Countertransference refers to a therapist’s emotional reactions and projections towards a client based on the therapist’s own personal experiences or unresolved feelings.
This concept is an important reminder that therapists are humans with their own psychological needs.
First coined by Sigmund Freud, the term was initially seen as a negative (Freud & Breuer, 1895). And while it can still have negative effects on the therapy sessions, attitudes toward the phenomenon have changed over time.
Today, it’s believed that countertransference should be carefully monitored, but isn’t always harmful (Fuertes et al., 2013). When recognized and addressed, its effects can be quite transformative. It can bring about professional growth, help with self-awareness, and even improve therapeutic relationships. Recognizing these reactions brings invaluable insight into the therapist’s own biases and potential blind spots.
A psychologist might over-identify with a client who is struggling with a similar issue that the therapist faced in the past (Redlinger‐Grosse, 2020).
This scenario might lead them to project their experiences onto the client, thus overlooking the unique aspects of the client’s situation and needs. It’s a subtle form of countertransference that can obstruct the provision of personalized care.
2. Neglectful Countertransference
When a therapist develops a dislike for a client based on a resemblance with an individual from the therapist’s personal life, it might result in neglectful countertransference.
In this case, the therapist might unconsciously fail to explore certain issues or provide the required support, which can hinder the therapeutic process. It’s an example of countertransference that demands immediate resolution for effective therapy.
3. Rescue Fantasy Countertransference
Some therapists might experience an urge to ‘rescue’ their clients due to their past personal experiences (Alfonso, 2023).
For instance, a therapist who grew up with a substance-abusing parent may project a rescuer role onto their client who’s struggling with substance abuse.
This type of countertransference might impact the therapist’s objectivity, as they might be inclined to go beyond their professional boundary to help the client.
4. Sexualized Countertransference
A therapist might experience attraction towards a client, which is known as sexualized countertransference.
This may occur when a client possesses attributes or qualities that arouse feelings of desire within the therapist. It’s a dangerous form of countertransference that requires immediate resolution to prevent ethical breaches and ensure the client’s welfare.
5. Parental Countertransference
When a client’s behavior or situation triggers feelings of parental concern within the therapist, it’s called parental countertransference (Guasto, 2020).
This can result in the therapist making decisions based on a protective instinct rather than professional judgement. This form of countertransference can compromise the effectiveness of therapy as it prevents the establishment of a balanced, professional relationship.
6. Hostile Countertransference
Therapists might experience anger or resentment towards clients who aren’t making the desired progress, resulting in hostile countertransference (Guest & Carlson, 2019).
This type of countertransference can lead to an unhealthy relationship between the client and therapist, impeding the progress of the therapy. Recognizing this response, understanding its source, and managing it are crucial steps in the counseling journey.
7. Guilt-inducing Countertransference
Feelings of guilt can be triggered within the therapist when working with clients who are going through severe difficulties. This is termed guilt-inducing countertransference.
It might influence the therapist’s actions, resulting in overcompensation or avoidance of challenging issues. Such responses can disrupt the provision of effective therapeutic interventions.
8. Boredom-driven Countertransference
When a therapist feels uninterested or bored during sessions with a particularly monotonous client, it results in boredom-driven countertransference (Guest & Carlson, 2019).
This might lead to a lack of engagement or a disinterest in exploring the client’s issues thoroughly. It’s a type of countertransference which requires self-awareness and active management to prevent detrimental effects on therapy.
9. Idealized Countertransference
A therapist might overly admire or exalt a client due to particular attributes, leading to idealized countertransference.
The predilection can skew the therapist’s perspective, preventing them from seeing the full range of the client’s experiences and issues. This might inadvertently encourage the client to continue patterns of behavior that are not beneficial.
10. Business Transaction Countertransference
When a therapist perceives their relationship with a client as purely a business arrangement, it constitutes business transaction countertransference.
Therapists in this scenario may regard their clients as customers rather than individuals seeking help, which can prevent the establishment of a deep, therapeutic relationship. It can hinder the empathetic engagement required for successful therapy.
Countertransference vs. Transference
Transference refers to instances when a client projects feelings about others in their life onto their therapist.
In a therapeutic context, it’s common for clients to transfer emotions, attitudes, or reactions they have towards significant others onto their therapist. For instance, if a client had a neglectful parent, they might perceive their therapist’s lack of immediate response as a similar form of neglect.
Contrarily, countertransference reflects the therapist’s emotional reactions and projections towards a client, influenced by the therapist’s own personal experiences (Gelso & Hayes, 2007).
There’s a unique dynamic at play between these two phenomena. Whilst both involve the projection of emotions, their sources and impacts are different (Hayes et al., 2018). Transference can provides important therapeutic insights into the clients’ feelings, beliefs, and relational patterns, and is generally considered a normal and beneficial part of therapy if handled correctly.
On the other hand, countertransference can interfere with the therapist’s professional objectivity and therapy’s effectiveness. However, when recognized and properly managed, it can facilitate growth, self-awareness, and better therapeutic relationships for the therapist. It can also provide valuable insights into the client’s interpersonal dynamics, thereby enriching therapy sessions.
|Definition||A client’s emotional reactions and projections towards a therapist based on past experiences or unresolved feelings.||A therapist’s emotional reactions and projections towards a client based on the therapist’s own personal experiences or unresolved feelings.|
|Origin||From the client’s past experiences, often from early relationships.||From the therapist’s personal history or reactions to the therapeutic relationship.|
|Management||Used by therapists as a therapeutic tool to gain insight into a client’s unresolved conflicts.||Therapists need to recognize and manage their own feelings to maintain objectivity and effectiveness in therapy.|
Types of Countertransference
Countertransference can be categorized into four major types: subjective, objective, positive, and negative.
Each type represents a unique facet of the therapist’s emotional response towards a client, shaped by multifarious factors, ranging from past personal experiences to the client’s behaviors.
1. Subjective Countertransference
Subjective countertransference refers to the therapist’s personal emotional responses towards a client based on their unique history and unresolved issues (Masselink, 2021).
This type of countertransference is typically evoked due to a client’s characteristics or behavior mirroring the therapist’s past experiences. It’s essential for therapists to recognize and manage their feelings appropriately to prevent them from interfering with their professional responsibilities.
2. Objective Countertransference
Objective countertransference describes a therapist’s emotional reactions that are directly related to the client’s behavior or disclosure in therapy (Masselink, 2021).
These responses do not stem from the therapist’s personal past or unresolved issues, but rather from the dynamics of the present therapeutic relationship. Objective countertransference can be useful in understanding a client’s affective state and interpersonal functioning.
3. Positive Countertransference
Positive countertransference embodies a therapist’s overly favorable or empathetic feelings towards their client.
Such feelings could be the result of the client’s likeable characteristics, or the therapist’s identification with the client (Mulay & Cain, 2018). While empathy is crucial in therapeutic settings, extreme positive countertransference can blur professional boundaries and impede objective assessment.
4. Negative Countertransference
Negative countertransference refers to instances when a therapist experiences negative feelings, such as irritation or hostility, towards a client.
Triggered by particular behaviors, disclosures, or characteristics of the client, negative countertransference can disrupt the therapeutic relationship and hinder the client’s progress unless duly recognized and addressed (Guest & Carlson, 2019). The therapist’s awareness of such feelings can provide valuable insight into obstacles that might be affecting the therapeutic process.
Theoretical Perspectives and History of the Concept
1. The Psychoanalytic Perspective
The Psychoanalytic theory of countertransference originated with the early works of Sigmund Freud.
Initially, Freud regarded countertransference as an obstacle to treatment. He believed it represented the therapist’s unresolved conflicts, which interfered with their ability to objectively interpret the client’s issues (Freud & Breuer, 1895).
This theory posits that the unconscious mind of the therapist significantly influences their reactions to a client. Essentially, when a client reminds the therapist of someone in their past, or elicits an emotional response, the therapist is said to have unresolved conflicts that are being projected onto them (Makari, 1994; Racker, 2018). For example, a therapist who had a tumultuous relationship with a resentful sibling might find themselves reacting inappropriately to a client who displays similar resentment.
The implication in Freud’s perspective is that psychoanalysts must undergo personal therapy to encounter and resolve their own emotional conflicts, thereby minimizing the influence of these dynamics on their therapeutic work. Famously, Carl Jung experienced significant countertransference himself, and held to Freud’s view that this must be monitored and contained (Jung, 1947).
Over time, however, the psychoanalytic view of countertransference has evolved. It is now also seen as a valuable tool for understanding the client’s unconscious world, providing key insights into the client’s relational patterns and internal conflicts. But it still requires the therapist’s careful attention and management to ensure it doesn’t interfere with the process of therapy (Notaras, 2013).
2. The Social-Cognitive Perspective
The Social-Cognitive perspective of countertransference focuses on the therapist’s thought processes.
Unlike the psychoanalytic theory, which emphasizes unconscious processes, the social-cognitive perspective revolves around conscious cognitive responses and interactions within the therapeutic relationship (Parth et al., 2017).
Social-Cognitive theory posits that countertransference isn’t just about past experiences, but also about the therapist’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions in the moment of interaction with clients. It suggests that therapists form cognitive-emotional schemas about their clients, which helm their understanding and interpretation of the client’s concerns (Cartwright, 2011; Parth et al., 2017).
For example, a therapist might develop an impression or belief that a client is deceitful based on their body language and narration style. This belief might result in the therapist acting distant or suspiciously during therapy, thereby affecting the therapeutic relationship and possibly hindering therapy effectiveness.
This perspective underlines the importance of therapists being mindful of their thought processes (Parth et al., 2017). They need to consistently evaluate, question, and adjust their schemas or beliefs about clients to ensure that they don’t obstruct the therapeutic process. By doing so, they can maintain their professional objectivity and uphold the quality of services rendered to their clients.
Dealing with and Recognizing Countertransference as a Therapist
Recognizing and managing countertransference is crucial. Distorted personal boundaries and intense emotions towards a client can indicate countertransference. To control this, therapists must maintain professional boundaries and regularly engage in self-reflection.
1. Setting Personal Boundaries
Therapists must be wary of behaviors that cross professional boundaries or evoke strong emotions, as they may be manifestations of countertransference. Upholding integrity in the therapeutic relationship is key (Hayes, Gelso, & Hummel, 2011).
2. Continual Self-reflection
Regular self-reflection assists therapists in separating their personal experiences from client narratives and promotes objectivity (Cartwright, 2011; Notaras, 2013). This practice helps therapists identify any subtle signs of countertransference, thereby aiding its management.
3. Personal Therapy
Furthermore, therapists should not shy away from seeking personal therapy (Hayes et al., 2018). This not only provides them deeper insights into their own personal conflicts but also helps them experience the therapeutic process from a client’s perspective.
Additional resources like supervision and mindfulness techniques (Guest & Carlson, 2019) can also help therapists handle these emotional responses. By efficiently managing countertransference, therapists can convert it into a valuable tool that enhances their understanding of clients and betters the therapeutic process.
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Cartwright, C. (2011). Transference, countertransference, and reflective practice in cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychologist, 15(3), 112-120.
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Mulay, A. L., & Cain, N. M. (2018). Managing countertransference in correctional treatment settings: An updated perspective. Journal of forensic psychology research and practice, 18(1), 1-18.
Notaras, S. (2013). Attending to countertransference. Counseling Today, 9, 29–31.
Parth, K., Datz, F., Seidman, C., & Löffler-Stastka, H. (2017). Transference and countertransference: A review. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 81(2), 167-211. Racker, H. (2018). Transference and countertransference. Routledge.
Redlinger‐Grosse, K. (2020). Countertransference: Making the unconscious conscious. Genetic Counseling Practice: Advanced Concepts and Skills, 153-175.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]