Transference is subconsciously associating a person in the present with a past relationship.
For example, you meet a new client who reminds you of a former lover.
Countertransference is responding to them with all the thoughts and feelings attached to that past relationship.
Tudor and Merry (2006: 143) define ‘transference’ as ‘the displacement of an emotion or attitude from one person to another person. They continue:
In psychoanalysis and other forms of psychodynamic therapy, transference most often refers to the displacement of feelings towards parents or siblings, etc., on to the therapist. In these cases, transference can be either positive or negative depending on whether the client … develops positive or negative attitudes towards the therapist … A key feature of these ‘transferences’ is that they are largely unconscious.
‘Countertransference’, meanwhile, is used to refer to transference that happens in the opposite direction: ‘the … therapist’s unconscious reactions to the … client’ (Tudor and Merry, 2006: 34).
Of course, the therapist may also experience transference towards the client, and the client may respond with countertransference.
Origins of the Term
The concept of transference was first described by the Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer the book Studies of Hysteria published in 1895. The book describes the treatment of a 'patient' known as 'Anna O'
In the book, Freud described the process of transference as;
'transferring onto the figure of the physician the distressing ideas that arise from the content of the analysis'.
Transference and Countertransference - A Person-Centred Perspective
Although some person-centred therapists (e.g. John Shlien – a student, friend and colleague of Carl Rogers) have challenged the existence and/or importance of transference in psychotherapy, it is generally held to be a useful concept across modalities.
In fact, Carl Rogers writes at some length about transference in his 1951 book, Client-Centered Therapy (198–218). He summarises (218): ‘If transference attitudes are defined as emotionalized attitudes which existed in some other relationship, and which are inappropriately directed to the therapist, then transference attitudes are evident in a considerable proportion of cases handled by client-centered therapists.’
Why Transference and Countertransference Matter in Counselling
When transference occurs, you or the client brings the whole history of an old relationship into the new relationship, rather than seeing the other person for who they really are. Because it is an unconscious process, it can be hard to spot that this is happening, and can even lead to countertransference, with one person reacting to the way the other is acting towards them (in other words, ‘playing the part’ of the person in history). This is damaging to the therapeutic relationship, and so to the client’s journey. Particular care must be taken with erotic and eroticised transference.
How to Help Avoid Transference and Countertransference
Ways to identify and deal with transference and countertransference include being aware of danger signs in clients, monitoring self, and taking relevant material to supervision. Danger signs include the client ‘acting out’ or being very familiar towards you, or you feeling parental towards your client. It is helpful to develop your self-awareness so that you are more likely to notice and deal with transference, and to avoid responding with countertransference. If you do feel transference is taking place from your client, ask them: ‘Do I remind you of anybody?’ It is important to take any issues of possible transference to supervision; this support can enable you to:
- better understand the therapist–client relationship
- be more effective in working with the client’s process
- anticipate potential traps and potholes
- improve boundary maintenance
Mearns and Cooper (2005: 53) argue that developing relational depth is key to banishing transference and countertransference: ‘The reality is that transference phenomena belong to a much more superficial level of relating where people are still being symbols for each other.’
Bond (20000: 144) describes a case in which a client, David, received therapy for five months from a counsellor, Sarah, on his difficulty in sustaining close relationships. As part of this work, Sarah commented on David’s process (his tendency to try to distance himself from her); this ‘re-enacts a painful period during his childhood’.
Bond observes: ‘In this example, the counselling was … intense, intimate and longer lasting. This is the kind of situation where powerful transferences and countertransferences are likely to arise, whether or not the counsellor is using a psychodynamic model.’
Breuer, J. and Freud, S. (1995). Studies on hysteria. London: Hogarth Press.
Bond T (2000) Standards and Ethics for Counselling in Action, London: Sage.
Mearns D and Cooper M (2005) Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Sage.
Rogers C (1951) Client-Centered Therapy, New York: Constable.
Tudor K and Merry T (2006) Dictionary of Person-Centred Psychology, ROSS-ON-WYE: PCCS Books.