A Look at Transference and Countertransference

Transference and the Here-and-Now

I’ve often heard people talk about transference as distinct from “real” feelings. I do not like the implication that feelings which originate in transference are not real. They are very real; for many clients they are painfully real.

I prefer to make the distinction between transference and “here-and-now” feelings. That is to say, feelings which have their origins in past relationships and attachments, and feelings which are a response to the therapist in the here-and-now. This is not an easy distinction to make; often the lines will be blurred, some feelings will be a mixture of the two, often it will be impossible to determine the origin of a feeling due to the unknown depths of our unconscious. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, some element of transference, or projective identification is likely to be present in our feelings in all of our relationships.

The Value of Transference

My understanding of the purpose of working with transference in the therapy room is that those powerful feelings can yield important clues about that which is firmly rooted in our unconscious – these could include challenging or painful feelings and experiences, often completely outside of our awareness, which are impacting on the way we relate to others. These unconscious processes may represent barriers to relating, or keep us in unhealthy relational patterns. In exploring them, and experimenting with ways of ‘being’ within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, we hope to bring some of those unconscious processes into awareness and better understand and manage how we relate to others.

The Presence of Countertransference

Countertransference is an interesting thing I think, because it is often used to describe any feeling that the therapist has towards a client. But just as the client has a mixture of here-and-now feelings and feelings with origins in the past towards a therapist, it seems logical to me that there is likely to be similar complexities in the therapist’s feelings towards the client.

Countertransference as an unconscious response to the client’s transference can be useful source of information when brought into awareness because it has the potential to uncover important clues about the client’s process. For example, a therapist who feels an unusually strong desire to direct or rescue a client may explore how the client might unconsciously invite such a response in their relationships. It is my feeling however that this should be approached tentatively and with curiosity rather than misplaced assuredness, because our unconscious can be a complicated realm to decipher, and it takes a great deal of personal reflection to uncover what material belongs to whom in a therapeutic encounter. Indeed, often it is an unsolvable riddle.

So to me the therapist’s feelings towards a client are likely to be more than countertransference – they are likely to be more than an unconscious response to the client’s material. Relational practice means relationship, and relationships are inevitably filled with complex feelings from both parties.

I feel that for those feelings to be useful to the therapy, and to give them the best chance of remaining non-problematic, the therapist needs to model a curiosity and openness to discovering what the feelings are telling us in the context of the relationship, and exploring how that might be useful to the work.

When Transference Hurts

Feelings which emerge in the therapeutic relationship often touch on painful and traumatic past experiences and insecure attachments. The mind and body are often holding a great deal of pain as a result, and in many cases it is inevitable that elements of the transference will be experienced as painful by the client.

In the book Shouldn’t I be Feeling Better by Now?, Yvonne Bates questions whether the means justify the end when working with transference. I think there is a strong case for the idea that working with transference is simply not right for some clients, though I don’t believe there is a simple solution to ensuring that clients are not harmed by the emergence of these difficult feelings in therapy.

Transference and attachment to a therapist may present difficulties such as pain around the time and boundary-limited nature of the relationship, anguish over the sense that the relationship is not “real”, anger that the needs met in the therapeutic relationship were not met in childhood, and many more.

When working with a skilled therapist who understands the nature of transference, these feelings are very likely to shift in time; this work takes a great deal of patience and care from both parties but I believe that it can be of great benefit.

It is possible for a therapist to inadvertently reenact past relational trauma through a lack of awareness of the presence of countertransference, or to take transference feelings too personally (negative transference such as anger, for example) and act defensively or in a way that is received as rejection. I think all therapists can be vulnerable to this, and the key here is an ongoing process of self-reflection and supervision.

As I alluded to earlier, I think transference is ubiquitous in all of our relationships to some degree. Often these feelings will not demand to be addressed in therapy, but when it is clear that transference is directly relevant to the work, I feel that it is of paramount importance that the feelings are explored collaboratively and with an open dialogue about what meaning they hold for the client. It is my belief that the client’s autonomy and understanding of the process are essential components of positive outcomes for clients.

2 thoughts on “A Look at Transference and Countertransference”

  1. Thanks for talking about this. I completely agree that there is no simple solution.

    My experience (and this is echoed by the literature which I’ve read) has been that the emergence of transference is much more related to the type of material brought up by the client than the particular theoretical orientation of the therapist, and when you first start with a client you have no real idea where therapy will take that person or what might come up along the way. I think it’s important for *all* therapists regardless of their orientation to have some understanding of transference (even if they call it by another name) and some knowledge of how to approach it when/if it occurs and to be able to discuss it openly with the client and to make a decision as to whether to collaborate or refer if it becomes an issue beyond their ability to manage, or to make a mutual decision to terminate therapy altogether if that is what the client would prefer. This applies not just to psychotherapists but also to other practitioners including anyone doing body work where there is a history of trauma. Over the years I’ve run into transference problems not just with my current (psychodynamically oriented) therapist, but also with CBT therapists and with yoga, meditation and massage practitioners, and when you don’t have at least one person on your team who can make sense of what is happening, it doesn’t end well.

    Liked by 1 person

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