Can Transference Occur in Spiritual Direction?

Can transference occur in Spiritual Direction?     


This is an interesting question but I’d like to separate it into two:

  1. Can transference occur in the spiritual life?
  2. Can transference occur with a spiritual director?

First, let’s look at a definition of the term “transference”. Tranference is a psychological term that means “the redirection of feelings and desires, especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood, toward a new object.” * It commonly occurs in psychotherapy and can be used effectively by a therapist in the therapeutic process to expose and resolve early relationship conflicts and wounds.

So, to answer the first question: Can transference occur in the spiritual life? Sure. As a therapist I often ask clients to whom they best relate …God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or Our Lady. Their answer can hold the key to a deeper understanding of their early relationships. In turn, understanding their early relationships can also clue us in to potential problems in their spiritual formation and spiritual life.

If while growing up we had a distant parent, we may have trouble relating to God, our heavenly Father as truly being present and interested in our lives. If, our parents were abusive or critical, it can be difficult to imagine God not waiting to pounce on us for our imperfections. I remember a friend of mine who grew up with a schizophrenic mother. I once suggested she pray to Mary. She shrugged her shoulders and said “I never think she’s listening.” Afterwards she reflected on it and realized that was because of her mom who, when in a psychotic episode, couldn’t be present to her. With that insight she decided to get to know Mary better and developed a deep relationship with this heavenly mother, who, as at Cana, sees our needs and intercedes for us even when we don’t know she’s watching.

So, let’s tackle the second question: Can transference occur in spiritual direction? The answer is yes, and it can be both good and bad. Although spiritual direction is aimed at discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, because it involves a human relationship, human dynamics will inevitably come into play.

Like counseling, spiritual direction is a unique human relationship in that it is pretty much one sided. The directee is sharing his or her life, experiences and feelings with the spiritual director. The spiritual director is present without usually sharing much about his or her own life and experiences, except perhaps that which can be helpful to the directee. For someone who has not received adequate affirmation and unconditional love growing up, this can be very healing, but caution is advised here. The director can easily be idealized by the directee as they perceive a deep need for unconditional acceptance being fulfilled. A wise director would be aware of this phenomenon and guide the directee back to God and away from his or herself accordingly. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God, not the director.

Another example in which transference can come into play would be with a person who perhaps had a critical or demanding parent. Such a person may hold things back from his or her spiritual director out of fear of criticism or coercion. If this is recognized by the directee and/or spiritual director, discussing and working it through can yield great results as it can also expose a similar dynamic in their relationship with God.

“Countertransference”, when the director’s unconscious needs, desires or experiences are triggered by the directee can also occur, as is common in therapy.  Again, a wise director is aware of that and will seek to work that through, perhaps in their own spiritual direction. Sadly, I’ve seen many well meaning priests get into trouble after entering into spiritual direction or counseling relationships with female parishioners, unaware of the needs or feelings that were being triggered in themselves. Hence psychological health and emotional maturity are critical qualities to look for in a good spiritual director.

One more note, the hallmark of any healthy relationship is a profound respect for the freedom of the other individual involved. Spiritual direction should be a liberating experience and not one that should cause more anxiety or distress. For the average person, there is no vow or expectation of obedience between the directee and the spiritual director. That being said however, following the advice of the director freely, especially in those areas that may be challenging, would be the sensible road to take and one that can lead to the most growth. As in all things, trust your gut…if something doesn’t feel right in a spiritual direction relationship, it could indicate unhealthy transference or countertransference occurring. Talking it out with someone familiar with the spiritual direction process would be a good idea.

* Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (8th ed. 1976).


Art: Wedding at Cana, Library; A French Canadian Lady in her Winter Dress and a Roman Catholic Priest, 1810, John Lambert, CCA 12.0 Generic; both Wikimedia Commons.

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