Transference and Countertransference revisited.

I recently received a complex question in response to my blog on Countertransference. It has gotten me thinking once again about the challenges of countertransference in therapy.

For those of you who do not have much experience with this, the terms transference and countertransference are used in therapy to describe a couple of different phenomena. Transference, according to the theories, involves the assignment of feelings and reactions from within the client, projected onto the person of the therapist. The idea is that the client will experience the therapist as the person in his/her life who is involved with these feelings. For example if the client is afraid of his mother and angry with her, the client will become angry with the therapist and be afraid of them. The belief generally is that the client will have an opportunity in a safe and structured environment to work through, or work out the feelings that have been blocking their ability to live a life of self -ownership and independence and release them.

The role of the therapist in this dynamic is to be the safe counter point. The client is allowed and even encouraged to express the feelings that have been causing them so much distress (either consciously or unconsciously) and to accuse the therapist of being the root cause of them. i.e. “You are going to punish me and hate me because I have not done what you wanted me to do,” says the client to the therapist. This is a projection of transference energy onto the therapist as the “bad” mother who rules over the freedoms of the client to express themselves and own their genuine feelings. The therapist must be sensitive to these projections, not be angered or offended by them and create a safe holding environment so that the client can take these feelings out, examine them, evaluate them, work with them, and finally unblock themselves from these limiting feelings. Hopefully, their relationships going forward, both with the object (the person in their lives such as their mom) and with new relationships that come along will be unhampered by these blockages of fear and anger.

Countertransference is just the opposite. It is understood as the feelings in a therapist from their own lives and relationships that become projected onto the client and acted out by the therapist. Therapists are supposed to be trained to be sensitive to the occurrence of counterT, and to have developed the skills to avoid such things. For example if a client reminds me (literally or unconsciously) of my mother with whom I have a bad relationship and I begin to project my disrespect or anger against my mother onto the client, I will signal to the client that I am angry with them and that they must act in some way to cancel out my anger. It is clearly their fault and they have done something to displease me, anger me, frighten me or whatever.

As a therapist, I am supposed to work through these issues with my own therapy or with my professional supervision so that I do not contaminate my work with the client. This is in service of the needs of the client, and in service of my having the professional skills to block out my own issues during the course of the session with the client. If things are going on in my own life that are causing difficulty with my ability to contain my issues, I am supposed to be able to recognize the signs and take it up with my supervision or in my own therapy. Hopefully, I will have other professionals in or near my office that will be sensitive to my moods and will help call this to my attention. This is one of the reasons that in thirty years of counselor training, I always encouraged my students to work in offices with other therapist present.

The point here is that as a clinician you have an ethical responsibility to not project onto your client your own garbage. I am reminded again and again that all of us have issues and problems. None of us are perfect and none of us are shielded from our own humanity. We are moody, we are depressed, we are angry and petty and selfish. Just like everyone else in the world. We are not some super -clever, super -educated “special” person up on a pedestal who is not impacted by the crush of life. Our relationships flounder and fail, our marriages and our familial relationships are tainted and chaotic, just like those of our clients. In fact, it is our common humanity that enables us to understand with empathy and support what the client is struggling with.

The reason all this came up for me, was that the person who wrote to me felt that her therapist was mad at her and yelling at her. She indicated that he told her that her feelings were dishonest or pseudo tears and that she needed to give that up and be honest. She also felt that the therapist was being inappropriately complimentary or flirty to her. She said she was afraid to go back to them and asked me what I thought and whether or not this was, indeed, Counter Transference from the therapist projected onto her.

You can go back to that blog and read the comment exchange I had with her if you chose, but basically what I had to say was that it is inappropriate for the therapist to be angry with her and to chastise her in the way she was describing. I was not so sure though about the perception of flirting and inappropriate compliments. As you will see from the comments, sometimes the job of the therapist is to reaffirm the attractiveness, strength, intelligence, or courage of the client. When the client shares with us the challenges of their journey and the negativity of their self script, we often find ourselves in a position of “the good parent” who “re-parents” the client by helping them to hear and rewrite a self script that is based on a more objective reality testing of who they are and how they behave.

One of the strongest foundational goals of therapy is the re-parenting of the client. This is to enable them to rewrite the script of their self-esteem, their self-understanding. We all have an interior monologue that narrates our sense of self and our assessment of our worth. This script is sometimes called the superego and it involves all of the messages by which we judge ourselves. Questions such as: Am I loveable? Is it my fault? Why do I always screw up? We have a fundamental script that we learned in early childhood that provides the answers to these questions. We often fight against this script but feel bound by it and doomed to repeat our failures and mistakes. We feel trapped by the circumstances that do not let us explore or experiment with new behaviors and go off on unexpected and unexplored paths.

How can we be free to grow, to unfold in directions of our own choosing? How can we have relationships that make us happy and learn from our mistakes? These are questions that all of us face. We bring these questions to therapy and we fight against the limits of both transference within ourselves, and countertransference projected onto us by the therapist. It is a challenge and a difficult job for all parties involved in the dynamic. It is why we are fellow travelers in the journey of life, not bystanders, not healers. I walk the path with my clients. I share their pain, and learn from their journey how to better walk my own road. It is sometimes exhausting, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes gloriously fulfilling and rewarding.

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