Countertransference refers to the transference of a therapist’s personal thoughts and feelings onto a client. This can be a problem, but modern psychotherapy recognizes that there are also helpful forms of countertransference.

Share on Pinterest
NoSystem images/Getty Images

Countertransference is a phenomenon that occurs within the context of psychotherapy. Sigmund Freud first termed the term countertransference in the early 1900s. He viewed it as an obstacle to the therapist’s work with the client.

The views of countertransference have changed over time, and although countertransference can still be detrimental to the process of therapy, it can also have benefits.

Countertransference in psychotherapy refers to when a therapist has an initial internal reaction — conscious or unconscious — to their client based on the therapist’s own psychological needs.

This often occurs due to transference, which is when a client projects onto the therapist unconscious feelings that were originally directed toward important people in the client’s own life.

Countertransference may interfere with their ability to work with a client objectively. Most good therapists can recognize and work with their countertransference.

The history of countertransference

Freud first developed the concept of countertransference in the 1910s, where he viewed this as an obstacle to be overcome by the therapist. There has been an evolving understanding of the concept since that time.

German psychiatrist Paula Heimann wrote about countertransference in 1950, suggesting that the therapist’s emotional response to the client can provide information for understanding the client’s unconscious world. He viewed this not as an obstacle to therapy, but as a tool.

Around the same time, British psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott also argued for the benefits of countertransference. For example, he believed that therapists often react to their clients in ways others might.

A modern understanding

Today, many therapists accept that countertransference can provide helpful information about a client.

There has been a movement toward accepting the idea of countertransference as a phenomenon that’s created jointly by both the therapist and the client. However, countertransference can impede the client-therapist relationship if the therapist doesn’t monitor it carefully.

There are many examples of countertransference that may occur in therapy. Some of these may have more adverse effects on the therapeutic process than others.

Examples countertransference that a therapist may display include:

  • inappropriately disclosing personal information
  • offering advice
  • not having boundaries
  • developing strong romantic feelings toward you
  • being overly critical of you
  • being overly supportive of you
  • allowing personal feelings or experiences to get in the way of your therapy

Contrary to a common misconception about therapy, it’s not the therapists’s role to provide direct advice. However, they may provide suggestions, such as how to communicate effectively with others.

Self-disclosure from the therapist isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. However, when the self-disclosure takes away from your treatment, or if you think the therapist is making therapy about them, that can be a warning sign that you need to find a new therapist.

Some therapists decide to share the effect that their clients are having on them and their feelings. This can be used as a technique to gain trust, among other therapeutic reasons, and for the therapist to show authenticity toward their clients.

Therapy should be about you as the client, and if your therapist’s feelings are getting in the way of that, this can cause harm to the process. On the other hand, useful countertransference in therapy can help you grow.

Countertransference and transference are very similar. Transference involves the client projecting feelings onto the therapist.

For example, your therapist may remind you of your mother. If this is the case, then you may experience your therapist as you would your mother. Those feelings can clue the therapist into what work needs to happen in therapy.

Sometimes, the therapist’s reaction to you may result from you transferring your feelings to the therapist. On the other hand, sometimes, when therapists experience countertransference, it may not have anything to do with you as a client at all.

Transference and countertransference are connected sometimes. At other times, they have nothing to do with one another.

Therapists deal with countertransference in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways therapists deal with countertransference is through supervision or consultation with other therapists.

Because it can be difficult for therapists to know when countertransference is happening, talking with other professionals about what is happening can help the therapist identify and modify countertransference reactions.

Countertransference also comes from experience. When therapists are in training, they’re required to undergo supervision. Their supervisor can often point out when a therapist is experiencing countertransference and help them manage it, so they don’t cause harm to the client.

Therapists also may deal with countertransference by seeking out their own therapy to help them address issues creating countertransference. In addition, they may gain personal awareness in their treatment and learn areas that they need to improve on.

Countertransference can be beneficial in some ways within the therapeutic relationship, and other times it can be harmful. If you feel like your therapist is exhibiting signs of countertransference, there are some steps you can take.

You may consider talking with your therapist about what you’re noticing to create a more honest dialogue within the therapeutic relationship. Only take this step if you’re comfortable doing so. If your therapist has been overtly harmful or unprofessional, considering another option may be best.

You may ask to speak with the therapists’ supervisor, if they have one, or you can report them to their state licensing board if you believe they’ve done you harm.

Another option is to terminate therapy with that therapist and find another therapist who may be a better fit and more professional. You’re not obligated to stay in treatment with a therapist who’s unprofessional or causing you harm. Here’s a handy article with tips for breaking up with your therapist.

If you need help finding a new therapist, there are many options. You can read about tips for finding the right therapist, and look up affordable therapy options or online therapy providers.

Remember, a therapist’s job is to help you, not cause you harm. If your therapist is having harmful countertransference reactions, please consider speaking up. You are worth it.