At heart, therapy is a relationship between a client and a therapist. And, like any relationship, sometimes the boundaries can get tricky.
There are two words related to this in therapy – transference and countertransference.
Transference is when you unwittingly put feelings for someone from your past onto your therapist. For example, you might find yourself acting rebellious around your older male therapist, showing up late and being rude. This could be a case of unconsciously identifying your therapist with your rather controlling father (read our piece – “How to Handle Transference‘ – for more).
Countertransference runs the other way.It is when your therapist puts his or her emotions and experiences onto you.
A term coined by Freud himself, the term was originally used to refer to a therapist’s reaction to transference. Nowadays it is also used to describe any emotional entanglement where a therapist does not maintain professional objectivity and boundaries.
What does countertransference look like?
Yes, a therapist developing a romantic interest in a client is countertransference, and the sort we see most about in the media. But it’s only one form.
Countertransference is present whenever a therapist brings in their own experiences to the extent they lose perspective of yours. It is there when their emotions from their own past and life colour their response to you, or they let their personal opinions stop them from being objective. It involves a therapist mistakenly prioritising his or her emotions and needs over yours.
This includes when a therapist does the following:
- takes out a bad mood on you, being snappy for no particular reason
- shares too many stories about themselves (over-identifying with your stories)
- offering sympathy instead of just empathy (again, over-identifying)
- issues judgements related to their perspective not yours, such as a therapist going through a divorce making negative comments about your spouse when you tell a story of her/him
- offering a lot of advice instead of just listening and reflecting and letting you decide on your next actions
- pushes you to take an action you don’t feel ready for
- is too worried about you as if they want to ‘save’ you
- asks you for irrelevant details (over investing in your story)
- wants to relate outside the therapy room
- gets angry with you over a belief you share they don’t agree with, no matter how unpopular your viewpoint
What about countertransference as a response to transference?
The example of transference above was a client being rebellious and rude to a therapist who is triggering memories of their father.
An appropriate therapist response would be to talk to the client about the lateness, or notice and ask questions about the rebellious attitude to find its cause. If the therapist recognised that he was being seen as a father figure, he could then use this as a springboard to explore the client’s father issues and how it affects his or her other relationships.
Countertransference , however, would look like a therapist allowing himself to be offended (perhaps bringing in annoyance towards his own child who had been misbehaving lately). It would be in the therapist reacting by being strict or stern, or even bringing in forms of ‘punishment’ such as cutting ten minutes off the session for each five minutes you are late.
The difference in responses here makes it clear how countertransference can shut down, instead of forward, a client’s progress.
What stops countertransference?
Second is a therapist’s experience. The more experience a therapist has, the more they know their own reactions to clients. And the more they know how to set personal boundaries.
Third is supervision. Therapists working for an organisation as well as for some umbrella therapy companies will all have a supervisor they check in with (while still maintaining their clients’ privacy). If you choose to work with a solo practitioner, this might be one of the questions you choose to ask them in your first session. Do they have anyone supervising or supporting them?
A brief history of countertransference
Countertransference is a term attributed to Freud. He felt it important to keep very strict boundaries between himself and clients. His first written record of the term is in a letter to Jung. Freud tactfully advised Jung to not get personally involved with a certain client. (Jung was less concerned with clear boundaries with patients and did indeed get involved with the woman).
The concept of countertransference has almost always been questioned. In 1919 a close associate of Freud, Hungarian psychoanalyst Sadnor Ferenczi, wrote that he worried a therapist being too clinical and unemotional could come across as a sort of ‘freeze-out’ to the patient. He felt this would halt a patient’s progress, not promote it.
Countertransference is a concept that is still heavily questioned today. Freud himself eentually questioned it, in much later correspondence with Jung.
Different therapies and their approach to countertransference
Classical Freudian psychotherapy, or ‘psychoanalysis’, still maintains perhaps the greatest distance between therapist and client. It is the type of therapy where media clichés of an aloof therapist watching over a client on a couch come from.
Many modern forms of therapy, however, now believe a personal bond between therapist and client is not only to be expected, it is helpful. Schema therapy in particular believe that this bond should be fostered. It encourages something it calls ‘limited reparenting’, where the therapist stands in for the healthy parent the client never had.
When countertransference can be useful
Conscious transference is when a therapist chooses to share the affect the client is having on their feelings. It can also involve a therapist sharing an experience they have that relates to what a client is sharing, if appropriate.
Why would this be useful? It can help in the following ways:
- the client and therapist understand each other better
- it allows trust to grow (the client does not sense the therapist is hiding things)
- clients can gain a clearer perspective of their affect on other people
- new ideas can grow about how the client can interrelate affectively with friends and family
In summary, unlike unhelpful countertransference that is geared to the therapist’s needs, useful countertransference is carefully geared to the client and intended to positively assist their growth.
What do I do if I think my therapist is experiencing countertransference?
Bring it up in a session if you feel comfortable and safe doing so. A professional therapist should deal with it well, listening and staying calm. Of course be prepared to listen to what they have to say. It might be that you have also been seeing them in ways that involve transference.
You might want to consider getting a second opinion. This could involve asking to speak to their supervisor or speaking to the clinical director.
Of course if your therapist at all crosses the boundary of patient respect, do not put yourself in a vulnerable situation. Don’t return and report them to the professional boards, or the authorities if relevant.
Harley Therapy is an umbrella organisation that only works with therapists trained in well-respected institutions and who have a minimum of five-years clinical experience. You can begin therapy with our therapists at three London locations or worldwide via online therapy.