Countertransference is critically important aspect of psychotherapy. Originally introduced by Sigmund Freud as a concept of psychoanalytic psychology, it is a compelling feature of the interaction between therapist and client. The therapeutic relationship has a powerful impact on the efficacy of therapy and countertransference is a major part of both success and challenges.
This article will explore countertransference in more depth and answer many common questions. For example, what do we mean when we talk about countertransference? How do we know if it is happening? How does countertransference affect therapy and how can it be managed effectively by therapists?
What is Countertransference?
Countertransference occurs when a therapist redirects their thoughts and feelings onto their clients. This often occurs in reaction to the client’s transference toward the therapist. And much like transference, it is not something that can be avoided; therapists are human beings who are going to have feelings towards their clients.
Freud, for one, viewed countertransference as problematic. He believed the therapist was supposed to serve as an uninvolved object for the patient and did not believe that countertransference was helpful to the therapeutic process.
Not everyone feels the same, however. In modern psychology, countertransference is often used as a tool to advance the goals of therapy. Therapists frequently share some personal information and feelings with the client. In this way, therapy models a real interaction, and clients are partly meant to learn how to conduct their relationships based upon their interplay with their therapist. Indeed, this is the basis for much of relational psychotherapy.
Further, if you are having certain feelings toward a client, it can be very informative. For example, countertransference is used by the Adlerian therapist as a clue to the effect that the client has on others in their life. Therefore, if you feel a certain way toward a client, it tells you that others may feel the same.
However, countertransference, if not managed correctly, can impede and even derail treatment. Similar to transference, it can be positive, negative, and/or sexual. When taken too far, it can lead to unethical, immoral, and even illegal behavior on the part of the therapist.
In one study, 70 percent of mental health professionals confessed to finding a client sexually attractive and 80 percent felt like clients were friends. While some might argue that this is perfectly natural, one could see how countertransference could become problematic if left unchecked.
How Do I Know if I Am Experiencing Countertransference?
Analyzing a client for transference is one thing; self-examination for countertransference is quite another. Therapists are often skilled at assessing others but do not always possess as much self-awareness as they may think. It can be quite easy to develop counter-transferential feelings toward a client but not recognize them for what they are.
Here are some indicators that you may be experiencing countertransference toward your client:
- Not wanting to see a specific client. Certain clients are difficult. And you may not personally like them so much. This is a common occurrence. But when you have extreme feelings of dislike and dread about seeing a particular client, this may be a sign of countertransference.
- Overly positive views of a client. The flip side is also true. If you are enamored with a client and look forward to seeing them, you may have positive countertransference. It is typical to like certain clients more than others but if you find yourself wishing to spend time with them outside of work, it may be a problem.
- Becoming overprotective with minors. When treating children, a therapist may find themselves taking on a parental role. They want to protect the child at all costs and minimize the child’s negative behavior. While you want to be an advocate for the children you see, it is crucial to retain objectivity.
- Romantic and/or sexual feelings. As noted above, many therapists are attracted to their clients. This is not a problem as long as a therapist acknowledges it and sets strong boundaries. However, if you are lax and allow some flirtation to occur, it can become a slippery slope with terrible consequences for both you and the client.
- Becoming too involved with a specific client. Have you ever found yourself preoccupied with a case? You may feel like you have noble intentions thinking about a client when you are off the clock but if you can’t get them out of your head it may be an indicator of countertransference.
- Another countertransference problem may occur if your client has issues that hit too close to home. For instance, say you were physically abused as a child by your father. Then you begin seeing a child who has been abused by their father. You find yourself lashing out at the father even though you are supposed to be helping them reconcile. In this case, your unresolved personal feelings might become an impediment to successful treatment.
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What Can I Do to Successfully Manage Countertransference?
Recognizing countertransference is only part of the battle. Learning how to effectively deal with it is the necessary conclusion.
Here are some steps you can take to successfully manage countertransference:
- Supervision. Supervision is invaluable for any therapist. It can take the form of mentorship or a peer relationship. Some therapists even take part in group supervision. Talking about cases with other professionals gives you the benefit of their insight when you may be lacking objectivity and self-awareness. They will likely be able to spot your countertransference (and maybe client transference) if you cannot.
- Strong Boundaries. Setting limits for yourself in the therapeutic relationship is a critical preventative measure in managing countertransference. Having lines that you will not cross stops you from finding yourself in an ethical and moral dilemma. For instance, maybe you adopt a rule where you refuse all gifts from clients in order to help eliminate any personal or romantic entanglements.
- Self-monitoring. It is a good idea to debrief yourself after each client or at the end of your workday. You can evaluate yourself for any extreme feelings or inappropriate behavior you may be exhibiting toward a particular client. Pinterest has a useful exercise that therapists can perform to aid in countertransference self-monitoring.
- Remove yourself from a case. This is a last resort but if you find you want to cross a line with a client and it is jeopardizing their or your well-being, it may be recommended to refer them to another therapist. A therapist that develops sexual feelings for a client, for example, is well-advised to stop therapy if they feel like they can’t manage it productively. Because you never want your client to feel abandoned, it is not a step to be taken lightly and should be done with care.
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