Counter-Transference in Therapy

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In psychoanalytic theory, counter-transference occurs when the therapist begins to project his own unresolved conflicts onto the client. Freud, in 1910, was the first to discuss this topic.

Transference of the client’s conflicts onto the therapist 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.

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

There are four manifestations of counter-transference:

  1. Subjective: the therapists own unresolved issues is the cause (can be harmful if not detected)
  2. Objective: the therapist's reaction to his client's maladaptive behaviors is the cause (can benefit the therapeutic process)
  3. Positive: the therapist is over-supportive, trying too hard to befriend his client, disclosing too much (can damage the therapeutic relationship)
  4. 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 eliminating counter-transference altogether, the goal is to use those feelings productively.

What Qualifies as Counter-Transference?

Counter-transference is the therapist's inappropriate reaction to his client. The therapist is reacting to an unconscious neurotic conflict within himself that the client has unearthed.

How does a therapist know he's experiencing counter-transference? How do you know if your therapist is exhibiting the signs of counter-transference?

The first sign is an inappropriate emotional response to the client. More specifically, when the client is an adult, common counter-transference reactions a therapist, or client, should look out for include:

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

If your child is in therapy, you can also look out for other clues if you suspect trouble in the therapeutic relationship. When the client is a child, warning signs of counter-transference for the therapist include:

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

When It Can Be a Good in Therapy

Although it's important for your therapist to guard against feelings of counter-transference toward you, it can also produce good results. 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.

A Word From Verywell

To drive your understanding home on counter-transference, here is an example.

Mike became concerned when he developed protective feelings for a female client. In discussions with a colleague, he realized that the client reminded him of his sister, leading to counter-transference of those feelings.

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Article Sources
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  • Conte, J R. University of Washington: Managing the Relationship Between the Work and the Personal Life.
  • Dobier DB. (2009). Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers Conference Poster Presentation: Countertransference and Supervision (2009).
  • Machado DB et al. Systematic review of studies about countertransference in adult psychotherapy. Trends Psychiatry Psychother. 2014 Dec;36(4):173-85.