What Is Countertransference?: An Attempted Explanation

[This post was edited on 3/1/2016 because I forgot to insert reference information for the article I cited.]

Last February I wrote about the difference between two interesting but often confusing concepts: projection and transference. You can read my take on those concepts here. This February I'm writing about a real humdinger called ‘countertransference.’ Quite a mouthful, right? Based on the reading I've done over the past couple weeks, it seems that even the professionals vary in how they define this complex concept. Of course, that might just be because I lack proper academic perspective. Whatever the case, this is my attempt to explain what I (think I) have learned about countertransference.

One way to understand countertransference is to remember its number. What does that mean? In the post I mentioned above, I approached projection and transference the same way. There is a minimum of 2 people involved in projection, 3 people in transference. In countertransference, you most likely will have at least 4 people involved. The picture below illustrates this. There are 2 active participants (Me and Therapist) and 2 inactive and absent participants (My past person and Therapist's past person).

Just like with plain old transference, countertransference is a subconscious mind trick that takes a person from the past and brings them into the present. In a clinical context, it is the counselor who exhibits countertransference behavior in reaction to the client's transference behavior. How about a hypothetical example? Let's say that during one of my appointments my therapist says something to me that triggers a strong reaction and all of a sudden my mind causes me to see my therapist as my dad. So I am no longer talking to my therapist in the here and now. I am talking to/yelling at my dad in the there and then—that's transference. In response to my transference behavior, my therapist's mind is triggered and all of a sudden instead of seeing me, her client, she sees her child who is in need of a proper scolding. This is countertransference. [Important aside and personal note: My therapist has never scolded me as if I were her child. I work with an incredibly talented and professional counselor who does a great job of regulating her own emotional state despite my frequent emotion dysregulation. End personal note.] You can probably see where this initial exchange could snowball into an ugly mess instead of a productive therapy session. Good thing this is merely hypothetical!

A great way to visualize transference and countertransference is by picturing a pendulum swinging back and forth. Hence the balls and strings in the picture above. One article I read about countertransference spoke of it as “the emotional pendulum effect that starts with the client’s natural transference behaviors” (Jackson, 2002). Imagine yourself taking your emotional weight from the past and letting it fly towards your therapist. If he isn't prepared to encounter transference behavior, he may react with his own emotional weight and swing it towards you.

Just like with transference, countertransference isn't always negative and isn't limited to the clinical setting. We all wear both hats on different occasions. From an everyday human being's perspective I think it is helpful to understand to some degree what countertransference is. Sometimes it is easy to forget that everyone comes with their own emotional baggage. But when we all see each other for who we really are and not so-and-so from the past, then we are able to adapt and learn and heal and grow in our current relationships and life situations.

Quoted source:
Jackson, K. C. (2002). Counselling transference / countertransference issues. ContactPoint Bulletin (Winter 2002). Retrieved from https://contactpoint.ca/2013/01/counselling-transference-countertransference-issues/


How God Introduces Himself

[This post was edited on 2/10/2016.]

Have you ever thought about what God calls himself? How does he identify himself to others? Does he tell us a job title or define his qualities? Does he tell us his name? These may be basic questions. But I think sometimes it's helpful for people who grew up going to church to take a step back and reacquaint ourselves with God, perhaps even at the most basic level. We may find we don't know him quite as well as we assumed.

I decided to go back to the most basic part of relationship: introductions. It's hard to have an ongoing relationship without this initial step. It's also hard to have a coherent conversation with a phone caller, brand new supervisor, or the run-of-the-mill disembodied voice if they launch into it without ever telling you who they are. Below are some examples of God introducing himself or identifying himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.

When God renames Abram Abraham and Jacob Israel and reaffirms his promises to them, he identifies himself as God Almighty.

  • Gen 17:1—When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me, and be blameless.”
    (See Gen 17:1–8 for context.)
  • Gen 35:11—God said to [Jacob/Israel], “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations will be from you, and kings will come out of your body.”
    (See Gen 35:9–12 for context.)
In these instances, God uses a title/quality to identify himself. Introducing himself as God Almighty is, perhaps, his way of verbally emphasizing his authority to rename Abram and Jacob and to offer such great promises.

God also introduces himself in terms of his relationship with others. Most commonly he introduces himself as the God of Abraham or the “God of your father.”

  • Gen 26:24—Yahweh appeared to [Isaac] the same night, and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.”
    (See Gen 26:17–25 for context.)
  • Gen 46:2, 3—“Jacob, Jacob.” … He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Don’t be afraid to go down into Egypt, for there I will make of you a great nation.”
    (See Gen 46:1–4 for context.)
  • Ex 3:6—Moreover he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look at God.
    (See Ex 3:1–6 for context. See also references to this passage in Matt 22:32, Mark 12:26, and Acts 7:30–32.)
I find it interesting that in all the abovementioned passages there is mention of fear. God allies himself with Isaac, Jacob, and Moses by emphasizing his relationship to people they know or know of. These men need not fear because they know others who have or had relationships with God, giving them indirect experiential proof that he is someone that can be trusted in some capacity.

Now we get to the name of God. God's name has been transliterated a number of ways including YHVH, YHWH, Yahweh, and, perhaps the most common to us American folk, Jehovah.

  • Ex 6:2–3—God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Yahweh I was not known to them.”
  • Isa 42:8—“I am Yahweh. / That is my name. / I will not give my glory to another, / nor my praise to engraved images.”

God reveals another name to Moses when he appears to him in the burning bush: I AM WHO I AM, or, more simply, I AM. Various biblical sources conclude that this name is connected to the meaning of God's name Yahweh, which has to do with the concept of existence.

  • Ex 3:14—God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” and he said, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Note that God's name was officially revealed to Moses, the one who related God's law to the Israelites after their Egyptian captivity. The giver of the “new law” is recorded as echoing God's words to Moses in John 8:58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Most certainly, I tell you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM.’”

I take great comfort in the fact that God's name essentially means “to be.” God exists! No matter what else may be happening around me, to me, or within me, God IS! There is someone bigger than me. Someone permanent, who IS, present tense. Always present tense and always present. It is great to meet the God who is. What an impressive introduction from a God interested in long-lasting, never-ending relationship.

To wrap up, I'm going to end with one of the most memorable introductions in the Bible. It's one I recently mentioned, but it is too powerful not to mention again. In it we see the declaration of a name and defining of relationship. The underlying emphasis I see throughout is the emphasis on the meaning of the name and how it defines its owner. We're going back with Moses to the burning bush. God has just commissioned him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of captivity. Here is the ensuing conversation between Moses and God:

Moses said to God, “Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you;’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What should I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” and he said, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God said moreover to Moses, “You shall tell the children of Israel this, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations.” (Ex 3:13–15)

Scripture quoted from the World English Bible. The World English Bible is in the Public Domain. That means that it is not copyrighted. See copyright information here: https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/World-English-Bible-WEB/#copy.


Who Is God? And Who Am I?

It often seems the simplest questions have the most complex answers, if they can be answered at all. With an opening sentence like that you probably guessed I'm going to wax philosophical. And if you did, you are correct. So bail now if you're not in the mood for abstract quandaries.

I'm going to start with something I've been thinking a lot about lately, and that's the second question in my title: Who am I? As part of the “Millennial Generation,” it should come as no surprise that I would be asking myself this question on a daily basis. (Just google “millennial narcissism” and you'll quickly see what I mean. *wink*) Who am I? That is quite the loaded question. Put another way, What makes me me?, the question doesn't get any easier.

  • Is it a relational thing? Does who my parents are define me? Who my friends are? Is it where I fall in birth order?
  • Is it something intangible, like my hopes, my dreams, my desires? My likes and my dislikes?
  • Maybe what defines me are the characteristics you can see. Is it my height or weight or skin color? Is it my stunning blue eyes? (Whoops, narcissism.)
  • Could it be the words I say or don't say? The things I do or don't do?
  • Maybe I'm thinking about this too hard and it really is as simple as the old adage “You are what you eat.” I hope that's not it because I'd be half a bag of potato chips right now.

I think the answer to the questions in the list above is “Yes, and….” (Though I am partially joking about the potato chips thing.) The answer to the question “Who am I?” must be complex if I've spent the last 30 years with myself and still find it hard to explain.

It dawned on me a few days ago that there is really only one way I want to define who I am. And that is in relation to God. I thought about infants, how their whole world is their mom and/or dad (and/or [insert applicable caregiver here]). What if my whole world centered on my relationship with God? What if I allowed him to help me figure out who I am? (Spoiler: He already knows.) That train of thought ended with, “Who is God?” Now there's a loaded question if ever there was one. There were several train stops between “Who Am I?” and “Who Is God?,” but I'm going to save those for another time. Consider this a springboard launching us into (an amateur) study of who God is in relation to us, and in turn, what that says about not only who I am but who you are.