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Managing the Dynamic of Countertransference in Relationships

by Lisa Templeton, Ph.D.

As often as I can, I like to speak about the topic of countertransference, or what I like to call intertransference, since it is more related to the interrelational dynamics instead of countering another's dynamics.  Most of the time, people have no idea what this term really means.  Many psychologists (including myself) have trouble defining it.  Even within each theoretical orientation, there is little consensus, but here's a little history on the term to help explain to those interested:   

The term countertransference originated from a psychoanalyst named Sigmund Freud.  He stated that he found that his patient's were "transferring" some of their issues with past interpersonal relationships onto him.  This idea caught on in the theoretical orientation of psychoanalysis, but was not totally understood for several years.  Later, the term countertransference arose indicating that an analyst was having reactions to their patient's transferring of issues.  Instead of following the idea that transference/countertransference was interchangeable, Freud chose to focus on the phenomenon of transference as useful in treatment, but countertransference as a hindrance to treatment.  He implied that countertransference could get in the way of the analyst's objectivity and allow for the therapist's own issues to come into play. 

More recently, the term countertransference encompasses a more wide range of reactions by the therapist, whether relating to the client, therapist or both.   Whereas at one time, these reactions were seen as too subjective. In reality, an analyst is both objective and subjective, but only when he/she acknowledges both.  We can understand countertransference to be occurring at all times with human beings - it is a transfer of energy. 

It is a phenomenon that occurs when we open up to another and in turn another opens to us.  When a relationship is developed, there are ways in which we act and react that reflect relationships from the client and the therapist's past.  In any relationship, both parties are affected, we cannot pretend that the analyst is a robot.  With shallow, acquaintance type relationships, these subtleties are rarely noticed, but with close, intimate relationships, there is a shift into something more complex, more reflective of ourselves.  We long to be close to others, and then when we are, a new level begins and with that comes a letting go of past behaviors, patterns, and old ways of thinking.  Until we become more conscious of how these patterns envelop our relationships, we are likely to continue repeating a lot of the same mistakes.  Many times the reflection of ourselves that we see in others is very difficult to look at.  When the time is right, we will have the strength.  With patience and love, we can learn many new things about ourselves, and much more about the field of psychology and the study of the mind.

This is where my idea of intertransference comes into play. This term depicts four aspects that we all need to keep in mind within relationships. The experience encompasses: 1) A person’s response to another that is occurring in connection to their own past relationship dynamics (which can become conscious over time); 2) a person’s response to another that is occurring in connection to another person’s past relationship dynamics; 3) A joining of both (1) and (2) occurring at the same time; and 4) An empathic response to another’s unconscious state, associated with a strong identification with the person.

All of these play into relationship dynamics and how we can play things over and over with each other, especially given much of these energies are unconscious. Yet, they can become more conscious with more awareness and mindful attention. This can truly aid us to feel more connected with others - yet, first we must connect with ourselves.

In order to connect with ourselves, we must look within and work on knowing ourselves. When we know ourselves, we can discern between the energies within and the energies outside of ourselves. If you are looking to learn more about first starting within, check out Dr. Lisa’s book, Letting It Be: Mindful Lessons Toward Acceptance. It is an Indies 2018 Book of the Year award finalist! Stay tuned for Dr. Lisa’s next book, Relationships in Rhythm, where she describes more about intertransference and need to understand how we each show up in ourselves and in the world.