What is… transference & countertransference

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.

This week’s terms: transference & countertransference

The idea for this post came from Meg at Why does bad advice happen to good people?

The concept of transference was first proposed by Sigmund Freud.  In therapy, it occurs when a client unconsciously redirects feelings associated with one person, often an important figure in the earlier part of their life, onto the therapist.  Transference may occur outside of therapy as well, when feelings relating to one relationship are projected onto another relationship, such as feelings someone has experienced toward a parent being transferred onto a significant other.

Countertransference happens when the client triggers an emotional reaction in the therapist, which may be related to unresolved issues within the therapist.

The way that transference is viewed in therapy depends on one’s theoretical perspective.  In Adlerian psychotherapy, transference is treated as an obstacle that stands in the way of therapeutic progress.  Some forms of therapy do not address transference at all in the therapeutic model, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.  That’s not to say that it’s not possible for transference or countertransference to arise, but it’s not something that’s used as part of the therapy model.

Transference plays a starring role in psychoanalysis and related therapies like psychodynamic psychotherapy, in which it is seen as an important way to gain access to the unconscious mind.  Wikipedia describes it as a process by which “patients relive their infantile conflicts by projecting onto the analyst feelings of love, dependence and anger”.  The therapist points out and interprets any transference that arises, and this is used to identify and resolve old conflicts and problematic defense mechanisms.  Interpretation of the countertransference that arises can offer the therapist insight into elements of client’s experience that have gone unspoken.

Transference-focused psychotherapy is a type of psychodynamic therapy aimed at people with borderline personality disorder.  Transference is used to identify distorted perceptions of self, others, and object representations.  It is seen as a way to gain direct access into the client’s internal world, and inconsistent perceptions of shared reality are addressed in therapy.  This wasn’t a type of therapy that I had heard of before. Based on what Wikipedia had to say, it looks like there hasn’t been a lot of research on it yet, but it does show some promise.

Infatuation can be one potential product of either transference or countertransference.  The infatuation may be directed either from the client towards the therapist, or vice versa.  Any therapist worth their professional license would recognize this early on and deal with it, either by ending the therapeutic relationship or doing their own work in therapy or supervision.

Freud also described a “transference neurosis”, which occurs when the relationship with the therapist because the most important relationship in the client’s life, and infantile feelings are directed at the therapist as a sort of parental figure.  Interpretation is seen as the key therapeutic intervention.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one of the conditions that can be particularly likely to trigger countertransference reactions on the part of the therapist.  Adequate supervision is necessary to allow therapists to work through this countertransference with peers and prevent it from impacting the therapeutic relationship.  Supervision in a therapy context doesn’t usually mean a supervisor sitting in on a therapy session; rather, it’s an opportunity to discuss afterwards how sessions went and identify what was difficult and what could have been done differently.  This sort of supervision is built into the dialectical behaviour therapy approach developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan.

In my career as a mental health nurse, I don’t think transference hasn’t really come up, probably because of the types of settings I’ve worked in.  I have both witnessed and experienced countertransference though.  The countertransference has mostly been stirred up by clients with BPD.  I think part of this is that people with BPD tend to be highly perceptive, and if the individual with BPD sees the mental health professional as being unhelpful or making things more difficult for them, the angry outbursts that are a symptom of BPD can be targeted straight at the weaknesses the healthcare provider may already feel insecure about.

Most colleagues I’ve worked have been able to recognize this and keep it from having a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship with the client, but a few didn’t keep a lid on it as much as I think they should have.  My take on the matter is that countertransference at some point is inevitable to some extent for most mental health professionals, but it’s the professional’s responsibility to recognize it and deal with it so that it doesn’t become the client’s problem.

Psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy has never appealed to me as something to do to manage my own illness, and the idea of projecting my own emotional crap onto a therapist feels kins of icky.  I’m not trying to say that it’s not a valid form of therapy, and I’m sure for some people it can be very helpful, but for me it just doesn’t feel like a good fit.

Have transference and countertransference come into play in therapy work that you have done?

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

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8 thoughts on “What is… transference & countertransference

  1. Meg says:

    That is so interesting, and thanks for the pingback!! I learned a lot from this blog post!! I had no idea “countertransference” existed, but what a fascinating concept!

    I had a weird connection to this part of your post: “I think part of this is that people with BPD tend to be highly perceptive, and if the individual with BPD sees the mental health professional as being unhelpful or making things more difficult for them, the angry outbursts that are a symptom of BPD can be targeted straight at the weaknesses the healthcare provider may already feel insecure about.”

    When I was in college, I saw my campus counselor for all five years. Having been through a hellish childhood that I hadn’t even yet escaped from, she had her work cut out for her. I remember one time… I don’t know exactly what went wrong, but I started being mean to her. And then she openly acknowledged that I was pushing all her buttons. It was an odd moment, because I’d been doing it subconsciously, with no conscious awareness that I was offending her sensibilities. It was an insightful and eye-opening moment.

  2. suninthespring says:

    I didn’t know there were types of therapies so focused on transference!
    I think I’ve had transference in my therapy, but my therapist hasn’t called it that. It has been things like my therapist asking, “Are you worried that I’m going to react the way your mom has reacted when you’ve told her about your health problems?” or me saying, “It’s actually good that we’re talking about this (how to communicate about how suicidal I am) because it’s been a problem for me with my friend, too.” So, I think my therapist and I are generally pretty aware of it when it happens. Yay! I see it as there’s a pattern of x problem in my relationships in general, and so that problem is coming up in my therapy relationship, too.

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