Transference means feelings that you transfer onto the therapist. In trauma terms, it’s a feeling flashback. The therapist sneezes the way your mother did (trigger) and all of a sudden you are feeling all the emotions you used to feel around your mother. Since your mother isn’t there, you assume you are reacting to the therapist. Does this make sense?
Let’s look at an every-day example. If, in the past, you have had pleasant experiences with puppies, the next time you see a puppy you are going to think, “Aw, how cute” and want to play with it. But if dogs have been used to hurt you, you are going to shrink away and try and protect yourself. If you have seen puppies tortured, you are may feel they are fragile and delicate and you’re going to be afraid of hurting them if you touch them. And you may be puzzled why you suddenly feel sad or afraid or angry. But the “Aw, how cute” response is every bit as much of a feeling flashback as the other responses.
I’d like to add that everybody, not only trauma survivors, experiences transference and has feeling flashbacks. It’s part of the human psychological make-up. It’s just that trauma survivors have more flashbacks of terror and anger and fewer of warm fuzzy feelings. And their flashbacks are usually more intense.
Counter-transference is when the same thing happens to the therapist. In other words, the therapist has a feeling flashback. Suddenly the therapist sees you through a film of feelings about somebody else and may not be reacting to you as you really are. Doesn’t matter if the therapist had a lovely or a horrible childhood — he or she will experience counter-transference at some point. It’s human nature.
Many books and graduate schools teach students to concentrate on the client’s transference feelings. The assumption is that the client is “sick” and the therapist is “well.” Counter-transference, instead of being a part of life, is considered shameful. This distortion can lead to all sorts of problems in therapy.
Consider the therapist with a younger client and a teen-aged daughter. The daughter is in that lovely stage where Mom is an idiot, totally out of it. Chances are the therapist is going to be hyper-alert to put-downs from the client. So if the client says, “It’s cold in here” the therapist, rather than saying, “Yes it is. Would you like to get your jacket?” might get defensive and go on about how it isn’t her fault, the landlord controls the heat, etc etc. She’s expecting the client to act pissy, like her daughter. But since she’s been taught to look for the source of the distortion in the client, not in herself, she will probably look for “mother issues” or “authority issues” in the client. It’s confusing.
Here’s an example from my own long history in therapy. My therapist said he hadn’t received my check, and was I angry at him? We’d been working on my feelings about my father, which included a lot of anger. So he assumed I was experiencing transference. I said, well, I’d mailed it, and no, I wasn’t angry at him. He kept probing for three sessions for the source of my anger at him, by which time he had created it. I was also feeling royally mind-fucked, which was exactly the way my father made me feel. Hooray! Transference had been created.
Next session he sheepishly told me that he had made a mistake. He had received the check but had forgotten that he had. His issue was that he wanted to raise my fee and was annoyed that the check was so small. This was responsible on his part. He owned up to his mistake, and also to putting the responsibility on me, when it really belonged to him. Things got straightened out, and we proceeded. But if he hadn’t figured out his part and if he hadn’t been honest enough to ‘fess up, things would have gotten messier and messier between us.
To complicated things further, you may have feelings about the present situation and the same kind of feelings from the past transferred onto the present situation. It doesn’t always have to be either/or; it’s often both. Here’s an example. The therapist is late. The client feels hurt and unimportant. The client’s mother was habitually late, and the client felt hurt and unimportant. The therapist gets a double dose of those feelings, one from the present, one from the past.
Now if the therapist assumes it’s “all” transference, and there’s no reason for the client to be hurt by the therapist’s lateness, then that implies the therapists thinks it’s fine to be late, which it isn’t. But if the therapist can help divide it up between the past and the present, some good work can be done.
“Resistance” is another psychological concept that often gets used to put responsibility on the client for things that go wrong. If the client doesn’t get better in the way the therapist wants in the time frame the therapist wants, it’s labeled resistance. Well, what if what the therapist wants is bad for the client? What if the client isn’t ready? What if the therapist’s goals are unrealistic? What if the client doesn’t have the vaguest idea what the therapist is talking about? The therapist should assume that the client had a really good reason for not making the change and help the client to figure it out. There is no place for guilt-tripping in therapy.
I was taught that if the client wasn’t being helped, it was because the therapists didn’t know how to help. The therapist should seek supervision, read up on the client’s problem, or refer the client to somebody who knew what they were doing. No blame on either part — it’s totally normal not to know everything and to come across people you don’t understand and therefore can’t help.
Understanding transference, counter-transference, and resistance is important because misuse of these concepts is common and can lead to long frustrating periods of being stuck in therapy. Something just isn’t right, and neither person can put their finger on it. The best thing to do if this happens is to step back and take an honest look at the relationship. That’s scary, but it can be very fruitful.