In counselling, transference is when the client unknowingly redirects feelings onto their counsellor that are about an entirely separate individual. This is a normal occurrence that can happen to clients when they are being counselled and represents a complicated mix of emotions, memories, and subconscious behaviour. A client can unconsciously transfer anger, fear, affection, attachment, and a host of other feelings onto a counsellor that are really about someone else. Transference is typically a term for the mental health field, it can manifest in everyday life when the brain tries to comprehend a current experience by examining the present through the past, limiting the input of new information.
The layers of disconnect that comes with transference can cause tension and misunderstanding with a client, leading to undesirable outcomes such as the emotions of the client and counsellor becoming entangled and the client no longer trusting the counsellor to help them find the underlying issues of their problems. These three strategies can help to manage and even benefit from transference:
Awareness: transference is usually subconscious so raising awareness of it so both parties know what happened is for the benefit of the client and yourself. The client must develop the ability to recognise these are misdirected feelings that have occurred to figure out why they are there and where they are coming from.
Communication: Poor communication is at the heart of transference issues. The client is often unwilling or unable to articulate their feelings and reactions which is worsened by an inability to point to the true origin of these feelings. That means you must painstakingly delve into these unexplained feelings and inconsistencies that the client is showing. Always ask yourself, “how do I listen effectively?” and use questioning techniques and body language.
Solutions: Once a client has awareness and effective communication has been used to explore the roots of transference, creative solutions become possible. Goal setting, implementing good habits and goal-directed action will follow to work on any issues underlying harmful transference.
This is the reverse of transference, when a counsellor experiences their own emotional entanglement and redirects their feelings onto their client. Counsellors work to establish clear boundaries and a necessary amount of separation between themselves and clients. Even so, things can get murky when related memories and similar experiences are being triggered from listening to clients. Some counsellors will experience this at some points in their careers, they are human too and have their own emotions and issues to contend with. This is a big reason why counsellors will have a supervisor. Aside from gaining expert input and skills, they can have someone oversee their work and ensure things such as countertransference are not left unchecked.
Some warning signs:
- Unreasonable/excessive positive or negative feelings towards the client
- Inappropriate interest in irrelevant details
- Excessive self-disclosure
- Preoccupied with a client’s case between sessions
To prevent or address countertransference, counsellors should be monitoring themselves and can work on their conflicts by going to counselling or therapy themselves, using self-care methods or consulting a supervisor. If it is judged to be what’s best for them, the client also has the option to recommend them to a colleague.