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How to Recognize Countertransference in Therapy

How to Recognize Countertransference in Therapy

Do you know The Joker and Harley Quinn’s story? Harley was a psychiatrist who fell in love with her patient, the dangerous Joker. She, being gullible, felt sorry for him not knowing he was manipulating her. He took advantage of her sympathy to get out of prison, while she developed a one-sided love that later on led to her insanity. This is a good example of countertransference. Read on to learn all about this emotional entanglement.

Definition

According to American Psychological Association (APA), countertransference is a therapist’s unconscious or-often-conscious reactions to a client’s behavior. Sigmund Freud (father of psychoanalysis) first defined the term publicly in his 1910 work, The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy, as a result of the patient’s influence on the physician’s unconscious feelings. He also said that analysts, including himself, are all human and that makes it easy to catch their patients’ feelings. Carl Jung (founder of Analytical Psychology) warned against “cases of countertransference when the analyst really cannot let go of the patient…both fall into the same dark hole of unconsciousness.”

Countertransference in Counseling

Like in other forms of psychotherapy, countertransference can happen in counseling. All the same, therapy suffers when a mental health professional and a client shares unhealthy thoughts or emotions. Similar experiences, background, and tendencies can lead to emotional entanglement, even more so if they’re exactly alike. Not every therapist is capable of separating personal life from work. Some of them are more prone to developing feelings like attraction and hostility in response to their patient’s conscious or unconscious swaying.

Examples

Countertransference occurs when a patient triggers the therapist’s emotions or personal issues. Here are a few examples:

  • A therapist with a rebellious son scolds his/her client who has similar qualities. 
  • Therapist becomes a parent figure for the patient and talks to him/her like one. 
  • The therapist develops romantic or erotic feelings toward his/her patient.
  • Client’s opposing views on religion or politics affect the therapist’s treatment of him/her.
  • The therapist expresses homophobia toward an LGBTQ patient.

Signs

There are various ways countertransference can show itself in therapy. The following are some common ones.

  • Disclosing irrelevant, personal information. 
  • Not having any boundaries with the client.
  • Asking unnecessary questions.
  • Encouraging the patient to share private details they don’t want to share.
  • Giving gifts.
  • Acting like the patient’s superhero.
  • Giving advice instead of allowing the client to make their own decisions.
  • Judging their patient’s actions.
  • Asking the patient out.
  • Letting their mood affect the therapy and the client.
  • Lashing out on the patient.
  • Not considering their patient’s opinions.

No matter how nice of a person the therapist may be, they don’t have the right to do any of these to their client. They can only be kind and warm-hearted in a professional manner, and only during therapy. They can’t look after their patient as a friend or guardian. In the same way, clients need to exercise caution and be careful not to encourage any unhealthy behavior. If they are self-aware enough, they are likely able to recognize when something’s off.

How to Recognize Countertransference

Keeping the signs of countertransference in mind is essential. It’s not easy for therapists to identify them if they are already caught up in their emotions, but remembering them can help. Moreover, such helpless situations require assistance. The therapist, someone else involved (staff, client’s family, etc.), or the client should never hesitate to seek proper help once they realize what’s going on. Being simply informed about countertransference can lead to awareness. Above all, unethical behavior in therapy must be reported to a higher authority before any irreversible damage is done.

Countertransference can happen despite a clinician’s years of experience. There’s no reason for a therapist to feel ashamed if they experience it. They need to seek guidance from their supervisor or a seasoned mental health practitioner whom they trust. They must not let their pride hinder them to avoid the risk of jeopardizing their career. What’s more, this can serve as an opportunity for them to receive feedback and hone their skills so they’d be better prepared if they face the same problem again in the future.

Difference Between Countertransference and Transference

Countertransference is a reaction to transference. Transference happens when a patient projects certain emotions, thoughts, or a specific image (all related to a particular person in their life) onto the therapist. For instance, seeing the therapist as the parent they never had, the patient showers them with clingy affection. Countertransference happens when the therapist inappropriately responds to the patient’s behavior. If you’re a client, you can’t be your therapist’s friend, lover, or be in any other intimate form of relationship with them. It’s unacceptable. Such relations can impede or harm therapy.

A patient may either consciously or unconsciously project onto their therapist. Transference is not that unusual. A lot of people tend to do it whether they are aware or not. Nonetheless, mental health professionals have the responsibility to deal with this entanglement as they should. They can’t just give in to their impulses if they want. They are expected to care for and respect their clients, as therapists. Yes, they are not any less human than us, but they have an important role to play in society, just like everyone else. Without their commitment, treatment and recovery will not be possible.  

Conclusion

Countertransference is quite common. It’s also not always negative. Healthy countertransference is when a therapist feels true empathy for the patient–being able to step into their shoes instead of seeing them as another patient. However, countertransference can definitely be negative and pose serious problems. Therapy won’t get anywhere if the therapist himself ends up taking on the patient’s issues, making things worse. Therapists need to be careful not to experience or allow countertransference. They need to seek help and even let go of a patient if they are susceptible. Countertransference not only compromises the client, but the therapist as well. There’s a way for therapists to build good rapport in therapy without getting emotionally entangled with their patient. 

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Written by Hannah Grace

A B.S. Psychology graduate who fights both real and imaginary shadows every day with music and words.

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