Countertransference doesn’t make you a bad therapist. Once you understand it, you can use it to help your client move forward.

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As a therapist, you may have experienced staying up late worrying about a client or dreading your next session with them.

Or maybe you’ve found yourself proud of a client, upset with them, or even compelled to share some of your personal story.

Countertransference in psychotherapy is when a therapist reacts to a client — consciously or unconsciously — based on the therapist’s own needs, background, or experiences.

As Bronwyn Shiffer, a licensed clinical social worker, puts it, “countertransference is inevitable, it just is.”

It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing to feel any way about your clients as long as you’re aware of it and reflect on where it’s coming from and what it might mean, Shiffer says. Here are some journaling exercises to explore your feelings.

When it comes to countertransference, awareness is critical.

Unanalyzed countertransference could have an adverse impact on your client’s treatment because you could be unaware of why you’re responding to your client in a specific way. This could hurt your therapeutic bond or get in the way of your client’s progress.

On the flip side, when you’re aware of and understand where your countertransference is coming from, it can become a useful tool in helping move your client forward.

Countertransference could show up in various ways when you’re working with clients. It may look different for every therapist — and with every client.

Some telltale signs of countertransference include:

  • worrying about your client before/after sessions
  • letting your sessions go overtime or cutting them short
  • getting overly emotional or invested in your session(s)
  • constantly making exceptions for one of your clients
  • telling your client personal things about yourself
  • developing romantic feelings for your client
  • feeling consistently angry at your client
  • having dreams about your client
  • not exhibiting healthy boundaries
  • offering your client advice

If you’ve felt or experienced one or more of these signs, it’s something that you can work through while continuing to provide your clients with the best care.

While countertransference used to be seen as something for therapists to overcome, today, many therapists believe countertransference can provide valuable information about a client. Ultimately, it could help you be a better therapist.

It’s helpful to understand how common countertransference is and keep an eye out for it in your practice.

“Many therapists try to ignore or disconnect from countertransference,” says Susan Kolod, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “Once the therapist becomes aware, they can begin to analyze the origin of the feelings, either in supervision, in their own therapy or just consulting with a colleague.”

After reflecting, therapists can apply what they’ve learned about their clientsin sessions, tweaking their approach based on this new knowledge to be more effective.

Writing prompts to assess countertransference

If you feel you might be experiencing countertransference, try journaling on one or more of the following questions. Or consider working through some of these questions with your own therapist.

  • What feelings is this client bringing up in me?
  • Does this client remind me of someone or something in my life?
  • Did I feel this way in previous sessions or is this a new feeling/sensation?
  • Did something happen right before this session that influenced how I’m feeling?
  • Is there a personal situation happening in my life that’s interfering with my work?
  • What do I need to do to take care of myself and let go of my feelings toward my client?
  • What boundaries do I need to set for myself so I can move past this?

As you work through these questions, you’ll want to treat yourself the way you would a client: with compassion and without judgment.

Giving yourself the space and patience to unravel what you’re feeling can help you move forward and continue giving all of your clients your best self.

Countertransference often cannot be avoided, but it doesn’t have to be negative. “Once a therapist acknowledges they are experiencing countertransference and analyzes it, countertransference can provide a tremendous amount of data about the client and what they need from the therapist,” Kolod says.

Though countertransference could affect your therapeutic bond with your client, it’s what you do with countertransference that matters the most.

Consider using countertransference to your advantage by giving yourself more space to be self-reflective. For example, you could notice changes to your emotional state when working with your clients and make thoughtful choices based on what you uncover during self-reflection.

With this knowledge, not only can you better take care of yourself, but you can also better serve your clients.