Navigating Transference and Countertransference in Counseling Sessions
By Shannon Heers
If you are working as a counselor, you’ve heard the terms “transference” and “countertransference” before. These are important concepts in the field of counseling and psychotherapy, but are often misunderstood. They refer to the unconscious emotional responses and feelings that are transferred between you (the therapist) and your client during therapy sessions.
Understanding the difference between transference and countertransference, as well as the dynamics of these concepts, is crucial to good clinical practice. These concepts occur within your therapeutic relationship regardless of whether you are aware of them or not, so why not learn more about them so you can know when they pop up? After all, helping your clients make meaningful progress in their personal and emotional growth is the goal of counseling, and you want to provide your clients with the best clinical outcomes that you can.
What is Transference?
Transference within a clinical relationship is what happens when a client projects their own unconscious emotional responses and feelings onto the therapist. These feelings often stem from past experiences and relationships, including family of origin. Feelings such as love, anger, trust or fear may occur.
Transference happens when a client unconsciously transfers their feelings from prior significant relationships onto the therapist. This can lead to the therapist being perceived as a stand-in for a significant other from the client’s past. For example, if your client had a fractured relationship with their mother, and you are a female presenting therapist of around the same age as the mother, your client might unconsciously interact with you the same way they did with their mother.
What is Countertransference?
In contrast, countertransference refers to the unconscious emotional responses and feelings that a therapist has towards your client. Similar to transference, these feelings stem from the therapist’s own life experiences and unconscious biases. And countertransference can most definitely impact the therapeutic relationship and clinical outcomes.
Countertransference can be particularly challenging for therapists, as it can cloud your judgment and impact your ability to be neutral and objective. If you are bringing your own biases from your past relationships and experiences into the clinical relationship with your client, it may not benefit the client.
So, navigating transference and countertransference can be challenging, especially because we as therapists often don’t know that either of these concepts are occurring. However, it’s an essential part of the therapeutic process for transference and countertransference to occur, so you might as well know what to do about it when it does happen!
Understanding the dynamics of transference and countertransference can create a safe and supportive environment for your clients to explore their emotions and feelings as well as create new relationship patterns. Here are some things that you can to as a therapist to better understand and navigate transference and countertransference:
Improve Your Awareness of Transference and Countertransference
Whenever you want to make a change about something, the first step is to build awareness. In your clinical sessions, try to attend to the therapeutic relationship between you and your clients. Being aware of the unconscious feelings and emotional responses that both you and your client is experiencing is a great start.
While you cannot know what your clients are feeling, you can ask and explore and identify different emotions that may be impacting your therapeutic relationship. It also helps to engage in regular self-reflection and self-awareness for yourself to understand and identify those things within yourself. Personal therapy and clinical supervision or clinical consultation can help you with this self-awareness.
Embrace Transference and Countertransference
Transference and countertransference are not always bad things. In fact, they are very natural things that happen within therapeutic relationships. Embracing these concepts, rather than avoiding or denying them, is key in building a solid therapeutic connection. And I also believe personally that by talking about transference at least within sessions can help deepen your clinical relationship.
Creating a safe and supportive environment for clients to explore their own relationships, past and present, is essential in counseling. You can help give your clients insight and a name for their unconscious responses and feelings by acknowledging and embracing transference. Doing this can help provide your client opportunities for growth and transformation.
And, you can also provide yourself with professional growth and development by acknowledging and embracing any countertransference. Being aware that countertransference is natural and normal, is part of embracing this within yourself.
Create a Safe and Caring Environment
In order for you as a therapist to address transference and countertransference in therapy, you must first create a safe and caring container for your client to share and explore authentically. The skills a therapist will need to do this are empathy, transparency, and being non-judgmental. This will help to open clear communication between yourself and your client.
Now that you are aware of your unconscious feelings and biases which may indicate countertransference, and now that you have created a safe and secure space for your client, you can prepare to discuss and process any noted transference that you see. While you may decide not to openly or specifically discuss any transference you have with your client, appropriately, it is still important to be aware of this happening within yourself.
Use Transference and Countertransference as Opportunities for Growth
Used appropriately, identifying and acknowledging transference and countertransference can create opportunities for personal and professional growth for both client and therapist. By exploring and understanding their unconscious emotions, responses and feelings, clients can gain great personal insight. They may develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationships, and hopefully move towards making positive changes in their lives.
When therapists are able to identify and embrace transference and countertransference happening within their clinical sessions, this also creates moments for improved personal and professional growth. We as therapists are always learning and growing, and the more self-growth and awareness that we develop, the better clinicians we will become.
Engage in Clinical Supervision and Personal Therapy
The best ongoing professional development that is available, I believe, is to engage in ongoing clinical supervision (or clinical consultation, if you’re fully licensed) as well as continuing to do your own work in personal therapy.
In clinical supervision, the supervisory relationship mimics the therapeutic relationship. So just as you would create a safe and supportive environment for your clients to explore transference and countertransference, so would your supervisor so that you can explore these topics also.
And by engaging in your own therapy, you can better understand the link between any past personal relationships, your unconscious emotions or feelings, and your clinical work. I’ve definitely talked about how my family of origin relationships have impacted my work as a therapist with my own personal therapist. And it’s helped me tremendously to become a better clinician.
As you now know, after reading this article, navigating transference and countertransference is a critical part of the therapeutic process. By being aware of these dynamics, embracing them, creating a safe container for your client, and using them as opportunities for growth, therapists can help clients make meaningful changes in their lives.
If you are interested in exploring transference and countertransference in your clinical work through ongoing clinical consultation, our experienced clinical supervisors have done this work with many other therapists just like you, and we are happy to help. You can be the best version of yourself as a therapist, and we can help you get there!
How we can help
If you are seeking clinical consultation for the tough work that you do everyday as a therapist or counselor, check us out at Firelight Supervision – we’d love to connect and see how we can work together to support you in your work!
Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, approved clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and the owner of a group psychotherapy practice in the Denver area. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Firelight Supervision on Instagram.