by Kevin C. Jackson
Transference and countertransference are natural projective behaviors and are to be expected in the counselling relationship. “Transference” refers to certain unconsciously redirected feelings, fears, or emotions from a client towards the counsellor that actually stems from past feelings and interactions with others and is transferred into the current counselling relationship. “Countertransference” refers to the projecting of a counsellor’s experiences, values and repressed emotions that are awakened by identification with the client’s experiences, feelings and situation that affect the dynamics of a counselling relationship.
Transference not only occurs in counselling, but in all of our relationships. The feelings that are unconsciously projected in transference and countertransference are very real, come from the center of ones being and are based upon past experiences with other people and/or events that have combined to formulate an individual’s mental models or schemas. Everyone reacts differently in any relationship – with friends, teachers, clients or counsellors – by drawing upon all of the experiences that they have accumulated. This is why we may observe one client to be highly open and agreeable to the counsellor and the counselling process. A second client with similar situations, motivations and options as the first client, may appear or may seem resistant, confrontational or opposed to the counsellor or counselling process.
When counselling, it is important to be aware of some of the dangers inherent in transference /countertransference, for example when it is denied or labeled as wrong or imaginary. The key is for the counsellor to acknowledge the existence and significance of transference for the client and countertransference for the counsellor. Only when the counsellor accepts the client’s transference, while keeping the boundaries and objectives of the counselling relationship clear and firm, can a safe environment be established. One where the client can express all of their feelings, secure that the counsellor will not act out against them. Such a relationship can give the client the opportunity to observe their own feelings and its associations to problematic relationships and/or behaviors, without risking negative consequences. This safe environment makes it possible for the client to filter-out past issues from present situations and to deconstruct negative past experiences so the counsellor can empower the client to reconstruct those experiences, events and outcomes in a new and positive light.
It is critical that the counsellor be aware of their own countertransference propensity, so that it does not interfere with the clients’ ability to take ownership of the counselling outcome. It is also important to be aware of countertransference issues so that when a client comes for counselling with all of their transference (clients may seem irrational, confused or even hostile) the counsellor is not threatened by it. Avoid the emotional pendulum effect that starts with the client’s natural transference behaviors (client may be rude or overly kind to the counsellor) that trigger a countertransference feeling and behavior in the counsellor (defensive, overconfident or romantic-verbal/non-verbal expressions). Then back to a client, resulting in the validation and verification of the client’s original feelings and behaviors. This uncontrolled emotional pendulum is injurious to counselling relationship if left unchecked, therefore at this point it is wise for the counsellor to recall the counselling objective and return to it.
Sometimes, when you accept your client’s transference without attempting to change it, there is often nothing further that needs to be done. When transference is accepted, the client will often resolve it independently. I have observed clients who lash at a counsellor but soon realize that anger had nothing to do with the counsellor, and when the counsellor’s responses and behaviors failed to verify the client’s mental model of the counsellor. Furthermore, when a counsellor handles transference objectively, they may find that their client may, later in the session, next week or next month say, “…sorry, I was upset at you last time because you reminded me of my last counsellor who wouldn’t see me because I was late for my appointment one day”. At this point, the counsellor can now help the client explore this issue from their past as a separate entity from the present. If the client is not able to do this, or is not aware of their own transference, there are two other options to increase their awareness of it after accepting it. The counsellor can either confront the client by reflection of feeling or content “you are feeling angry now because our discussion reminds you of…”, or another option might be to use empathic responses like: “You were angry because your boss was…”.
Counsellors need to be aware of their tendency to project feeling and emotions so that we may be equipped and prepared to erect a safe environment for our clients to develop and grow. Often counsellors have difficulty accepting their humanity and feel that it is unacceptable or unprofessional for a “counsellor” to ask for help. This is where counsellors need to put safeguards in place when their own issues begin to surface (transference/ countertransference related or not). It is a good idea to discover what organizational provisions are available, such as monthly meetings with supervisors, staff meetings, debriefing or lunch with a trusted co-worker, etc. Personal support networks like scheduled meetings with colleagues where counsellors feel secure enough to share their countertransference concerns, and be open to discussing countertransference issues are also helpful. Additionally, counsellors may find the need to find counsellors or therapist of their own (preferably not a colleague).
Acceptance, awareness and respect are key tools to a successful coexistence with transference/ countertransference. When used with the intent of honestly and sincerely helping our clients, there is usually not much else that the counsellor needs to do. Subsequently, counsellors should keep in mind that they should be accepting of their client’s transference tendencies and be aware of their own countertransference issues while keeping vigilant in maintaining clear boundaries/objectives that are relative to the counselling relationship. If we as professionals are to succeed in establishing a safe and productive environment that can nourish a client’s growth and success, we need to accept that transference / countertransference is a normal element present in all human relationships. If issues of transference / countertransference become problematic, (to the counsellor) it is the responsibility of the counsellor to seek help so that the integrity of the counselling relationship is not compromised.
The counselling relationship is at times like an emotional pendulum in which client and counsellor continually and jointly influence each other. Transference and countertransference patterns are equally shaped by an individual’s experiences, values and repressed emotions and are mutually created by both client and counsellor in a bi-directional fashion, and do not belong to just the client or to the counsellor but are a component of all counselling relationships. Viewed in this light, transference/countertransference are fundamental elements of the counselling relationship and can and often does expose “…unconscious motivations and experience of both…” client and counsellor (Fiscalini, 1994).
- “Journal of Metapsychology” 431 Burgess Drive, Menlo Park, California 94025, Article 101, July 15, 1993
- “Transference and Countertransference as Interpersonal Phenomena: An Introduction” Fiscalini, J, Ph.D. Handbook of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. 1995. Analytic Press, Hillside, NJ.
- “Some Controversies Regarding Constructivism and Psychoanalysis” Stern, D. (1985), Contemporary Psychoanalysis., 21: 372-376
- “Principles of Intensive Psychotherapy” Fromm-Reichmann, F. (1950) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- “The Interpersonally Unique and the Uniquely Interpersonal” Contemporary Psychoanalysis., 30:114-134. Fiscalini, J. (1994) Analytic Press., Hillside, N.J.
Kevin C. Jackson is an Employment and Career Counsellor with the St. Stephen’s Employment and Training Centre under the Job Connect program. His specialization is career and work counselling with persons with learning disabilities, A.D.H.D. and First Nations populations. He edited the career and work counsellor newsletter “In Print”, has written for the “Career Wise” website and is currently a member of the O.A.C.D.P. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org