COUNTERTRANSFERENCE: WHEN THERAPIST EMOTIONS SPILL OVER INTO THE THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP
Mental Health Professionals spend their days investing and pouring into the lives of others in efforts to help them improve their overall quality of life. These efforts often include helping individuals, couples, and families wrestle with difficult emotions that at times spill over into the therapy room. Effective therapists cultivate the skill of identifying and considerately addressing these transference emotions, with an appreciation for the fact that these feelings are often influenced less by the therapists themselves, and more by past experiences with other individuals in the client’s life. Therapists also need to learn to be less inconvenienced by these emotions spilling over into the therapeutic process, and instead appreciate that not only may it be a sign that the therapeutic relationship was subconsciously deemed safe enough to be expressed in that relationship, but also that it can be an opportunity to address those legitimate emotions in a safe environment in hopes that by doing so, the client can learn to more effectively express and address their emotions outside of that therapeutic environment in their daily lives.
Unfortunately, while mental health professionals focus their efforts on identifying and addressing client transference expressions, they often miss the signs of the impact of their therapeutic efforts on their own feelings. And if not sufficiently acknowledged, feelings have the potential to sneak up and sneak out in the form of an unhealthy emotional expression and may unfortunately have a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship and the efforts to support clients.
Despite this possibility, all hope is not lost. There are practical strategies therapists can employ to address therapist countertransference, reduce the likelihood of unhealthy countertransference expressions, and repair the therapeutic relationship in the event of unexpected countertransference spilling over into the therapeutic relationship.
Look For it
In order to address countertransference, you need to see it; and as with many of life’s subtleties, you are more likely to see it if you are looking for it. For example, if you find yourself having difficulty empathizing with a client, it would be beneficial to consider whether the client is truly too difficult to empathize with or whether your past experiences are getting in the way of your ability to put yourself in their shoes. Similarly, if you find yourself unusually anxious, angry or uncomfortable with a client – after ruling out any legitimate safety concerns and considerations – it would be beneficial to consider whether there are personal emotions that are influencing your perspective on your client in an unhelpful way. Without being preoccupied with it, therapists can continually ask themselves whether past experiences are influencing their perspective – in positive or negative ways.
If you discover personal emotions that are causing difficulty for you in your efforts to empathize and professionally connect with your client, avoid the common professional tendency to either dismiss the emotions as irrelevant, or to judge yourself for not perfectly compartmentalizing your feelings or for having feelings that need to be wrestled with. Therapists are people too; we have positive and negative experiences that impact our perspectives and expressions that need to be addressed as well.
The sooner you identify and own your countertransference, the sooner you can process it. Whether you process it on your own through professional journaling, obtain professional support via consultation with trusted colleagues, or seek the support of personal therapy, your client will benefit from having the best you.
Countertransference is not a negative thing. Therapists are real people too. We have lives, and past experiences that can have a lasting effect. We need not judge ourselves for having feelings. Rather, we need to make every effort to get ahead of them – through identification, self-acceptance, and processing – in order to reduce the likelihood of our clients being negatively impacted by them. That effort can be just one of the many gifts that we give our clients – often a gift they will never even know we gave them.
Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDiv, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow, and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, with over 15 years of experience counseling individuals, couples and families from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Lambers’ training experience includes facilitating national seminars and guest lecturing on topics related to multicultural awareness and diversity, as well as being an Adjunct Instructor and Supervisor for aspiring mental health and other helping professionals. You can find him at www.lambersfisher.com.
The above article is a Commentary piece. Opinions expressed in the MAMFT NEWS do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Editors or of MAMFT.