The relationship between a therapist and a client can be a complex one if dynamics from the client’s other relationships seep in. This phenomenon, when a client transfers feelings or behavioral patterns associated with another relationship onto the therapist relationship, is called transference. While a therapist can gain insight into a client’s thought patterns and behavior as a result of transference, it’s important for the client to identify when this is happening and understand where it’s coming from.
Countertransference describes what happens when a therapist gets drawn into the transference dynamic due to lack of boundaries or lack of awareness. (It can also describe a therapist’s independently getting caught up in transferring their own feelings to a client.) Because countertransference can negatively impact the client’s progress, it’s essential that therapists actively avoid it. In this post, we take a deep dive into how transference and countertransference show up in the therapist-client relationship and look at examples of transference and countertransference in therapy.
Transference most often happens as a result of behavioral patterns developed in a significant childhood relationship, such as with a caregiver. But the phenomenon is not limited to patterns developed with caregivers.
Paternal transference — In this case, the client associates characteristics of their father figure with the therapist. This can show up as admiration or viewing the therapist as all-knowing, or conversely, experiencing fear or agitation, depending on the relationship with their father.
Maternal transference — Maternal transference is similar to paternal, but the person associated with the transference is the mother figure. The experience could generate trust or feeling nurtured, or as with paternal transference, negative feelings.
Sibling transference — Transference can also reflect the dynamics of a sibling relationship. It sometimes occurs when the client lacks a relationship with a father or mother figure.
Non-familial transference — This type of transference most often shows up as the client idealizing the therapist or reflecting stereotypes that are influencing the client.
Sexualized transference — When a client becomes obsessively attracted to a therapist in an erotic 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.
Let’s look at some concrete examples of how transference shows up in client-therapist relationships.
Guru — The client may view the therapist as an all-wise figure on a higher spiritual plane. In this case, the therapist can do no wrong in the client’s eyes.
Opponent — If the client is transferring feelings associated with an adversarial relationship, such as a troubled relationship with a parent or sibling, the client will argue, become defensive, and may oppose recommendations the therapist makes.
Ideal lover — If the client has experienced difficult romantic relationships or if they’ve failed to establish romantic relationships, the client may be prone to developing a romantic or erotic association with the therapist.
Transference isn’t always negative. If a client views a therapist as a wisdom figure or associates positive feelings with the therapist, the relationship may be strengthened. But if negative dynamics come into play and the client fails to realize what’s happening, treatment will suffer.
If negative transference occurs with a client, however, all is not lost. First, transference helps therapists better understand the client’s formative relationships, so it can produce insight. Second, the therapist can point out what’s happening, also giving the client a better understanding of how the dynamic may be impacting other relationships in their life.
The best way to help a client dealing with transference is to guide them to see what’s actually happening in the dynamic. Here are two ways to accomplish this.
Educate the client — If you see transference happening, after the immediate emotional charge has dissipated, it’s helpful to share information about transference with the client. Simply knowing that the phenomenon exists and how it works may be enough for the client to learn from the experience rather than allowing it to control them.
Ask the client to keep a journal — If the client journals their experiences of their relationships, they can more easily spot patterns of behavior. For example, if the client sees that they lash out every time someone makes a suggestion for improvement, they will better understand how much of an impact a formative relationship is having throughout their life.
Countertransference, when the therapist transfers feelings to a client or acts out of a formative relationship, can appear in a variety of different ways. Let’s take a look at some examples of how countertransference can show up in the therapist-client relationship.
Excessive disclosure of personal matters — If the therapist “hits it off” with a client, it can be easy for the therapist to view the client as a friend. This may result in the therapist opening up and sharing personal matters that aren’t beneficial to the client’s treatment.
Parent-child dynamic — If the therapist deals with their own attachment issues as a result of sub-optimal childhood caregiver relationships, the behavior of a client may trigger those issues. The therapist may react out of an inner child dynamic, or they may become controlling or harsh if a parental dynamic kicks in.
Harsh reaction to racist or homophobic beliefs — One of the most challenging examples of countertransference is when a client’s harmful beliefs trigger a therapist’s protector dynamic. In this case, rather than seeking to understand where the beliefs are coming from and calmly talking this through with the client, the therapist may lash out.
It’s important to note that classic countertransference is not the same as helpful self-disclosure, however. It can be beneficial for clients to know that their therapist has struggled with a similar issue or to see how they deal with a similar situation. The problem comes when the therapist unconsciously reacts to a client, being driven by a harmful dynamic.
Countertransference can significantly damage the therapist-client relationship and can set back treatment. In severe cases, it may introduce new problems that the client must work through with another practitioner.
Lesser types of countertransference are quite common, however. Therapists are only human, and their own formative relationships can continue to have an impact, even if they’ve done deep work to understand and gain skills to deal with the impacts. It’s important for a therapist to identify when countertransference is happening and actively work to mitigate it.
The best way to prevent countertransference is for the therapist to first be aware of how common the phenomenon is. Next, it’s essential for the therapist to be mindful of their own feelings and behaviors. Being attentive to emotions and behaviors and observing the space between stimulus and response will help therapists to choose to act in thoughtful ways rather than automatically reacting or being driven by feelings.
Simply understanding how transference and countertransference work often help both therapists and their clients avoid getting caught up in these dynamics. And mindfulness is a complementary skill that allows both individuals to better understand their own feelings and behaviors. When both the therapist and the client can gain an objective view, they can actually learn from instances where transference or countertransference begin happening and take steps to deal with it effectively.