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