In my last post, I tackled the concept of transference in therapy. That is, the transfer of feelings from a significant person, past or present, onto the therapist. These feelings are usually unconsciously held but are usually not about the therapist. How the therapist handles this is crucial when assessing the overall success of the therapy. While transference can be seen as mostly helpful, some schools of thoughts find it controversial. However, transference is a powerful way to improve a client’s ability to change their behavior and gain insight.
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Counter-transference is when the therapist transfers feelings onto the client. It can be thought of as a reaction to transference from the client. It is a great reminder that a therapist is a human being with feelings and emotions and often when clients open up in session, it can provoke a strong reaction. However, therapists must be aware of counter-transference at all times and it is their responsibility to find a solution and/or deal with any issues on a personal basis that might allow it to happen.
Counter-transference can be often seen in the following ways:
Subjective: the therapists own unresolved issues is the cause (can be harmful if not detected)
Objective: the therapist’s reaction to his client’s maladaptive behaviour is the cause (can benefit the therapeutic process)
Positive: the therapist is over-supportive, trying too hard to befriend his client, disclosing too much (can damage the therapeutic relationship)
Negative: the therapist acts out against uncomfortable feelings in a negative way, including being overly critical, and punishing or rejecting the client
Counter-transference can occur at any time in a therapeutic relationship and if not handled properly, can be very harmful to the client. It can happen if a therapist is young or old, male or female or experienced or inexperienced. In fact, it can be expected to happen at some stage and supervision of the issue is essential. There are some early warning signs that tend to happen before counter-tranference takes place and these should be heeded by client and therapist. These can be:
An unreasonable or excessive like or dislike for the client
Inappropriate emotional reaction to the client and a near “obsession” with the case.
Dreading the session or being highly uncomfortable in session.
Excessive and inappropriate self-disclosure.
The need for the client to comfort the therapist.
Inappropriate contact outside sessions.
Once counter-transference is recognized, it is important that the therapist acknowledge and work through those feelings. It can take on many shapes, some more problematic than others. A therapist impressed by a client’s appearance may avoid challenging that client, due to his or her own desire to be admired and liked by the client. A therapist who is under financial stress, or just had an argument with their spouse, may in turn allow those emotions to carry over into the session with an unknowing client. It is wrong to say that therapists do not on occasion, have fatherly, motherly, romantic, sexual or other strong feelings for a client. It can be a reminder for the therapist of past experiences or people who were in their lives. One area that must be strictly monitored is erotic counter-transference where the therapist transfers erotic, romantic or sexual feelings onto the client. There are strict ethical guidelines around relationships with clients in therapy and the pursuing of a romantic relationship or friendship by the therapist could be a sign that counter-transference is happening.
Therapists must be aware of counter-transference at all times and it is their responsibility to find a solution and/or deal with any issues on a personal basis that might allow it to happen.
It is important for the therapist to understand the role that of transference and counter-transference, and deal with those emotions in such a way that the core of the therapeutic relationship is not affected by these feelings. It can be used in a more positive way as well. A therapist may be able to use the feelings that have been generated by the client to gain insight into how other people in the clients life might also react to them. In the end, it comes down to a skilled therapist doing his or her job for the benefit of the client.