In the following two weeks we want to focus on the concepts of transference and countertransference as it unfolds during counselling.

Transference is the association with somebody from the past (usually childhood) which impacts the current (counselling) relationship. It can be described as a way of responding to situations or relationships in the present by subconsciously associating it with people from the past, inadvertently representing an intricate interplay of emotions, memories, and actions. It is a phenomenon seen in daily life, relationships, and interactions.

In a counselling set-up, transference refers to a client’s projection of their feelings about someone else onto their counsellor which can become complicated when subconscious underlying drives from the client’s other relationships surface in the session. Although the counsellor can derive specific meaning from a client’s thought patterns and behavior because of transference, it is key for the client to notice this understand where it stems from.

There are three main categories of transference.

  1. Positive transferenceis when pleasant encounters of a past associated relationship is projected onto the counsellor. The counsellor is thereby perceived as caring, wise, and empathetic, which is beneficial for the counselling process.
  2. Negative transferenceoccurs when feelings brought about by a negative associated relationship are projected onto the counsellor. While it may sound detrimental it could be utilized constructively, as it can become an important topic of discussion and allow the client to examine and contextualise his or her emotional responses.
  3. Sexualized transferenceis when a client feels attracted to their counsellor. This can include feelings of intimacy, sexual attraction, reverence, or romantic or sensual emotions.

Transference usually happens because of behavioural patterns developed in a significant childhood relationship with a parent or with a caregiver. But it is not necessarily limited to patterns developed with caregivers.

  • Paternal transference— In this case, the client connects characteristics of their father figure with a male counsellor. This can show up as positive transference showing regard for the counsellor as wise, or on the contrary, as negative transference reflecting fear or tension, depending on the relationship the client had with their father.
  • Maternal transference— Maternal transference is like paternal transference, but the person associated with the transference is the mother figure. The experience could generate positive or negative transference as with paternal transference. Associating the counsellor with a mother figure she could be seen as loving and caring or negatively as critical and demanding.
  • Sibling transference— Transference can also reflect the dynamics of a sibling relationship, and often occurs when a parental relationship is lacking.
  • Non-familial transference— This type of transference occurs when the client idealizing the counsellor or reflecting stereotypes that are influencing the client. For example, a priest is seen as holy, and a doctor is expected to cure and heal ailments.
  • Sexualized transference— When a client becomes attracted to a counsellor in a sensual way, the phenomenon is called sexualized transference. This goes beyond a benign acknowledgment of an individual’s objective attractiveness and usually results in a client behaving in inappropriate ways.

Identifying Transference in Counselling

Transference and countertransference are not necessarily destructive for the therapeutic process. The key to ensuring that transference can be utilized as an effective tool for therapy is for the counsellor to be aware of when it is happening.

  • Over-reactions or uncalled for emotions – When clients express anger or distress in a way that seems excessive for the topic that is being discussed, it can be an indication that transference may be taking place.
  • Emotions directed at the counsellor – When clients direct emotions towards the counsellor, this may be another sign of transference taking place. For example, if a client blames the counsellor for the way a session is conducted or cries and accuses the counsellor of hurting their feelings, etc.

How to Help a Client Experiencing Transference

It should be noticed that the way in which the counsellor responds to transference is still often perceived as “countertransference”, a reaction or response to a client’s transference. This perception has over time broadened to refer to the way counsellors are affected by their clients in terms of their own transference behaviors.

There are several ways in which a counsellor can assist a client to deal with transference when this comes up in counselling.

  • Education – When the counsellor recognizes transference, after the immediate emotional charge has blown over, it may be helpful to share information about transference with the client. Simply knowing that this phenomenon exists and how it works may inform the client to learn from the experience rather than allowing it to control them.
  • Awareness – It helps the clients to identify specific people in their life and how they think about and react towards them. This can highlight how past relationships are being transferred to the present moment.
  • Journalling – If the client journals their experiences of their relationships, they may more easily identify patterns of behavior. For example, if the client sees that they lash out every time someone suggests they change, they will better understand how much of an impact a formative relationship has in their life.
  • Building Positive, Fulfilling RelationshipsEmpower clients with the skills to cultivate fulfilling, rewarding relationships and enhance their social wellbeing.

It is strongly advised that when these experiences come up, it is discussed in supervision.

Author: Peter Schultz