The Upside of Counter-Transference

No matter what experience level you’ve achieved as a clinician, you can always benefit from discovering and engaging in ongoing inner work. This vital aspect of being a great clinician is both an important wellness practice and a professional tool. When you participate in my Avenues For Inner Work programs, you’ll explore key issues — such as how you can work more effectively with counter-transference.

Knowing how to work with counter-transference strengthens our ability as clinicians to serve as a therapeutic presence in our interactions with clients. That, in turn, helps their personal work move forward more quickly. If dealing with it can be helpful, why is counter-transference often at or near the bottom of the list of important issues we address?

Many of us hold a negative association with the word counter-transference. That’s because we were probably taught that it has to do with our own unhealed issues and the negative triggers that can arise within us toward our clients. We were strongly advised not to ‘have’ any counter-transference — and, if we did, we were to avoid letting it seep into the therapy room. End of story. Such a mentality, however, often makes counter-transference a taboo subject within the therapeutic setting. And that stashes it firmly in the ‘uncomfortable to talk about’ corner of our profession.

Most of us — myself included — weren’t trained in how to work with counter-transference, let alone given any validation that it’s a natural part of our humanity and doesn’t need to be pathologized or feared. So, do we just pretend counter-transference is not part of our authentic experience as wounded healers? Such an approach often breeds ‘imposter syndrome’ and perfectionism within us. We can become over-focused on finding and using the latest techniques, interventions, and skills — the ‘doing’ aspect of our role. And that can keep us feeling inadequate and involved in a seemingly endless cycle of accumulating more and more professional training credits. All the while, we bury and deny what we’ve deemed as the less-than-desirable parts of ourselves, afraid they might pop up around a client. That’s a recipe for burnout.

By noticing only the negative and fearful aspects of counter-transference, we may miss seeing its positive elements. (Yes, we can find good things about this topic!) For example, when we’re willing to reflect on what a client’s ‘stuck-ness’ in therapy brings up in us (such as feelings of helplessness, frustration, or inadequacy), we can work through our end of the dynamic outside of the therapy room and with support. Often, we’ll find when something is no longer being re-enacted within us toward the client, the client’s stuck-ness releases and their process moves forward. This is a very useful and positive aspect of counter-transference. If we think of counter-transference only as something negative — if we’re afraid of it, or we haven’t learned how to work with it — we’re likely to ignore the great potential of these positive events.

Like most things that feel difficult or challenging, when we bring an issue out into the open — within the context of a healthy support system — we begin to loosen its grip on us. Surely, we want that for ourselves, as well as our clients! As clinicians, we can choose to address, collaborate, and support each other in working with and through our experiences of counter-transference in a community of like-minded and like-hearted professionals. Such an approach can make all the difference to our success as we learn how to harvest golden nuggets from the places that scare us.