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Can Transference Occur in Spiritual Direction?

February 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Allison Ricciardi, Counseling/Therapy

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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About Allison Ricciardi

Allison Ricciardi is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York. In 2001 she founded in response to a growing demand for counseling that is faithful to the Magisterium and includes prayer and spirituality. She is also Founder and Director of The Raphael Remedy, which offers counseling and life coaching from a Catholic perspective. Allison's core belief is that God has a great plan for each of His children...and that by combining sound psychology with solid faith, clients can find real healing and lasting happiness. Visit Allison's blog at

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  • patricia

    Allison great explanation. I am a student in mental health counseling. I want to become a catholic therapist working with the traumatized of all ages. It is true we learn transference and counter transference can take place in therapeutic relationships such in counseling and in spiritual direction. I am careful of this in spiritual direction as a directee. It is a working thru process and should not be ignored. Thanks for such clarity on this matter. God Bless Always!

    • allisonricciardi

      God bless you too, Patricia. Good luck with your studies. We can always use more solidly Catholic therapists!

      • patricia

        Thank you ask for prayers that I become the type of therapist God wishes me to become

  • judeen

    what is the spiritual side of it? taking on the spirtitual , when one has a tuff past and does cling on hope and freindship ,depression alot of the time comes at certain time of the year… maybe when they were attacked . or a deep wound accoured… this is attamatic in the person uncontious… they have alot of unforgiveness… deep wounds.. also this is where evil dwells… and we feed them with our sins… of unforgiveness and so on… .. is this not what one takes on? reconizing their own wounds in life.. yet this has to do with the spiritual…life.
    does not one have to be spiritual and right with God to be a spiritual advisor? and as a person helps another.. one has to look at the spiritual side of a person too… does not a acholic have to seek God to heal? so on… the spiritual is part of the healing and growing in God… when one is alert to this.. one is aware of not taking on the thing that is enslaving the wounded person trying to grow closer to God . I do not understand just the book part of things… I have worked in prison ministry .. alot of wounded people and one can see the spiritual battle the want of enslavery of the person and their soul… with out prayer and kindness and firmness one would not get anywhere….

    • allisonricciardi

      Much of what you talk about does relate to the spiritual side but when dealing with depression and terribly deep wounds, therapy is really needed…but that therapy will only succeed to the extent that the person’s wounded spirit is also addressed. Yes, certainly to be a good spiritual advisor or director that person would need to be right with God and emotionally healthy themselves. It is a spiritual battle that is often played out on the wounded emotions so healing those wounds can close those doors to spiritual attack. God bless you in your ministry.

      • judeen

        hi,, yes the depression in people are terrible deep wounds.. been there.. once in a while still fight it.. bad past… but I have found out that unforgiveness is a big part of the depression.. took a friend to the grave of her father and forgave him.. some horrible stuff and things started to change big time… unforgiveness feeds a big demon.. seen him.. as we feed it with hate it becomes stronger… and we have less control… the pain , sorrow, regret… so on comes from it… God showed me this… to defeat it.. one must deside to forgive.. it is not a feeling… it is a desision… that pain was so bad.. I could not , so I asked God to forgive… over the years I look at the same situation differently.. and see the things God taught me through it.. and how I could of changed things… maybe… everything to a spiritual director should be spiritual.. or that person is in the wronge field.

        • allisonricciardi

          Absolutely….forgiveness is key to healing and it is a decision. God does the rest once we decide.

  • Estefania

    Thank you! Very interesting article. I have from the beginning of my conversion always related more to Jesus and even the Holy Spirit. And even though i had a very stable upbringing and my parents were together and overall loving parents, i wouldn’t say we had a ‘close’ relationship. I would like to have a better relationship with God the father and Mary. My relationship with my parents has since been improving little by little and I would say I have forgiven them for anything they have done. Any suggestions? I haven’t been able to find a spiritual director either.

    • Jeanette

      Ask Jesus to ‘borrow His Heart’ so that you may love God the Father and Mother Mary more. This prayer definitely works if you are sincere of heart. I had a distant father growing up and I could not relate very well to God the Father as a Father to me. I started to pray to Jesus for it and gradually I was able to love the Lord God more and more and now I am totally in love with God the Father! God bless you.

      • allisonricciardi

        Beautiful Jeanette. Very well said!

      • Estefania

        Thank you Jeanette! I actually quickly saw your message the other day and did add this to my prayers and I had a breakthrough in prayer overall over the weekend so I am very grateful that you shared this with me. That also made me think of the scripture passage that says, No one comes to the Father except through me. I took it as a consolation that in Jesus, in becoming one with him and ‘borrowing his heart’ as you say, we will have the abundant life which will be an intimate relationship with our Creator, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God bless!

        • Jeanette

          You’re welcome. You are absolutely right…Jesus did say that no one comes to the Father except through Him. We need to be consistent in saying this prayer as I believe Jesus is very pleased with our persistent desire and will abundantly bless us by bringing us closer and closer in an intimate love relationship with God the Father. I got this prayer idea from a book called “He and I.” It is a collection of inspirations from Jesus to the French mystic Gabrielle Bossis. She reportedly said that He told her: “To love the Father and the Spirit, borrow my Heart, and to love Your Christ, offer Him His Passion.” God bless you Estefania!

          • Estefania

            Thank you again Jeanette, that sounds to me like a great prayer to start the day with. I’m sure that will also lead to loving others a lot more and having more mercy. God bless!

    • allisonricciardi

      It is interesting to see which persons of the Trinity are more easy for each of us to relate to…as well as relating to Mary. Read more about Mary and God the father in the scriptures and in solid spiritual bookds so you can get to know more about who they really are without seeing them through the lens of your parents. Jeannette’s suggestion below is wonderful…I certainly can’t improve upon that advice!

      • Estefania

        Thank you Allison, I will do definitely do so. I look forward to reading more of your articles. God Bless!

  • ThirstforTruth

    Very interesting and informative post. I would recommend going to Allison Ricciardi’s webpage for even more interesting posts.
    It is only natural that we look to those who influenced us most heavily during our formative years to understand how those past relationships still affect our current
    relationships. I love the opening question here as a way toward understanding our spiritual relationships and would love to explore that further. Could Allison post another time on this very subject? I would love to understand more why most do
    not have a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit ( we used to call this third person of the Trinity the Holy Ghost!) even though He, the Spirit, is the one, sent to us
    specifically according to Jesus and Scripture, to comfort and guide us in this world.

    • allisonricciardi

      Thank you so much. I’m glad you found the post helpful. I’d be happy to write more on this topic. Any specific questions? Let me know. God bless!

      • ThirstforTruth

        Well, I can understand how relationships with one’s father and or mother affect how one relates well, or not so wel,l with either God the Father or Mary as our Heavenly Mother. But do our early relationships ( during the formative years) play into how well we relate ( or not so well ) to the Holy Spirit? Is there anything in our formative years that affects our relationship with the Third Person of the Trinity? It seems easy to relate to Jesus, for example, even if at first one starts with only Jesus, the Infant. Everyone loves a baby! But how does one form a relationship with a Spirit? I guess I am still working from the original question above. Does anyone answer that question that they relate best to the Holy Spirit? If so what sort of person does that? What sorts
        of experience lead them to identify most easily with the Holy Spirit? I find the question fascinating and wonder if you can expound more on it. God bless and ever so grateful.

        • Kanga 13

          I found this prayer to the Holy Spirit to be particularly helpful in understanding what the Holy Spirit is:

          A Prayer to the Holy Spirit

          Come, Holy Spirit, replace the tension
          within us [or me] with a holy relaxation.
          Replace the turbulence within us with a
          sacred calm.
          Replace the anxiety with us with a quiet
          Replace the fear within us with a strong
          Replace the bitterness within us with
          the sweetness of grace.
          Replace the darkness within us with a
          gentle light.
          Replace the coldness with us with a
          loving warmth.
          Replace the night within us with your
          Straighten our crookedness.
          Fill our emptiness.
          Dull the edge of our pride.
          Sharpen the edge of our humility.
          Light the fires of our love.
          Quench the flames of our lust.
          Let us see ourselves as You see us.
          That we may see You as You have
          promised, and be fortunate according to Your word: “Blessed are the pure
          of heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8)

          • ThirstforTruth

            I recently came across this prayer on the internet as
            I was preparing for a group discussion on Mystery as it concerns our Faith. It is most penetrating and insightful on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Do you happen to know its authorship or background? Thanks and God bless!

  • Mrshopey

    Trusting your gut and detecting something is not quite right, a person would severe the direction – either with therapist or priest?

  • LizEst

    Great post, Allison. Many will benefit from learning this. God bless you!

  • Kanga 13

    Great post on the dangers of infatuation with a spiritual director and of a spiritual director with his directee. There is a level of intimacy that carries with it its own dangers. Awareness that feelings can get inflamed helps so as to recognize when things need to be cut off at the pass. This is an increased danger in situations when the directee has a troubled marriage.

    I also found your comments on the difficulties of being able to relate to Mary, and God the Father to be insightful if relationships with parents have been or are fraught. Turning to an alternative figure when one is wounded and seeking healing is great advice.

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