Such a scary, intimidating, big word.
To be honest, I never really heard of or experienced it until graduate school. Once I started my second year internship at the trauma center, I was smacked in the face by it and my experience as a therapist changed forever.
I’ve experienced countertransference numerous times in a variety of settings. I’ve felt it in my office, in the field, in a meeting, you name it, and I’ve felt it. If you would have told me even 3 years ago that I’d be this quick to admit that, I’d call you a liar. I was struck by so much shame when I realized how impacted I was by countertransference as an intern. It was scary, it was life-altering, and it made me question my worth as a clinician.
I remember the exact session when I felt countertransference in full force for the first time. Let me describe this person during this particular session:
Living in a world full of either love or hate. That’s it. Seeing things as one way or the other with absolutely no in-between. The constant push and pull. The incessant need for validation. Living impulsively, destructively, and without any boundaries.
It all felt so familiar. It was eerie. I kept myself as grounded as possible during the session. But after I walked the client to the waiting room, things changed. I felt heavy. I felt my stomach drop. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing. I felt frustrated, confused, sad, and unsure of what to do next. Luckily, I had an awesome supervisor (*wink wink*) and amazing co-interns who I could confide in and debrief with.
I realized that I’ve felt this way before. I’ve been around people who exude the same personality traits. Every time I was around this type of energy in my personal life, I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t do anything entirely right. I was always lacking something, or at least that’s how I felt. No matter how much I gave, they always needed more. No matter how much I loved them, one wrong move, and I was public enemy #1. Boundaries were never not a thing. I’d watch them act recklessly without thinking twice. It was always really hard to watch and be around and unfortunately, I hadn’t quite dealt with the aftermath and lingering feelings (understatement of the year).This first memorable experience with countertransference pushed me to deal with my shit and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
After a lot of sharing and processing, I realized that I was feeling the same way in the room with my client. I felt like nothing I was doing was “right”. I felt less than, unsure of my place, and at a loss for words. I found myself running around in circles in my mind trying to come up with a way to help them. Trying to find the perfect words to say. I was working 10x harder than they were. I felt like I wasn’t enough. But you know what I finally realized, I was feeling some type of way because of my issue, not theirs.
I was told over and over again by that point that countertransference wasn’t a bad thing. It wasn’t something to be afraid of and instead, I needed to lean in. I needed to process the thoughts and feelings that came bubbling up. I needed to work on myself and learn healthy coping skills and self-care practices.
Above all, I needed to be kind to myself. I needed to remind myself throughout this entire process that I’m human, just like they are.
For me, being a therapist is a parallel process. I hope that my clients learn as much from me as I learn from them. I want to remain open, curious, and nonjudgmental. The one thing I learned throughout graduate school was that this specific type of personality is believed to be birthed from trauma. We all have our defense system ready to go, ready to protect us at all costs. I sought further knowledge and eventually, that led me to feel a deeper empathy that touched me to my core.
In case you’re wondering, I worked really well with this particular client and I was actually able to meet them where they were at and also sit with them in their pain and discomfort. I checked myself before and after every session and I felt able to properly engage with them.
This is not to say that I haven’t experienced countertransference since, because I have. But, I have a deeper understanding of what these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings mean. I’m really grateful for my experiences as a therapist because they’ve made me a better person both professionally and personally.
So remember, you’re not alone and you’re most certainly not a bad therapist if you feel triggered by your clients, things that they say, or ways that they act. You’re human, you’re going to be okay. But in order to move forward, it helps to look at countertransference as a teacher. I recommend finding yourself an empathetic and understanding supervisor and/or mentor and some nonjudgmental friends.
As always, thanks for reading. Wishing you all love and light.
I think countertransference is one of the best teachers. And yet it’s the one that gets the most flak. I think it’s because people (ironically teachers, most of the time) often equate relating and humanity to weakness and unprofessionalism. This is such a shame to me, because acknowledging likeness and experiencing humility are so important (and precious, in my opinion).
But that’s not to say it’s always easy.
As a therapist/social worker/supervisor, I’ve seen my fair share of countertransference: in clients, supervisees, and co-workers. One of the questions I always ask in interviews is what made you get into this field, and what makes you want to work with this specific population? If the person’s answer doesn’t include something about relating to the population, whether that be from personal experience, vicarious experience, and/or extreme empathy and compassion, I don’t even bother trying for the remainder of the interview. That might sound harsh, but that’s just me. Our clients aren’t guinea pigs for us to experiment on to try and learn clinical interventions we’ve heard about in school. They’re real people, and they need someone who’s willing to be real with themselves.
Because if we can’t get real with ourselves and reflect on our own relationships, then honey, we’re not ready to support people in their relationships.
Okay okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now and quit stalling.
I have one person who has repeatedly shown up in clients I meet. We’ll call him Rowan. Rowan is someone I met while in college during my junior year and first year as a social work major (super-senior pride, baby). We met at an AA meeting I went to as part of a class assignment, and ended up dating on and off. I was definitely young and naive, and to me, he was the beautiful boy with the tortured, dark past. In other words, every hero I’d ever read about in my world of novels.
He was really the first survivor of complex trauma I’d ever met. Or at least whose trauma I knew about. He had a beautiful soul and just so much loss, so much pain. And his body had gone through so much as a result of addiction and a lifetime of battles, ones that no one should ever have to face. I think that’s why he left such an impression on me. He was the first of many things. But most especially, the way his energy both allured and challenged me at the same time.
To me, this person is the epitome of who falls through the cracks and who society fails the most. All the little checkmarks on your intake form would probably have a note next to it, accompanied by the “yes”. And the fact that he is male just makes it an even deeper cut, since I see so many boys and men barred in their conditioning and sexist social constructs from accessing, let alone seeking, mental health services.
I see his eyes with their intense, dark, beautiful gaze peering out sometimes through clients’ eyes. Mainly clients who are male and latino or hispanic. Also if they are using substances or are in recovery. Especially if they’re survivors of complex trauma. That’s my achilles heel. Add a history of being homeless, and I’m a goner. Hook, line, and sinker.
I don’t mean this in a creepy, sexual way. I mean that there’s an immediate, personal draw and resonance; an even deeper empathetic connection. Because I feel like I know them. And to be honest, I want to save them.
I hate saying that.
Especially since I am so ANTI the whole “messiah complex” thing. You know, people who get into this field because they want to “save” people or “fix” them. I hate that! I got into this field because I don’t want anyone to feel alone, and I want to sit/stand/walk/run alongside them on their journey. Supporting them with any other tools is merely a cool benefit. But really, I’ve always felt that my clients and I learn from each other equally. And I love that. Equality.
But, back to what I was saying. I want to save them. I KNOW there are a lot of you who resonate with this. For me, it comes from seeing people not make it out of the trauma or other hardships they’ve experienced. Seeing them not have access to resources or not having people in their lives at the most impactful times in their lives when they should have had them most. And that’s how I’ve felt/feel about Rowan.
He’s like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Tough, brilliant, scrappy, in your face, and hurting so much it’s raw and scarred on the inside.
Of course, there are other people in my life who have appeared in clients I’ve worked with, but Rowan has been the one who’s showed up the most, which is why I’m focusing on him. As far as what I do when this happens, it’s definitely been a journey! When I notice myself seeing Rowan or someone else in a client, it’s not something I judge myself for. I use it as a learning opportunity. What made me think of Rowan? Was it simply a physical similarity or behavioral characteristic? Or was it my gut telling me there’s something more this person has been through and that I should give them even more time and space to feel safe enough to “go there”?
I do need to be mindful of giving more time to someone like this than I would to my other clients. Talking about it in supervision has been really important. And when I’ve had supervisors that I didn’t feel comfortable telling this to (let’s face it- you can’t talk about countertransference without talking about your personal experiences), I’ve talked to people I’m close to and trust. Talking about it helps. Sometimes it’s not even necessarily to get feedback, but just to process it outloud to myself with someone to witness it who isn’t going to judge.
Because countertransference doesn’t have to be something we admit. It should be something we explore.
Our work with humans is based on relationships, and we can’t ignore that. Relationships are relationships. We can’t categorize them into a) personal, b) professional, c) client, d) romantic, e) platonic, f) family, blah blah blah. They’re all relationships. Period.
So how can we judge ourselves, or others for that matter, for being stirred by nuances of other relationships we’ve had?
For me, it’s led to awesome realizations and has strengthened my abilities as a clinician so much. Countertransference has been a great indicator of when I need to process something more, to honor it and give it the space it deserves. And sometimes it’s something that can be digested easily, sometimes it’s something that needs more space to formulate during my own therapy. That’s amazing to me. And I’m so grateful for it.
Because we’re only human. Our professional hats don’t replace our personal ones. They layer on top of each other, so both are present. And they need equal attention. It will only make us better practitioners and better human beings. We owe that to our clients and to ourselves.
We gotta deserve to talk to the talk by walking the walk.
Here’s to walking alongside each other,
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