give him a complete analysis. The analyst, he said, ought to have. . . given his attention to the possibilities of a negative transference. The analyst defended himself by saying that, at the time of the analysis, there was no sign of a negative transference" (p. 221).

The notion of negative transference must be distinguished from that of "negative therapeutic reaction," which refers to a paradoxical aggravation of symptoms after an interpretation to alleviate them. Even though the upshot of a negative transference may be a negative therapeutic reaction, the appearance of such a reaction does not necessarily imply negative transference, and the analyst may in fact contribute to this by his counter-transference or by the timing, form, or tone of his interpretations.

Paul Denis

See also: Counter-transference; Negative therapeutic reaction; Transference.


Freud, Sigmund. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.

. (1920a). The psychogenesis of a case of female homosexuality. SE, 18: 145-172.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Greenson, Ralph R. (1967). The technique and practice of psychoanalysis. New York: International Universities Press.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 4). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1952)

Further Reading

Chertoff, Judith M. (1989). Negative oedipal transference male pt. female analyst: Terminat. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 37, 687-714.

Novick, Jack. (1980). Negative therapeutic motivation and negative therapeutic alliance. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 35, 299-320.