Countertransference is generally regarded to be a situation where a counsellor is drawn into the client transference due to a lack of boundaries or lack of awareness. Alternatively, it can also describe a counsellor’s independently getting caught up in transferring their own feelings to a client. This is a conscious or sub-conscious emotional response to a client, based on his or her perception of the client and own subsequent psychological needs or conflicts.

As is the case with transference, countertransference is not always harmful and can be an effective tool in counselling when used appropriately. Having these experiences with a client can enhance empathy, but counsellors and those involved in a care-giving capacity must be guided by specific ethical considerations.

It is suggested that the ethical considerations as prescribed by the ACA and the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers (2018. https://nlcsw.ca/sites/default/files/inline-files/Standards_of_Practice.pdf) are used as a guideline:

  • Professional boundaries – Counsellors should be clear and comfortable with their professional boundaries. When experiencing countertransference, it is important to reflect on how these boundaries are affected. Counsellors need to ensure that the relationship primarily serves the needs of their client.
  • Conflicts of interest – Countertransference may contribute to a situation where the counsellor’s objectivity is impaired. They may become caught up in their own personal issues, which interferes with the ability to provide effective treatment and impartial judgement. In this case clients need to be referred to another professional.
  • Self-disclosure – When considering self-disclosure, the counsellor must weigh up possible benefits or risks and ask whose needs are being met. It is also important to think about whether the client is experiencing transference and how this influences the therapeutic relationship.
  • Competence in practice – Professionals in a care-giving capacity should offer the highest quality service possible, and the therapeutic relationship must be terminatedif countertransference impedes the ability to practice competently.

Identifying countertransference in counselling

 There are many examples of countertransference that may occur in therapy. When it becomes detrimental for counselling this can be grouped into three broad categories, namely:

  • Withdrawal – also referred to as “turning away” from a client by showing reduced interest in a client, disliking a client, investing little emotionally and feels disengaged or from the client.
  • Unconscious enactment – where the counsellor makes “slip of the tongue” remarks, forgets content of what is said, forgets appointments, or does not prepare for sessions.
  • Elevation – when counsellor feelings are triggered in becoming more intense towards the client. This form of countertransference includes:
  • inappropriately disclosing personal information
  • offering advice
  • not having boundaries
  • developing romantic feelings toward the client
  • being overly critical
  • enabling
  • thoughts and feelings for clients take up a significant amount of time outside of sessions
  • becoming subjective.

Addressing countertransference

 Psychological, spiritual, and emotional issues can trigger the most educated and experienced counsellors within the therapeutic dynamic. When noticing countertransference this becomes a good opportunity for the counsellor to examine personal values, beliefs, and emotions surrounding the characteristics of the client and past relationships and can help them grow.

The best way to prevent countertransference is to acknowledge and understand how common the phenomenon is. Against this background, it is essential for the counsellor to recognize their own feelings and behaviours, and noticing the space between client input and counsellor response will help counsellors to choose to act in thoughtful ways rather than reacting impulsively or being driven by own feelings.

Some ways to manage transference and countertransference in therapy include the following.

  • SupervisionRegular support and therapy is recommended. See a colleague, supervisor, or psychologist when feeling an emotional trigger or response or when a session is especially challenging, it can cause a counsellor to sacrifice empathy and objectivity.
  • Clear boundariesSet appropriate boundariesregarding scheduling, payment, and acceptable in-session behavior. Discuss any misunderstandings of intent and emotional projection as soon as it is noticed.
  • Self-reflectionExplore own feelings pulling away from or pushing toward individual clients. Write down ways you are consciously reacting to them in session AND ADJUST if required.
  • Mindfulness Constantly practice mindfulness inside and outside of sessions to explore personal thoughts and feelings. Notice compassion fatigue or burnout, or an inability to do quality counselling.
  • EmpathyLack of empathy can be a forerunner of countertransference. When we employ empathy as practitioners, we are looking at the situation and client outside of our own view, making countertransference less likely.

Author: Peter Schultz