Countertransference occurs when a therapist transfers emotions to a client. It is often a reaction to transference, a phenomenon in which a client redirects his or her feelings for others onto the therapist.
Sigmund Freud originally developed the concept of countertransference. He described it as a largely unconscious phenomenon in which the psychologist’s emotions are influenced by a client and the psychologist reacts with countertransference. Classical psychoanalysts, such as Carl Jung, who faced his own struggle with countertransference, characterize it as a potentially problematic phenomenon that can inhibit psychological treatment when left unchecked. In other words, therapists must master their tendency to participate in unconscious countertransference by developing healthy boundaries and remaining mindful that the issue can pose a threat to the therapeutic relationship and their work with clients.
In contemporary psychology, clinicians typically make a distinction between helpful and unhelpful countertransference. Many contemporary psychologists openly share their own feelings with clients and may use countertransference, in a conscious manner, to understand differences between their own experiences and the client’s experiences. Unhelpful countertransference, or even harmful countertransference, can occur when the therapist transfers feelings to the client that are misplaced, or uses the client to meet his or her own psychological needs.
Not all countertransference is problematic. For example, a therapist may meet with a client who has extreme difficulty making conversation. The therapist may find him or herself unwittingly leading the conversation and providing additional prompts to the client to encourage him or her to talk. A therapist who realizes this can then point to the countertransference to help the client better understand the effect his/her difficulty making conversation has on others. A therapist who has experienced the same issues as a client may also be able to empathize with him or her more deeply, whether the therapist decides to share those personal stories or not.
However, a problematic example of countertransference might occur when a client triggers a therapist’s issues with his or her own child. The client, for example, might be defiant with the therapist and may transfer feelings of defiance he or she feels toward a parent onto the therapist. If the therapist reacts to the client as one would react to one’s own child, such as by becoming increasingly controlling, without recognizing the countertransference, this could negatively impact the therapeutic relationship and perpetuate unhealthy patterns in the client’s life.
A therapist who spends a significant amount of time engaged in self-disclosure or who seems overly interested in insignificant details of a client’s life may not be attending to or even recognizing his or her own countertransference. Therapists can endeavor to be particularly mindful about recognizing their own feelings and fears when working with a client who has experienced a personal trauma or stress that the therapist has also experienced.
In the course of therapy, a therapist may come to experience an attraction to a client. While an attraction in itself is not an unnatural occurrence, the therapist must be able to recognize his or her feelings and deal with them in a healthy manner to prevent the development of an inappropriate relationship with a client.
Countertransference is sometimes seen in therapists who are treating a person who has been exploited sexually by a previous therapist. In these cases, it is possible that a therapist may be under-involved with the situation and identify with the perpetrator, blame the victim or refuse to believe him or her, and possibly discourage the patient from taking action against the perpetrator.
On the other hand, therapists might also demonstrate countertransference by becoming over-involved with the situation, exhibiting outrage, distancing themselves from the perpetrator and attempting to compensate for his or her actions, and pushing the client to take action, regardless of the client’s own wishes. Regardless of a therapist’s own feelings, he or she must be careful to maintain a middle ground when treating a client who has been abused by a past therapist.
Countertransference can manifest in different ways, such as excessive self-disclosure on the part of the therapist or an inappropriate interest in irrelevant details from the client’s life. A therapist who acts on their feelings toward a client or a client’s situation or engages in behavior toward the client that is not appropriate to the treatment process may not be effectively managing countertransference.
A person in therapy who suspects his or her therapist of harmful countertransference might consider bringing it up in a session, if it is safe to do so. Making the therapist aware of the issue may be enough to solve the problem, but obtaining a second opinion might also be of benefit in some cases. If the issue does not resolve, finding a new therapist may be a possible solution. Grossly unethical behaviors are often best reported to a licensing board or some higher authority.
Last updated: 03-24-2015