Transference and Countertransference

Experiences in the therapeutic relationship are important parts of understanding the therapeutic relationship you have with your therapist. Processing through your experiences in the therapeutic relationship can be helpful to navigate roadblocks in therapy. Ever wonder what experiences of the therapeutic relationship may be shared between you and your therapist? Or how your past experiences in former therapeutic relationships have impacted your view and progress of your current therapeutic relationship? Talking about your experiences in the therapeutic relationship in the forms of what is called transference and countertransference with your therapist can be helpful to support your awareness of goals and boundaries. 

What is transference?

Transference is experienced by a patient in therapy. Transference is the process by which internal emotions originally associated with one person or object in your personal life are unconsciously shifted and projected onto the therapist. Exploring these subconscious thoughts and feelings can be helpful in setting boundaries, increasing healthy communication, and regulating your Self in a productive manner.

Transference in therapy

In therapy, you may have previously had an experience where your therapist reminded you of your friend who seemed supportive during a difficult time. This projection of view on your therapist as your friend may have increased your motivation to explore topics and accomplish goals outlined during that session. 

Likewise, you may have had a session where your therapist challenged you on an experience that was emotionally difficult to talk about and made you feel unsettled.  Your experience after this may have left you questioning several aspects of the therapeutic relationship. The verbal exchange in this experience may have reminded you of the time your grade school teacher scolded you for a missing homework assignment. Reflecting on this transference in therapy can be a healing experience for individuals to resolve the emotional discomfort when being emotionally challenged. This can happen during times of feeling unsettled and through thoughts of uncertainty.

Transference in real life

In personal situations, you may have had experiences at work where your boss reminded you of a former individual in your life. You found yourself responding to your boss in a particular manner and could not understand why at first. This can be associated with your transference of that individual. It is important to hold a safe space to reflect on these experiences of transference to support your awareness and need for feedback of your transference. Feedback from your therapist can include practicing healthy communication skills, processing through past trauma, physically experiencing the difference in the interpersonal interaction, and recognizing the need for restructured boundaries with individuals.

How can I explore my transference?

Through therapy, you can explore your transference to navigate through communication of your needs and wants. It may be helpful to utilize art therapy and EMDR to gain insight of your beliefs and projections of Self. Transference artwork is some of the most transformative work that individuals grow through when faced with personal roadblocks in therapy. Highlighting and understanding the process of creating artwork, journal entries, and activating a stream of consciousness in session helps your brain to connect the dots between past and present transference experiences. It is not uncommon for therapists to hear the phrase, “This is the one space that I can finally be myself!” Validation and application of that statement to help you create a safe space in other parts of your world is important!

Some common experiences of transference are:

  • Paternal transference – an individual experiences a person as a father figure with common values associated to your perception of that father figure in your life or a societally idealized father figure. Within the therapeutic relationship, you may take on the role you had as a child with your therapist if you perceive the therapist to be that of your father. You may have projected thoughts or feelings surrounding your perceptions of the therapist based on your history with your father. 
  • Maternal transference – an individual experiences a person as a mother figure with common values associated to your perception of that mother figure in your life or a societally idealized mother figure.Within the therapeutic relationship, you may take on the role you had as a child with your therapist if you perceive the therapist to be that of your mother. You may have projected thoughts or feelings surrounding your perceptions of the therapist based on your history with your mother.
  • Sibling transference – an individual experiences a person as a sibling figure. You may have experienced this in your workplace, school, or in your social circles. For example having that one friend that is like a sister you can count on or having that coworker who reminds you of a younger sibling after you trained them. This may bring out different parts of you based on your relationships with your siblings, not the relationship with said friend or coworker. 
  • Non-familial transference – experienced typically when idealizing a figure in society with their role or occupation that has had an impact on you. For example believing your doctor or nurse has the cure to every medical symptom, a cop always being right as an authority figure, or a teacher never being able to make a mistake.
  • Sexualized transference – experienced when an individual has an attraction to their therapist that may be erotic or eroticized. Erotic transference is understood by a patient as unrealistic and sexual in nature and typically viewed as a positive experience. Eroticized transference is typically described as irrational erotic preoccupation with the therapist; it is viewed as negative and can be detrimental in the therapeutic relationship if getting in the way of accomplishing healthy therapeutic goals.

Kristen Bell and Yvette Nicole Brown touched upon transference in therapy in their 2018 Love Ballad to Your Therapist. In their parody, they touch upon topics that may be uncomfortable to explore with your therapist: dreams, the financial obligation of therapy, running into your therapist in public, attraction, loving your therapist, and social media. It is important to recognize the way your transference of the therapeutic relationship is not only guiding you, but also, how you practice healthy boundary setting for yourself to explore your vulnerabilities. Therapy can be as much of a vulnerable space as it can be a safe space.

What is countertransference?

Countertransference is experienced by your therapist. Countertransference is a psychotherapist’s own repressed feelings in reaction to a patient’s emotions, experiences, problems, demeanor, demographic, stage of life, or treatment goals. There are several ways that countertransference can be accessed and utilized in sessions to support you. Countertransference informs your therapist how to keep your needs in session separate from their own. It can be a subconscious response to support development and tracking of the goals identified in the early stages of your therapeutic relationship. There are pros and cons to countertransference. An example of how it can be helpful in the sessions is when the therapist has experienced a variation of what is happening or what is being described from you in the session. If you tend to be on the more reserved side during sessions and the therapist has someone in their life who is also on the more reserved side, the therapist may be able to pull from their own experiences to describe to you what it’s like for the people in your life when interacting with you. You will receive feedback in a safe, compassionate environment to help you grow in this area. 

Why is countertransference important?

Just as for patients, it may be helpful for therapists to create artwork with individuals in session as a parallel process which can be a vulnerable experience for both patient and therapist. Using the vulnerability, therapists have the ability to understand what is coming up in a more in-depth way that can help them guide the discussion in real time during the session. This typically allows the therapist to contact a deeper level of empathy and compassion as they can connect to it in more ways. Countertransference also informs therapists how to appropriately communicate what they are witnessing to guide and support your process.

On the contrary, countertransference can work against the therapeutic relationship and is important to monitor. For example, if the therapist has their own child and you are discussing issues that you are having with your child that mirror that of the therapist’s issues, the therapist may become more reactive than they should to hold a neutral space. This is in response to their own life not yours, but it may have a negative impact on how you feel or think within the session. This is an example of the therapist not being in check with their underlying emotions about their own experiences with their personal life and having them come out in the session. You should feel permission to discuss this as a concept with your therapist if you feel they are not giving you an unbiased, objective view on the topics being discussed. 

It is helpful for therapists to be aware of their countertransference in and out of the therapeutic space to best support you. Countertransference also allows therapists to share effective support for you through challenging topics that may come up in sessions. Therapy should be that nonjudgmental safe space where your therapist shares how and why boundaries need to be directed.

Questions to Ask Myself To Recognize My Own Transference

It may be time to journal through some of the following prompts to understand your transference of different parts of the therapeutic relationship.

  • What do I envision therapy being like? (This may inform your transference of therapy as a whole.)
  •  What is it that I would want from my therapist?
    • How does intersectionality (race, class, age, gender) impact my view of therapy?
      • Does the therapist’s gender matter to me? 
      • Does the therapist’s age matter to me? 
      • Do I care if my therapist is married or not? 
      • Do I care if my therapist has children of their own? 
      • Will I judge them if they are divorced? 
    • Do I prefer a therapist or a psychologist? 
    • Do years of experience providing therapy play a part of my engagement in therapy?
    • Does it matter how my therapist looks or dresses? 
  • How do I recognize when I’m feeling activated in a projection? 
    • What does my body tell me? 
    • Where do my thoughts go? 
    • How am I emotionally feeling? 
    • Do my behaviors change? 
    • Are there trigger words or topics? 
    • Are there specific people or things that activate me when talked about? 
  • What are my attachments typically like when I’m experiencing transference? 
    • Do I shut down, or do I lean into the relationship that is activating me? 
  • How can I create a healthy emotionally corrective experience in therapy? What do I need to feel safe to explore the projection?
  • Does genderism in the therapeutic relationship impact my engagement in therapy?
  • Do external factors such as: how hungry or tired I am, time of day, day of the week, my work/school stress, what my children are up to, my outside relationships, impact my engagement in therapy? 
  • What did I think of my last therapist? What did I like and why? What did I not like and why?
  • Have I ever experienced transference before? If so, what was the situation? How did I become activated? 
  • What are my projections? How might they impact that therapeutic relationship?

Remember, being aware of your experiences in the therapeutic relationship including your transference and your therapist’s countertransference may be challenging. If you have questions or want to find out more about working through your transference through therapy, you can call The Better You Institute and make an appointment at 267-495-4951.