What Is Counter-Transference?

Person in counseling session sits on couch in therapist office.

SeventyFour / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Counter-Transference?

In psychoanalytic theory, counter-transference occurs when the therapist projects their own unresolved conflicts onto the client. This could be in response to something the client has unearthed.

Although many now believe it to be inevitable, counter-transference can be damaging if not appropriately managed. With proper monitoring, however, some research shows that counter-transference can play a productive role in the therapeutic relationship.

Transference vs. Counter-Transference

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines counter-transference as a reaction to the client or client's transference, which is when the client projects their own conflicts onto the therapist.

Transference is a normal part of psychodynamic therapy. However, it's the therapist’s job to recognize counter-transference and do what's necessary to remain neutral.

Four Types of Counter-Transference

There are four manifestations of counter-transference. Three of these can potentially harm the therapeutic relationship.

  • Subjective: The therapist's own unresolved issues are the cause. This can be harmful if not detected.
  • Objective: The therapist's reaction to their client's maladaptive behaviors is the cause. This can benefit the therapeutic process.
  • Positive: The therapist is over-supportive, trying too hard to befriend their client, and disclosing too much. This can damage the therapeutic relationship.
  • Negative: The therapist acts out against uncomfortable feelings in a negative way, including being overly critical and punishing or rejecting the client.

Counter-transference is especially common in novice therapists, so supervisors pay close attention and help them become more self-aware. The mental health community supports seasoned clinicians by urging them to seek peer review and supervisory guidance as needed. Rather than eliminate counter-transference altogether, the goal is to use those feelings productively.

Warning Signs of Counter-Transference

How does a therapist know they are experiencing counter-transference? If you are a client, how do you know if your therapist is exhibiting the signs of it? If you're concerned about the presence of counter-transference in your therapeutic relationship, be aware of these warning signs.

In Adult Therapy

In general, be aware of whether the therapist has an inappropriate emotional response to the client. This might look like:

  • An unreasonable dislike for the client or excessive positive feelings about the client
  • Becoming over-emotional and preoccupied with the client's case between sessions
  • Dreading the therapy session or feeling uncomfortable during the session

In Child Therapy

Warning signs on behalf of the therapist include:

  • Fantasies of rescuing the child from their situation
  • Ignoring the child's deviant behavior
  • Encouraging the child to act out

Here's an example of what counter-transference could look like: A therapist becomes concerned when they develop protective feelings for a client. In discussions with a colleague, they realized that the client reminded them of their sister, leading to counter-transference.

Impact on Therapy

While it was originally a psychoanalytic concept, counter-transference has been adopted and is used in other forms of therapy today. Although it's important for your therapist to guard against feelings of counter-transference toward you, counter-transference as also been found to be beneficial.

In a systematic review of 25 counter-transference studies, researchers found an association with positive counter-transference, such as feeling close to the client, and positive outcomes, including improvement of symptoms and a good therapeutic relationship.

Additionally, a 2018 meta-analysis published in Psychotherapy examined counter-transference's effect on therapy and observed the potential negative effects and also the beneficial outcomes when it was managed well.

What to Do

If you think your therapist is experiencing counter-transference, you can bring it up with them if and when the time feels right. Your therapist should be receptive to your concern. If you're feeling uncomfortable, and that counter-transference is getting in the way of effective therapy, it may be time to move on to a new practitioner.

Therapists can also take steps to manage counter-transference. The 2018 meta-analysis recommends therapists closely monitor themselves and work on their conflicts through personal psychotherapy, meditation, and self-care. They may also consider clinical supervision.

History of Counter-Transference

Sigmund Freud first described counter-transference in 1910. Attitudes of the concept have changed over time. Freud first defined it as being in reaction to transference from a client, and it was thought of as largely detrimental to therapy.

However, this thinking changed around the 1950s, when counter-transference started to be viewed as something that could be positive. The definition of counter-transference was also broadened to include any reaction a therapist had to a client.

A Word From Verywell

Counter-transference is common, and it's not always a bad thing. If you think this is something that might be affecting your therapeutic relationship, feel empowered to bring it up with your therapist. If having that conversation makes you feel uneasy, that's understandable. But it might mean it is time to move on and find a therapist who is a better fit for you.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Countertransference.

  2. de Bitencourt Machado D, da Cunha Coelho FM, Giacomelli AD, et al. Systematic review of studies about countertransference in adult psychotherapy. Trends Psychiatry Psychother. 2014;36(4):173-185. doi:10.1590/2237-6089-2014-1004

  3. Hayes JA, Gelso CJ, Goldberg S, Kivlighan DM. Countertransference management and effective psychotherapy: Meta-analytic findings. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2018;55(4):496-507. doi:10.1037/pst0000189 

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.