What is Counter-Transference?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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Counter-transference is a psychoanalytical concept that refers to how a clinician's feelings toward a client is altered when the client reminds the clinician of someone he or she knows or knew. The clinician or therapist may develop personal feelings, such as attraction or hatred, toward the client due to those associations between the client and the person that the clinician knew or knows. Those feelings, while often discussed in their more negative connotations, can also have a positive impact on the therapy.

Sigmund Freud first came up with the concept of psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century. This psychological approach generally relies on analysis of subconscious thoughts and childhood memories. During psychoanalysis, a psychoanalyst will typically interview a client in an attempt to discover any childhood memories that have impacted current feelings or emotional problems. As the psychoanalyst starts to help the client relive those past memories or conjure up those subconscious concepts, the client may take feelings related to the past and transfer them onto the psychoanalyst. In this psychoanalytical approach, this is known as transference because the client is transferring his or her feelings about a past person onto the psychoanalyst, usually unknowingly.


Just as a client may experience transference, so too can a therapist. Counter-transference, sometimes written as countertransference, refers to the situation where a therapist associates qualities of his or her client with qualities of someone the therapist knew or knows. Although most psychologists are trained to maintain boundaries with their clients to ensure effective counseling, many psychological schools of though believe that some amount of counter-transference may be unavoidable.

One example of counter-transference is when a psychoanalyst starts to have romantic or sexual feelings of attraction to his or her client. Also known as erotic counter-transference, this type of counter-transference is usually grounds for ending the therapist-client relationship. Continuing the professional relationship, it's believed may run the risk of causing harm to the client.

Counter-transference can also present in terms of negative feelings towards a client. If a client has similar mannerisms or other qualities that remind the psychoanalyst of an abusive person in the analyst's past or present, the analyst may transfer feelings of hatred or disgust toward the client. This can result in less helpful or less sympathetic treatment, even if subconsciously. Therapists are, as a result, very aware of maintaining impartiality and if those boundaries are crossed, a client may have to switch psychoanalysts.

While counter-transference is often discussed in negative or overt terms — in terms of crossing appropriate boundaries — many believe some amount of counter-transference is unavoidable and common. In fact, many psychologists believe it opens the door for positive effects in therapy. By associating, albeit mildly, the client with another person, the therapist may be able to raise those feelings with the client, and help the client understand the concept of transference, thereby providing an opportunity for psychoanalytical understanding and growth.


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