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Transference, Countertransference, and Vicarious Trauma

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, MA, NCC

“A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves” – Simone Weil

Put simply, transference is the idea that clients will bring residual feelings or issues from past relationships and transfer or project them onto the counselor in the current therapeutic relationship. Clients interact with and react to people and situations in a way that reveals patterns from their past. It is through this process of projection that the counselor comes to recognize distortions in behavior and thinking that are impeding the client’s daily functioning. This requires substantial analysis and interpretation on the part of the counselor in order to aid insight and cultivate growth in session. 

Transference, Countertransference, and Vicarious Trauma: What are They And How Might They Impact The Therapeutic Relationship

While similar to transference, countertransference involves the counselor and is a process by which the counselor reacts and responds to the client based on their own personal experiences. Countertransference may look like acting or reacting towards a client in a manner that is out of the ordinary as a result of empathy for or identification with the client’s experience or acting or reacting towards a client in a manner that mirrors that of the client’s loved one. 

Once regarded as a negative process, countertransference has more recently  been viewed  as an opportunity to more deeply explore interpersonal dynamics, both in the session and in day to day life. Problems can arise, however, when the counselor experiences a loss of objectivity, an inability to control emotions including but not limited to becoming angry or upset with the client, or encouraging or discouraging  client from addressing issues (i.e., past trauma) when it is not in the client’s best interest. If the client notices any of these transpiring in session, it may be time to either bring it to the counselor’s attention or even consider transferring care. The client should feel empowered to determine the pace of the session and whether or not they are ready to discuss past experiences including trauma. 

According to Naomi Remer, “The expectation that [counselors] can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” Counselors are constantly exposing themselves to emotional and psychological wear and tear which, if left unchecked, can yield vicarious trauma. Counselors are at great risk of developing a secondary trauma response after exposure to a client’s traumatic experience. Counselors care deeply for their clients and thus, can become overwhelmed by their emotions and experiences. As a result, counselors themselves can experience diminished interest in activities, emotional numbness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms similar to those experienced by their client. 

Counselors are humans with their own emotions and past traumas; thus when they are confronted by disclosures of abuse, exploitation, or loss, they may experience their own post-traumatic stress responses, such as disturbing dreams, anxiety, or increased difficulties in their own relationships. Without proper self care, consultation with supervisors and colleagues, and extensive self-reflection, this can lead to burnout, which can greatly impact the therapeutic relationship. Burnout typically occurs over a period of time and not necessarily as a direct response to a specific client’s traumatic experience; however, burnout can cause a decline in the quality of care, either by way of under-investment or over-investment in the client. If the client notices that the counselor has become more detached, cold, or withdrawn, or overly invested, seeming to blur professional boundaries, this could be an indication of burnout resulting from vicarious trauma. 

If you or someone you know is looking for an objective counselor, please reach out to the intake specialists at Symmetry Counseling today.

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