What is Countertransference?

Transference and countertransference describe two commonly occurring scenarios within a counseling relationship. Both transference and countertransference represent the manner in which the client acts and feels toward the therapist and vice versa. Transference and countertransference can both be powerful tools in therapy if used appropriately, but can also be harmful to the therapeutic relationship and process if not recognized and dealt with.

Understanding Transference

At its core, transference occurs when feelings that you have for one person are unconsciously redirected to another. It happens every day, in multiple settings, but can prove to be both insightful and problematic in a counseling relationship.

Imagine that you meet someone while grocery shopping who reminds you of a beloved aunt. Without knowing it, you may treat that person kindly, and even engage in more in-depth conversation than you would with a stranger because you are projecting your feelings of your aunt onto this person. In a counseling relationship, transference gives the counselor an insight into how a client might interact with someone in public. A skilled therapist can both recognize when transference is occurring, and use that transference as a means to guide a therapy session, allowing the client to work through emotions with the therapist that they may not be comfortable discussing with other people.

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Understanding Countertransference

Just as transference is the concept of a client redirect feelings meant for others onto the therapist, countertransference is the reaction to a client's transference, in which the counselor projects his or her feelings unconsciously onto the client. How countertransference is used in therapy can make it either helpful or problematic.

A counselor may notice him or herself reacting more positively to a client that reminds them of an old friend or colleague, or may take on a more parental tone with a client who reminds the counselor of one of their children. A skilled therapist can recognize these feelings, and may even bring them up in session. The therapist may be able to use his or her feelings toward the client to understand how other people in the client's life feel about that client as well. When used properly, it can be a valuable tool to look into the insight of those in a client's life, but when unrecognized, it can pose a threat to both the therapeutic relationship and goals of therapy set up by the client and counselor.

Addressing Countertransference

Once countertransference is recognized, it is important that the therapist acknowledge and work through those feelings. This can take on many shapes, some more problematic than others. A counselor enamored by a client's appearance may avoid challenging that client, due to his or how 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 counseling session with an unknowing client.

It is important for the therapist to understand the role that of transference and countertransference, and deal with those emotions in such a way that the core of the counseling relationship is not shattered by these feelings.