Transference & Countertransference:
A Common Sense Perspective

 ©1993 BABETTE ROTHSCHILD, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

This article is the first in a series of articles on a principle I am afraid has gone missing from most psychological theories and techniques - Common Sense. It is a presentation of my own understanding of transference and countertransference gained through extensive personal and professional experience - as both client and therapist-, and through the shared experiences of my clients, colleagues and friends.

Let me begin with some basic definitions. Transference and countertransference are phenomena (not tools) related to projection that occur naturally for every client and every therapist. Transference has to do with certain - but not all - feelings a client can have towards a therapist, countertransference to do with certain - but not all - feelings a therapist can have towards a client. Transference and countertransference are neither good nor bad; like all feelings, they just are. Transference not only occurs in therapy, but in all of our relationships. In therapy it has the advantage that we can utilize it for growth. It's similar to projection, but not necessarily projection. Projection is a feeling you have from yourself that you project on to somebody else. Transference is feelings from your past interactions with others that you transfer into current relationships. Countertransference is the therapist's transference feelings in the therapy and/or towards the client. The feelings that come from transference and countertransference are as real as the feelings that come from the "core self" or the "real self" as we like to distinguish in body therapies. They are real feelings based on the "core" or "real" self's interactions with other people at other points in time. We all come to, and react in, any relationship - with a friend. a mother, a therapist, a teacher - with all of the experiences that we've had. It's a very normal thing.

The only danger that I see with transference and countertransference is when they are denied or labelled as "bad" or "not real". When these - and any feelings - are accepted and seen as natural and logical there is only potential for growth.

Many schools of body work (and some of psychotherapy) deny or discount the existence and/or significance of transference and counter-transference. Classic to body work of the 60's and 70's was an expectation that the work was for personal growth and that all participants were adults and expected to maintain mature feelings towards their facilitator/therapist/teacher. This is one place where the common sense principle was lost.

One only has to consider the position that the client usually assumes in body work - lying on a mattress looking up at the therapist - to realize that it is loaded with transference/countertransference provocation. It is a position that we know in life as infants, during illness and during sex!

I believe that this basic denial of transference and countertransference is why there has been so much difficulty with roles and boundaries in many schools of body work. You will often find client and therapist involved in friendships, trainees being supervised by their therapist, clients being therapist for their own therapist or supervisor, clients working for their therapist, etc. Of course, much of this has changed as more and more "body work" becomes "body-psychotherapy," which recognizes the importance of, among other things, the complications of transference and countertransference in a therapy (or any personal growth/facilitative) relationship . But it does continues as a problem in some schools.

This article is, of course, colored by my own experiences with and feelings of transference and countertransference. My first, many years, of therapy, involved mixed relationships (as I've described above) with my therapists - both in TA and in body work - and I know, first hand, how this mixture can limit the honesty and depth of the relationship. I usually held back feelings I feared would hurt or anger my therapist, or cause him to criticize me or terminate the session or the relationship. In the last few years I've had the privilege, finally, of having a therapy where the boundaries of the relationship were clear and held, enabling me to feel free to reveal and look at my feelings of transference. Equally important, my therapist has been willing to accept and contain both my negative and positive transference and deal with her own countertransference that is provoked by my responses.

(Simply, positive transference is when you like your therapist, and negative transference is when you don't.) It's been a very profound experience. Being in a therapeutic relationship where I can fully express myself - also with the "illogical" feelings of positive and negative transference - has been, at times, overwhelming and, usually, very freeing. It has been very important because I've also been able to, not only express my feelings in a space where there was safety, but also have support to look at what the feelings were about, to accept them and to find the logic in them. Transference feelings always have a value, logic and a purpose (as do defence mechanisms). They're not just there to make a hard time for the therapist - although sometimes when your client is bombarding you, you might think so! It's been quite a revelation for me to discover the wealth of feelings and issues, and also the resources and creativity that have been released in my being able to be in a therapy where I could express my transference to my therapist.

When the therapist accepts the client's transference while holding the boundaries and frame of the therapeutic relationship clear and firm, a secure playing field is established where the client can express all of his feelings, including sexual ones in the security that the therapist will not act out against him. Such a relationship gives a client the possibility to observe his own feelings and reactions in the course of a personal relationship without risking disastrous consequences such as he may have experienced before. This makes it possible for a client to separate out, at his own pace, past from present, and for the ghosts that haunt him, to gradually loose their power.

I've also had a good amount of - conscious - experience with countertransference (we all have a lot of experience with countertransference, whether we recognize it or not) as there is a strong emphasis on recognizing and working with one's own countertransference in the training and supervision programs within the Bodynamic Institute. It is crucial for a therapist to be aware of her own countertransference so that her emotional process isn't interfering with the client's process. It's also good to be aware of countertransference issues so that when a client comes with all of his transference - that can seem very illogical, threatening, and unreasonable, at times - one isn't as threatened by it, and can deal with the feelings it provokes.

I'd like to make an important distinction here. Some therapists believe that countertransference is feelings you "get" from a client. That, somehow, a client can "put" feelings into the therapist. I don't believe this is possible. (If you do, I'd like you to actively try to do it to another.) I do believe that we can consciously and unconsciously empathize with our clients to the point that we have a sense of their feelings. But any feelings we "pick up" from a client are mixing with our own feelings, and our own history (countertransference), and problems can arise when we can't/don't make that distinction.

A main way we pick up feelings from clients is by (consciously or unconsciously) mirroring our client. We do this by assuming similar postures, movement and breathing patterns, facial expressions, etc. We can use mirroring actively to gain a sense of our client, but we must always remember that this sense is coming in through our own filters from our own life experience and feelings.

If you want to inhibit empathizing or "picking up" from your client - for example when the client is sitting with passive anger and you don't want to be provoked - check your posture, movements and breathing and do what you can to make them different from your client's. I think you will quickly notice a change in your mood, and feel more "yourself". My point is that this "picking up" is something you are doing, and that you have control over it. You are not your client's victim, passively being invaded and provoked by his moods.

Part of our therapeutic responsibility is to become so aware of our own countertransference issues that we make the cleanest possible therapeutic space for our clients to enable them to react as they need to. If I'm sad today, I may not make the space for my client to be sad, if I don't want it to trigger my own. Or, the opposite, I may not make the space for her to be angry if that's where she is, because I need space for my sadness. I also need to be aware of my reactions to my different clients with regard to my different likes or dislikes based on my own past, including who they remind me of, how they respond with me, etc.

The goal of working with transference is the main goal of much of psychotherapy and body-psychotherapy: separating the past from the present so that the ghosts and imprints of the past no longer interfere with life in the present freeing the individual to develop new and more effective resources and tools to further his life.

My experience both as client and therapist is that working with transference is, by the common sense principle, rather easy (although, admittedly, sometimes easier in principle than actuality). Basically, the first thing to do is accept it, it is what it is, and it is real. Sometimes when you accept your client's transference, you don't have to do very much else with it. When transference is accepted, the client will often do something with it himself. It often happens that a client will lash out with anger that has nothing to do with the therapist. It is also a common occurrence, that when the therapist accepts it, the client comes back later in the session, or the next week and says, "you know all that anger I threw on you, that didn't have anything to do with you, that's stuff from my mother when..." Then the therapist can help the client explore this issue from the past, now separated from the present.

If the client is not able to do that, or is not aware of his own transference you have two other options to help him increase his awareness of it, after accepting it. You can either confront the client with questions: "Why are you getting angry with me now?" That's a confrontation to help him explore what's going on. Another option might be to make an interpretation: "You're feeling the need for me to come to your birthday party right now because you feel close to me and because your dad never came to your birthday party when you were a little girl." Acceptance and awareness are the key tools to working with transference. When they are applied liberally, there is often not much else you need to do. Acceptance and awareness lead, naturally, to understanding and separating the past relationships with others from the current relationship with the therapist. Also when a client's transference is accepted and he is helped to increase his awareness of transference reactions to the therapist, the client will usually begin to apply this knowledge to his personal and professional relationships, enabling him to also separate those from his past.

Working with countertransference is much the same as transference, with the addition that the therapist has a responsibility to his clients to deal with his own issues, to minimize (it's never eliminated) countertransference in the therapy. With countertransference, you still have the first tool, acceptance, which is often harder, as some therapists have difficulty accepting their humanness in the therapy relationship. This is where we all need a good supervisor that we both can learn from and feel secure enough with to share our countertransference concerns, and be open to countertransference confrontations. We can also use our colleagues, and our own therapist, but supervision is where most issues of countertransference will best come to light.

But you don't have to feel that you have to resolve all your feelings of countertransference (and, anyway, that's not humanly possible, or even preferable). You can also use countertransference in the therapy, if you are aware of what you are doing. Sometimes feelings of affection, irritation or anger can be useful, whether or not they originate in the current therapy. You don't always have to contain them because they come from some place else. Sometimes my own irritation can serve as a catalyst to a client. But if the client feels hurt by my irritation, instead, I need to clarify and to help him understand that my irritation didn't really have anything to do with him, but came from another place in my life. There are also situations where it's not a good idea to use your countertransference, but to be aware of it and contain it - which, of course, can be difficult, at times.

Sometimes transference and countertransference can meet, or even conflict. I once had a client who asked me to remove my pierced earrings because seeing the holes in my ears made her feel ill, nauseous. I had to consider my own limits. And I could remember my father's comments when I first pierced my ears, he didn't like the holes either. But I decided it was fine with me, I didn't mind taking them out. I also considered the consequences if I didn't: we could have gotten into a power struggle, or other issue, and I preferred her to stay with what she was working on. If she'd have asked me to remove my shirt, because it made her sick or frightened, I would not have. That would be past my limits. But the earrings didn't really matter to me, so it was fine. Conflicts of client transference and therapist countertransference aren't, however, always so easily dealt with.

It is not uncommon that a therapist will express countertransference inappropriately, resulting in pain to the client.

This can be best dealt with - after the therapist becomes aware of it - with honesty. Own your own. It might not be appropriate to share about where it comes from, but you can always be honest, "It was a mistake, I'm sorry. It had nothing to do with you, only to do with me." We all make these kinds of errors from time to time. Appologizing and accepting the client's feelings is a good way to deal with it.

The following exercises will hopefully illustrate how simple and universal these concepts are:

TRANSFERENCE

Pre-exercise status:

Feel your body. What do you sense -- specifically. Where do you feel warm/cold, tense/relaxed, big/small? Are there places in your body that seem to call to your attention or disappear? How is your breathing?

How are you feeling emotionally? Sad, happy, content, angry, anxious, horney?

Transference Exercise #1

Picture your own therapist -- if none current, your last one.

Transference Exercise #2

Using the same therapist:

Transference Exercise #3

What have you learned about your relationship to your therapist? What would be worthwhile, or necessary to share with your therapist?

(Repeat Transference Exercises #1 & #2 with each therapist you have had.)

COUNTERTRANSFERENCE

Pre-exercise status:

Feel your body. What do you sense -- specifically. Where do you feel warm/cold, tense/relaxed, big/small? Are there places in your body that seem to call to your attention or disappear? How is your breathing.

How are you feeling emotionally? Sad, happy, content, angry, anxious, horney?

Countertransference Exercise #1

Countertransference Exercise #2

Using the same client:

Countertransference Exercise #3

(Repeat Countertransference Exercises #1, #2 & #3 with each client you have. )

MIRRORING

Mirroring Exercise #1

While walking on the street (or in a group at a workshop), be aware of your own body:

Next, choose a person who is walking ahead of you. Copy that person's posture and gait to the best of your ability. Try to really hold yourself and walk like him/her.

If you are doing this exercise in a group or workshop, share with the person what you sensed: in your body, in your feelings, and what you think you have learned. Be open to the other's feedback, which will help to separate what you have "picked up" through mirroring, and what may be your own "transference".

Try this exercise with several people, and on differing days. It can also be a fun exercise to do with friends or family - like "walking in another person's shoes."

Mirroring Exercise #2

Find a partner. Decide which of you will first be therapist? The other one of you should choose one of your clients -- preferably one you have difficulty with -- to role play.

When role playing your client, mirror as much as you can the person's posture and way of moving. Feel in your own body what muscles you tense and relax differently than in your own normal state of being.

Share your experience of being in the role of your client with your partner.