Countertransference in a Therapeutic Relationship

By Erin Heaning, published Aug 08, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Countertransference is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when a clinician lets their own feelings shape the way they interact with or react to their client in therapy.

Oftentimes, countertransference is unconscious and both the clinician and client do not realize it is happening. 

Countertransference serves as an important reminder that therapists are human beings too, and that they have their own biases, history, and emotions which can influence their thoughts and reactions to clients. 

In a therapy session, a client might remind the therapist of someone or something from their present or their past. As a result, the clinician might unconsciously treat the client in an emotionally-charged or biased way.

Because of this, clinicians must be aware of countertransference at all times and actively work to acknowledge and overcome it in their practice (Overstreet, 2021). 

Take-Home Messages
  • Countertransference is a therapist’s reaction and feelings toward a client in therapy. It is the opposite of transference, or the emotional reaction a client has to their therapist.
  • Countertransference is a common, unconscious phenomenon which can have negative impacts on the therapeutic relationship if not properly addressed.
  • Countertransference was first identified by Freud as a detriment towards an analyst's ability to understand their patient. Present day, countertransference is viewed with a mix of both negative and positive associations in psychology.

What Does Countertransference Look Like?

Countertransference occurs whenever a therapist brings in their own experiences to the extent that they lose perspective of the client’s own, and they stop being objective (Jacobson, 2022).

Examples of countertransference include when the therapist: 

  • Over-identifies with the client’s stories and shares too many about themselves

  • Offers a lot of advice instead of listening to the client’s experience

  • Pushed the client to take action the client doesn’t feel ready for 

  • Wants to relate outside of the therapy room 

  • Inappropriately disclosed personal information 

  • Develops romantic feelings for the client 

  • Does not have adequate boundaries with the client 

  • Is overly critical or supportive of the client

Transference vs. Countertransference

If countertransference is the emotional reaction a therapist might have towards their client, it follows that transference is the opposite: the emotional reaction a client has to their therapist.

To be specific, transference is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when a client redirects their feelings for someone from their past or present onto the clinician. This can include their feelings towards a family member, friend, or a significant other.

Like countertransference, this phenomenon is mostly unconscious, and the client is likely unaware that they are being influenced by it. Unlike countertransference, transference in therapy is accepted. Transference can even be used as a tool by the therapist to better understand their client’s personal relationships and emotionality.

Countertransference can be thought of as the clinician’s response to a client’s transference (Overstreet, 2021).

However, whereas transference is a normal and accepted part of the therapeutic process, clinicians are responsible for monitoring their countertransference so they remain objective in their therapy and do not harm the client.

Four Types of Countertransference

There are four types of countertransference with three of these types having the potential to harm the therapeutic relationship (Fritscher, 2021). 

Subjective 

In subjective countertransference, the therapist's own unresolved issues are the cause. In other words, experience from the therapist’s own history is re-experienced in response to their client. 

An example of this includes a therapist who fears anger due to a family history of aggression, so they discourage any expression of anger from their client. This subjective form of countertransference can be harmful if not detected.

Objective 

In objective countertransference, the therapist’s reaction to their client’s maladaptive behaviors is the cause. Maladaptive behaviors are behaviors which inhibit one’s ability to healthy cope or adjust to certain situations. Most people would have the same reaction to this person, thus the therapist’s reaction is “objective”. 

Unlike subjective countertransference, objective countertransference can actually benefit the therapeutic process. For instance, if the therapist is able to accept and study this objective reaction they have to their client, they can use this countertransference as an analytical tool. 

Positive 

Positive countertransference is present when a therapist is over-supportive of their client. Signs of over-support can include when a therapist is trying too hard to befriend their client, disclosing too much from their personal life, or over-identifying with their client’s experiences. 

This can be harmful to the therapeutic relationship as it diminishes professional boundaries and keeps a therapist from working and treating their client with objectivity in mind.

Importantly, some psychologists believe that this positive form of countertransference can actually have beneficial outcomes by improving the therapist-client relationship. 

Negative

Negative countertransference occurs when a therapist acts out against uncomfortable feelings in a negative way. This includes being overly-critical of the client, punishing them, rejecting them, or disapproving of the client. 

Negative countertransference is also evident when the therapist feels bored, irked, paralyzed or contemptuous in their therapy with a particular client.

Countertransference is especially problematic when it is negative, as it can further harm a client’s psyche and lead to therapy doing more harm than good. 

Warning Signs of Countertransference

Given the often problematic and harmful nature of countertransference, it is important to identify when countertransference is occurring and know how best to respond.

So, how does one know if their therapist has countertransference? If concerned about the presence of countertransference in a therapeutic relationship, it is important for both the therapist and client to be aware of warning signs.

In adult therapy, both must be aware of whether the therapist has an inappropriate emotional response to the client. This can include signs such as an unreasonable dislike for the client, excessive positive feelings about the client, or the therapist becoming over-emotional or thinking about the client between sessions.

Another warning sign of countertransference is if the therapist or client finds themselves dreading their therapy session or feeling uncomfortable during the session. Importantly, countertransference can also present itself in child therapy.

Warning signs of countertransference on behalf of the therapist in child therapy may include: ignoring a child’s deviant or dysfunctional behavior, fantasies about rescuing the child from their situation, or encouraging the child to act out (Fritscher, 2021).

Impact on Therapy

As described, countertransference can appear in many different ways, but most presentations of countertransference are harmful to the therapeutic relationship and can have adverse effects.

For instance, when a clinician brings their own outside experience or emotions into therapy, they lose perspective and can end up hurting the client. An especially concerning area to be aware of is erotic countertransference which is when the clinician develops attraction, love, or sexual feelings towards a client. Personal relationships with clients are prohibited and have strict ethical and legal regulations (Overstreet, 2021).

Although it’s important for therapists to guard against feelings of countertransference toward their clients to avoid harmful impacts, some forms of countertransference have actually been found to be beneficial.

For instance, in a systematic review of 25 countertransference studies, researchers found an association with positive countertransference, such as feeling close to the client, and positive outcomes (Fritscher, 2021).

What to Do (How to Avoid Countertransference in Counseling)

How to Deal with Countertransference as a Therapist

Countertransference is a common phenomenon and can happen regardless of years of clinical experience.

However, it is especially common in novice therapists, so supervisors should pay close attention and help novice therapists become more aware of their emotions.

Rather than eliminate countertransference altogether, the goal can be to use those feelings more productively in a way which does not jeopardize the therapeutic relationship. 

Awareness of countertransference is crucial to one’s growth as a clinician. Furthermore, a novice therapist’s openness to accept feedback and guidance from a seasoned clinician can help sharpen their skills and prevent them from harming their client (Overstreet, 2021).

Therapists can take active steps to manage and identify countertransference when it is present.

A 2018 meta-analysis in the journal Psychotherapy recommends therapists closely monitor themselves and work on their conflicts through personal psychotherapy, meditation, and self-care (Hayes et al., 2018).

Therapists might also consider clinical supervision or referring their client to other clinicians who do not exhibit the same countertransference. 

How to Deal with Countertransference as a Client

If a client thinks their therapist is experiencing countertransference, they can bring it up directly in therapy if they feel comfortable and when the timing feels right. A professional clinician should be receptive to their client’s concern and respond accordingly. 

Alternatively, a client might want to seek a second opinion by speaking to their clinician’s supervisor or clinical director.

If a client continues to feel uncomfortable and that the countertransference is getting in the way of effective therapy, it may be time to seek out a new practitioner which is more appropriate (Fritscher, 2021). 

A Brief History of Countertransference

Sigmund Freud originally developed the concepts of transference and countertransference around 1910. He identified countertransference as a largely unconscious process in which a psychologist’s own emotions are influenced by their client with their reaction to these emotions being known as “countertransference” (Sandler, 1976).

At first, countertransference was only believed to be a hindrance to the therapeutic process, with Freud referring to it as a blind spot in the analyst's ability to understand the patient. However, this line of thinking started to change around the 1950s, when countertransference started to be viewed as something that could be positive (Fritscher, 2021).

Present day, countertransference is viewed with both a mix of negativity and positivity. Countertransference acknowledges that clinicians are human beings too with their own emotions and feelings.

So, by recognizing and understanding countertransference, both therapists and their clients can be observant of how it is affecting the effectiveness of their therapeutic relationship.

About the Author

Erin Heaning is a member of the Class of 2023 at Princeton University. She studies psychology with a minor in neuroscience and works as a research assistant at the Princeton Baby Lab. Outside of school, she works for BMS Pharmaceuticals and as a writer for featurefemale.com. After graduation, she plans to study clinical psychology with a focus on women’s mental health.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Heaning, E. (2022, Aug 08). Countertransference in a Therapeutic Relationship. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/countertransference.html

References

Fritscher, L. (2021, August 1). How counter-transference can impact your therapeutic relationship. Verywell Mind. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/counter-transference-2671577

Gelso, C. J., & Hayes, J. (2007). Countertransference and the therapist's inner experience: Perils and possibilities. Routledge.

Hayes, J. A., Gelso, C. J., & Hummel, A. M. (2011). Managing countertransferencePsychotherapy, 48(1), 88.

Hayes JA, Gelso CJ, Goldberg S, Kivlighan DM. Countertransference management and effective psychotherapy: Meta-analytic findings. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2018;55(4):496-507.

Hayes, J., Riker, J., & Ingram, K. (1997). Countertransference behavior and management in brief counseling: A field study. Psychotherapy Research, 7(2), 145-153.

Jacobson, S. (2022, May 16). Countertransference - when your therapist loses objectivity. Harley Therapy™ Blog. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/countertransference-in-therapy.htm

Overstreet, K. (2021, January 26). Transference vs. Countertransference: What's the big deal? Therapist Development Center Blog. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from https://www.therapistdevelopmentcenter.com/blog/transference-vs-countertransference-whats-the-big-deal/

Racker, H. (2018). Transference and countertransference. Routledge.

Sandler, J. (1976). Countertransference and role-responsiveness. International Review of psycho-analysis, 3, 43-47.

Searles, H. F. (1979). Countertransference and related subjects: Selected papers. International Universities Press, Inc.

Tower, L. E. (1956). Countertransference. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4(2), 224-255.