#18 How do we navigate in a session when we realize we may be experiencing Counter-Transference?
We will look at this issue through all of the lenses because it can show up at any time without invitation and overtakes a session quickly if not recognized accurately. But lets back up a bit first to take a closer look at what is and is not counter-transference because there are several dynamics that are similar but not the same.
The first stop is to determine whether the pertinent information is cousciously (Cs) known or unconsciously interpreted to be true. This matters a lot because there are other interpersonal dynamics that operate in a similar way but are not the same. For example, when someone, lets say Bill identifies with what another person, lets call her Susan, is saying or doing, like they both have had fathers who were dominant in their upbringings, and they are both fully conscious (Cs) and emotionally present, this is simply an overlap of some similar lived experiences, that both Bill and Susan have in common upon reflection by both. There is no distortion involved by either party just a mutual understanding of some degree of similar experiences growing up.
However, when there is an Uncouscious (UCs) interpretation by one person, Susan, of the actual meaning and motivations for Bill that actually do not reflect who Bill is, but instead impose Susan's experiences of her father onto Bill, then that becomes a projection, which is a distortion by Susan onto Bill. She has UCsly substituted all of her father's characterstics onto Bill because there was an actual factual overlap of some of both of their father's characturistics, but not all of them. This results in a simple confusing of these two fathers in Susan's mind because of some of the specific overlaping details they shared that felt to her to be in common to both that actually were not in common.
Now lets use this example to unpack the specific dynamics of what set the projection in motion between Susan and Bill. Bill is also an older man (58) whom she (28) may automatically see as dominant, like her father was. We can see then how some of those characteristics attributed to Bill by Susan do fit factually to start, but then she added some other things that are not an accurate picture of who Bill is actually but some UCs part in Susan was opened by the interaction with Bill to complete some of her circuits to fill in the blancks automatically by her. When this projection process happens between regular people in regular types of relationships, not therapy relationships, it is rarely identified or corrected between people overtly, they seem to just go about their lives. But this all changes when one person, Bill is a counsellor, and Susan, the other person, is his client in an active professional therapeutic relationship, with each other.
When Susan is a client of Bill's and she projects meanings and motivations onto him as her counsellor, this is now called Transference which is considered to be an UCs action by Susan towards Bill and forms the bassis for a psychotherapeutic engagement using a psychodynamic frame of reference. For example, if a client who identifies as female has an older male counsellor, she may well project attributes of her father onto this counsellor that have nothing to do with who this male counsellor is as a person but become a big part of how she relates to him in counselling including assumptions she would make and expectations she would have of him as if he were her father. This would occur because of a factual overlap of some characteristics like be older, male, and with authority over her She would actually be confusing this male counsellor with her father at the UCs level.
Now lets add some more details into the dynamic that come from Bill's side of the equation. His actual family life was quite different from what Susan had projected/transferred onto him when we consider what Bill's are to females in his life. His mother's relationship with him was quite distant and he had a hard time feeling well connected to her so tried to be her parent and take care of her but did nort feel well cared for himself by her. Susan's father was quite distant and emotionall unavailable to her, but Bill's father was very present and available to him as he grew up. When Bill, who is actually very emotionall present and available to his client tries hard, repeatedly to build trust with Susan and over time, he begins to feel hurt and then even resentful when Susan continues to not seem to trust that he is there emotionally for her, Bill becomes discouraged and even depressed about his own resilience his mood darkens. In the midst of that discouraged state, he suggests to his supervisor to terminate with this client due to lack of progress. The counsellors proposed actions and motivations would be his own reaction and dissappointment in the progress, but it would not be counter-transference yet, still just familiar discouragement because he always tries really hard and was bringing it to his supervisor to discuss as lack of progress. But if Bill's mother was also a suspicious and hurt woman not expecting to be ever be loved in her relationships with others, especially men, it could be countertransference by Bill if he was projecting his mother's characteristics and motivations onto Susan of being unreachable emotionally and not understanding why she was so untrusting of him as hard as he was working to show her he was trustworthy, his distorting her actual behaviour and motivations. It would be a much more serious level of countertransference if Bill were to became triggered back into his lived experience replay of an event from his actual history which he was reliving in the moment in session with Susan that got triggered by an immediate dynamic in session that mimicked his early attachment dispair. This would require some immediate action on his part to do two things: 1/ respond to his UCs redirecting their counselling session back into the here and now and exiting Bill's then and there distortion. 2/ To be able to re-focussing himself, he will have to first notice that he is very activated in that moment and find a way to ground himself into the time and place of this seession and shift away from his own UCs historical re-activation. There are many subtle ways that could be un-noticed by the client, but if needed an unexpected urgent bathroom break could be taken by Bill to leave the room briefly and re-center himself into the present moment and purpose to be able to return to the session with the focus back on the client. If he is unable to recover his ability to become present, he will need to end the session where it is and convey that something came up that he needs to deal with and he will have to re-shedule the appointment as soon as he could. Bill would also need to make a private promise that he will get to his supervisor ASAP to process this event.
This is all very much driven by whether the behaviour in question is simply experienced in a Cs way or whether it is interpreted as an UCs pattern belonging to someone else that has some overlap with the person they are relating to. What I see as the most important thing is for the counsellor to realize in these complex interactions is whether is there a distortion occuring of the other person in their interpersonal dynamic. When that is the case, that is what needs to be identified and then processed in supervision so there can be an accurate picture understood by all of what was actually transpiring within this relationship, moment to moment. By identifying the distortions when they happen as confusions with another time and place in their life, there is no need for there to be a good person or bad person, we all get to be just who were actually are and not have to proceed on a 'confused with someone else who was similar in some way' distortion. It allows for some hopefulness to be at the center of how we proceed because it is then based on accurate information, not confusing distortions and correspondingly confusing narratives that may feel right beause they are real, just real with a different person, at a different time, towards some different goals, in a different relatioship.
I hope I have brought some clarity to this complicated and interwoven set of similar feelings that commonly occur in counselling and in life. I have not yet decided what my next subject will be, so join me at the end of May and see what peeked my interest. Ciao, David