Countertransference, which occurs when a therapist transfers emotions to a person in therapy, is often a reaction to transference, a phenomenon in which the person in treatment redirects feelings for others onto the therapist.
History of Countertransference
Sigmund Freud originally developed the concepts of transference and countertransference. He described countertransference as a largely unconscious phenomenon in which the psychologist’s emotions are influenced by a person in therapy, 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, it is necessary for therapists to master the tendency to participate in unconscious countertransference by developing healthy boundaries and remaining mindful of the threat posed by countertransference, both to the therapeutic relationship and a therapist’s work with people seeking treatment.
In contemporary psychology, clinicians typically make a distinction between helpful and unhelpful countertransference. Many contemporary psychologists openly share their own feelings with the people they are treating and may use countertransference, in a conscious manner, to understand differences between their own experiences and the experiences of the person in therapy.
Unhelpful countertransference, or even harmful countertransference, can occur when the therapist transfers to a person in treatment feelings that are misplaced or when a therapist uses a person in therapy to meet personal psychological needs.
What Is Countertransference? Examples of Countertransference
Not all countertransference is problematic. For example, a therapist may meet with a person who has extreme difficulty making conversation. The therapist may begin, unwittingly, to lead the conversation and provide additional prompts to the person in treatment to encourage discussion. A therapist who realizes this can then point to the countertransference to help that person better understand the effect that difficulty making conversation can have on others. A therapist who has experienced the same issues as a person being treated may also be able to empathize with that person more deeply, whether the therapist decides to share those personal stories or not.
However, a problematic example of countertransference might occur when a person in treatment triggers a therapist’s issues with the therapist’s own child. The person being treated, for example, might be defiant with the therapist and may transfer defiance felt toward a parent onto the therapist. If the therapist reacts to the individual as one would react to one’s own child, by becoming increasingly controlling, for example, without recognizing the countertransference, this could negatively impact the therapeutic relationship and perpetuate unhealthy patterns in the life of the person in treatment.
A therapist might also feel ill-equipped to deal with an individual who expresses personal preferences and beliefs differing from the therapist’s own, such as racist or homophobic views. In good therapy, however, a therapist can still help an individual who has differing opinions by attempting to understand where any damaging or potentially harmful beliefs stem from and discussing that history with the person in treatment.
How to Deal with Problematic Countertransference
A therapist who spends a significant amount of time engaged in self-disclosure or who seems overly interested in insignificant details of a person’s life may not be attending to or even recognizing the presence of countertransference. Therapists can endeavor to be particularly mindful about recognizing their own feelings and fears when working with an individual who has experienced a personal trauma or stress the therapist has also experienced.
In the course of therapy, a therapist may come to experience an attraction to a person in treatment. While an attraction in itself is not an unnatural occurrence, the therapist must be able to recognize these feelings and deal with them in a healthy manner to prevent the development of an inappropriate relationship with a person in therapy.
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 a therapist may be under-involved with the situation and identify with the perpetrator, blame the victim, or refuse to believe the victim, and possibly discourage the individual 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, attempting to compensate for the perpetrator’s actions, and pushing the individual to take action, regardless of the exploited person’s wishes. Regardless of personal feelings, the therapist must be careful to maintain a middle ground when treating a person who has been abused by a past therapist.
Signs of countertransference in therapy can include a variety of behaviors, including excessive self-disclosure on the part of the therapist or an inappropriate interest in irrelevant details from the life of the person in treatment. A therapist who acts on their feelings toward the person being treated or that person’s situation or engages in behavior not appropriate to the treatment process may not be effectively managing countertransference.
A person in therapy who suspects a 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.
- American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Jorgenson, M. L. (1995). Countertransference and special concerns of subsequent treating therapists of patients sexually exploited by a previous therapist. Retrieved from http://www.therapyabuse.org/p2-inappropriate-countertransference.htm
- Murphy, S. N. (2013, September 1). Attending to countertransference. Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2013/09/attending-to-countertransference
- Tarnopolsky, A. (1995). Teaching countertransference. Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, 3(2), 293-313. Retrieved from https://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=CJP.003.0293A
Last Updated: 09-25-2019
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Philip Noel O.September 23rd, 2014 at 10:27 PM
I really like and love the simplistic way of explaining issues and terms in Counselling psychology.
PhenelopeFebruary 17th, 2016 at 8:40 PM
I do too. Me weally wike it awot.
Jennifer mMay 10th, 2016 at 6:06 AM
manuel h.May 1st, 2019 at 6:09 PM
Brief and wise purpose of information.
Alex KMay 16th, 2017 at 5:32 AM
The more I read, the more I listen, the more I think, the more I understand. The more I understand; the better the person I become.
AnnAMay 23rd, 2017 at 5:02 AM
Thank you. I would like to reference this article, can you advise who the author is please?
May 23rd, 2017 at
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AJAugust 10th, 2017 at 1:28 AM
“A therapist who realizes this can then point to the countertransference to help that person better understand the effect a difficulty making conversation can have on others.”
A therapist shaming their client and attempting to suppress the client’s natural communication in favor of avoiding causing others misplaced discomfort is neither helpful nor respectful therapy.
SteveMarch 7th, 2020 at 8:41 PM
I totally agree.
I hate to say this, but it seems like it’s the female therapists that too often ignore the feeling of their male clients. Male therapists do this also, but websites are full of male clients that have had their transference badly handled by newer female therapists.
It never gets discussed in detail, is usually assumed as ‘erotic’, and gets the client transferred.
They also add another layer of emotions to work through, this time with a new therapist.
JanNovember 2nd, 2017 at 1:26 PM
I have to agree with AJ, in that telling someone that could be shaming, you are then working on meeting your own need – to be heard.
This article was helpful, and I did not feel like it was really very clear about good use of countertransference.
Kishon K.September 20th, 2018 at 12:10 PM
Thanks! This helped my understanding if countertransference.
nicolaSeptember 25th, 2018 at 3:19 PM
I am currently doing a counselling course and I would like to thank you for your information
MarvinNovember 5th, 2018 at 7:05 AM
How does a counselor undo the damage brought by countertransference due to therapist’s acting on his feelings? Is there a chance to gain back the person in treatment’s trust?
Mary SMarch 30th, 2019 at 1:07 PM
This is a a good question. I had a therapist whom I believe did not manage countertransference well, and therapy with her was counterproductive for me. I went to therapy seeking help with the stresses of being a woman in a STEM field (this was in the mid 1980’s) and assumed (naively) that someone with a Ph.D. in psychology would have training in scientific thinking. But when I asked her a question about why she was doing something, she responded, “Are you sure you’re not trying to second guess me?”, which was shocking to me and sounded extremely authoritarian. So in the next session I asked if her question indeed was saying what I thought it was saying (hoping I was wrong), and she said yes. I gave her too much benefit of the doubt and went back again. Another time I asked her why she was doing something, and she responded, “Do you realize you’re asking me to give up my control?” I was speechless. I went back the next week, and she said she had figured out a way to explain what she was doing: “Consider me to be something like a computer: what you say goes in, mixes around with my training and experience, and out comes a response.” That left me speechless: In my mind, my question was analogous to asking what algorithm a computer was using, or how it had been programmed, or details of the program.
LaurieMay 19th, 2019 at 2:31 PM
Ok. I fell in love with my therapist long ago. I’m, adored her the minute I saw her. I’m a lesbian and everything about her I liked. Her walk, voice, manner, answers.
We have a dual relationship and it’s working fine. She says hello,and goes about her work as as a pastor.
She didn’t want me to come for quite a while and then accepted it, and it works. I made friends there and one friend that’s an Elder in particular.
i noticed today — and I may be wrong, that she (my therapist,pastor) interrupted the Elder and I talking. She said her hello to me at this time, for the first time, while needing to give something to the Elder gal.
The Elder noticed my therapist seemed rude and she said,to me, she’s thinking of what she has to do.
So, I wasn’t the only one that noticed. To conclude, I had the feeling my therapist was jealous of my friendship with the Elder gal.
She needn’t be as no one can take her place. I’m even including my therapist in my Will.
She’s knows this and didn’t want to discuss it— She’s so professional. She’s up there in age as I am too.
Might she have been jealous; or am I crazy?
LaurieMay 19th, 2019 at 2:53 PM
Just my opinion… my therapist said one day that I I give her too much control. I said I didn’t mind.
I still do because I respect her perhaps too much. She’s brilliant and is also a pastor which I wrote in my blurb after this. Your therapist may have been too young… learning. I can’t say for sure. What is important is trust. Otherwise, you have nothing.
RachelJuly 20th, 2019 at 4:20 AM
Certain issues such as blatant disregard for other people’s suffering really bother me in my work.
OliviaSeptember 4th, 2019 at 1:10 PM
Great article…I have a better understanding of countertransferance!
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