To illustrate how a therapist’s emotions towards client, though brought to awareness and allowed to be revealed, can also be mistaken for authentic reaction to the client’s process, a mentor of mine, in a private lecture on experiences of unconscious effects on a therapist in therapy sessions, narrated a rather simple story he entitled, Chanel No. 5: the client, a middle-aged woman had come to therapy to work on very traumatic and emotionally tragic experiences in her life. The therapist found himself deeply moved by her experiences, and would find himself in tears each time she entered his practice. He questioned his emotionality towards the client only weeks later because he, like many would have, assumed that he was naturally moved by the client’s plight. He subsequently noticed the client’s perfume as she entered the office and asked her what she was wearing. ”Chanel No. 5”, she replied, which was the same perfume his beloved mother had worn for most part of her life.
In the story, the client instilled emotions in the therapist in which the therapist was unaware of. This gets interpreted somewhat inaccurately at first until the therapist was able to come to a self-awareness. This kind of experience faced by therapists is termed by Freud in a 7 June 1909 letter to Carl Jung, as countertransference, to which Freud explains, “(s)uch experiences, though painful, are necessary and hard to avoid. (…) (W)e need to dominate ‘countertransference’, which is after all a permanent problem for us; they teach us to displace our own affects to best advantage. They are a ‘blessing in disguise’” (Freud, 1909). The unconscious nature of countertransference makes it difficult for the analyst to differentiate between the analyst’s own unresolved difficulties and emotional reactions and impressions that come to the the therapist’s consciousness that are activated by the projective identification of the client.
While unlike Freud and Klein who considered strong countertransference feelings to have negative affect on analysis and something analysts should work on by gaining more insight into themselves instead, many analysts like Bion have found usefulness in the phenomena. Therapists of the intersubjective and relational schools share countertransference that they have (and are aware of) as a means to bring authentic contact to the alliance.
Awareness of therapist’s countertransference is supportive to the therapeutic process
Countertransference, with awareness, supports rather than interferes with the therapist’s work. Freud’s mention of the need to “dominate” countertransference, can be taken as a call to be aware of dealing with the emotions within the alliance rather than rejecting them and becoming emotionally detached. Heinmann (1950, p. 81) considers this use of countertransference as “one of the most important tools for his/her work. The analyst’s counter-transference is an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious” as a means of bringing to consciousness of the client what he/she does (consciously or unconsciously) to “get under the analyst’s skin”. How can the awareness of countertransference experienced by the therapist be an advantage to the therapeutic alliance?
“(T)he analysis of the transference, i.e., that part of it which deals with the breaking down of the resistances, constitutes the most important piece of analytic work.”
Wilhelm Reich, 1945/1984, p. 5
The answer is explained by Racker (1953) who acknowledged that the therapist may react emotionally to a patient’s enactments or behavior or personality, but he/she is not prevented from “identifying him/(her)self intellectually with his/(her) defense mechanisms and object images”. When the therapist is aware of his/her own emotional reaction, this countertransference is actually instrumental into “bringing to his notice a psychological fact about the patient” for the feelings helps the therapist to detect the presence of the client’s psychological games. Even though the countertransference feelings are neurotic, the therapist who is aware of this is able to react with understanding. For this understanding to be possible, Racker adds, the therapist has to first analyze and overcome his/her own situation and be able to identify him/herself with the patient’s ego. Within the therapeutic alliance and hour, the patient reenacts and recreates situations that are recurrent in his/her daily situations. These undisclosed and undetected activities, is an unconscious means of avoiding the therapeutic process, and thus “prompted by a desire to retain a defensive organization and probably to recruit the analyst into its personnel” (Britton, 2003, p. 77). In order for the impasse to be broken and the “enactments” to discontinue and therapeutic work can progress, Britton suggests that “until the enactment is recognized and described, the belief system that lies behind it cannot be disclosed, but, at the same time, until the patient’s beliefs that drive it are disclosed the enactment will continue” (Mawson, 2011, p. 4-15).
Transference and countertransference is a phenomenon in the therapeutic alliance, Racker’s comment— quoted also in Britton (2003, p. 55)— highlights the attitude towards acceptance of this human condition and working with it’s existence in psychotherapeutic relationship: “The neurotic (obsessive) ideal of objectivity leads to repression and blocking of subjectivity and so to the myth of the … ‘analyst without anxiety or anger’ The other neurotic extreme is that of drowning in countertransference. True objectivity is based upon a form of internal division that enables the analyst to make himself (his own countertransference and subjectivity) the object of his continuous observation and analysis” (Racker H. , 1968, p. 132). Objectivity, in many respects, is the priced commodity in psychotherapy. If the therapist is caught up in countertransference and is unaware of the fact, his/her endeavors to work with the clients in an objective manner would be unproductive.
Objectivity as a concept itself needs some careful consideration. For this we can turn to Maturana & Varela (1980): “(O)bjective knowledge seems possible and through objective knowledge the universe appears systematic and predictable”. Objective knowledge, according to the authors, seems possible. It is prized for the very fact that it gives the impression of predictability. When things are systematic and predictable, we feel safe. The authors go on to explain: “Yet knowledge as an experience is something personal and private that cannot be transferred.” The explanation for this is that objective knowledge must be created by the listener. The listener understands and the objec-tive knowledge appears to be transferred (p. 5). The therapist therefore needs to be aware of this phenomenon: that the information being shared between him/herself and the client is experienced and mentally processed by both parties. The reality is, however, that the assumption that common understanding is achieved is only apparent.
The benefit of keeping this in mind to the therapist is that he/she will be constantly on guard and self reflective of his role as observer. The therapist as an observer is part of the system (in this case the client) in which he/she is observing. Since he/she communicates with the client and the client communicates back, and the client is also the observer in return. “Anything said is said by an observer” (p. 8). The observer cannot but interact with the system; the observer is also observed.
The observer, if self-reflective, is also able to observe him/herself. So in the therapeutic setting, the therapist has the work of observing two individuals: the client and himself. What is achieved is a hermeneutic and cyclical process of understanding. This is discussed later in the paper. Maturana & Varela explains this as such: “If an organism can generate a communicative description and then interact with its own state of activity that represents this description, generating another such description that orients towards this representation…, the process can in principle be carried on in a potentially infinite recursive manner” (p. 29).
This back-forth movement of allowing experiences (via emotions) to occur and then stepping away from the self in acknowledgment and understanding of what has arisen. This acknowledgment of “what-is” happening at the moment describes what Gestalt therapy literature describes as the paradoxical theory of change (Beisser, 1970), whereby healing change happens not by forcefully eliciting change itself (in this case, by repression or ignorance), but by understanding and acknowledging what is happening to the self at the moment. Through assimilation of the situation, in the case of a countertransference effect encountered by the therapist, the therapist is able to understand what is going on in him/her. The clarity of this self awareness and acceptance empowers the therapist to overcome and make informed choices. Self-awareness has much to do with being in contact with the self, existentially, in the here-and-now. This is a phenomenological attitude in observing what-is in the present in contact with the client, while being conscious of one’s own biases.
With the awareness of the self as observer, there will also be an awareness that the other person is different; the other person actually processes his/her own objective knowledge. We will be able to appreciate that there is room for questioning and discussing the ‘facts’ and ‘truisms’, and to investigate the differences between the self and the other. Resnick (2016) tells us that it is the differences between two individuals that initiate the contact. Without awareness and acceptance of these differences—as often happens when people operate in confluent relationships— there is no sense of the other person for who he/she is. Confluent relationships result in the feeling of loneliness in the presence of others, because there is a push for consensus and the authentic presence of persons are thereby not felt. In therapy, this kind of relationship happens when client tries to please therapist and therapist tries to help client. Both try to find compliancy without first looking at the differences. The result is often an alliance without real contact.
Beisser, A. (1970). The paradoxical theory of change. In Gestalt therapy now (pp. 77-80). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/572d003b40261d2ef97e5b0b/t/59d64989bce1767a9d98ebbb/1507215754788/G+Paradoxical+Theory+of+Change.pdf
Britton, R. (2003). Sex, death, and the superego: Experiences in psychoanalysis. Karnac Books.
Freud, S. (1909). Letter to Jung. The Freud-Jung Letters. Princeton University Press.
Heimann, P. (1950). On counter-transference. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. London, England: D. Reidel Publishing.
Mawson, C. (2011). Introduction: Bion today—Thinking in the field. In Bion Today.
Racker, H. (1968). Transference and Countertransference . London: Karnac.
Reich, W. (1945/1984). Character Analysis (3rd ed.). (M. H. Raphael, Ed., & V. R. Carfagno, Trans.) NY: Farrar, Straus and Girouy.
Resnick, R. (2016). New Contemporary Gestalt Therapy Demonstration Films. Vimeo.