2 Sep 2016 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

"Simply, countertransference usually means the therapists’ feelings towards the client”
– Petruska Clarkson

Countertransference – a changing definition

Countertransference was first identified by Freud, whose position it was that it was harmful to the therapeutic relationship, and was something that the analyst should guard against.

Since then definition has changed over time, and also varies between authors, so you may come across other definitions in your reading.

In this early formulation, countertransference was thought of as the analyst’s transference, seeing the client in terms of someone from the analyst’s past, and was seen as not helpful to the therapeutic work. For example, a therapist hearing a client expressing frustration at not making progress in therapy might perceive it as a hostile criticism if that therapist’s own transference related to a past experience of their being habitually criticised in early life.

Over time, this narrow definition of countertransference came to be widened, with countertransference tending to be seen as all of the feelings that the therapist has toward the client, regardless of whether or not this involves transference on the part of the therapist.

With this wider definition, countertransference came more readily to be seen as an important and valuable source of information for the therapist as to what was going on in the therapeutic relationship. For example, instead of having the attitude “I feel impatient towards the client and must work to overcome that feeling”, the therapist could then ask himself or herself “What’s going on in this relationship that leads me to feel impatience with this client, and how can I utilise that feeling and insight to work therapeutically with them?”.

Except when used by writers in a narrow sense, countertransference is not a type of transference, so it's important in reading the writings of others, or in communicating with colleagues, not to make that assumption.

Types of countertransference

It is useful to differentiate between countertransference reactions that are distorted perceptions relate to the therapist’s issues – their own transference, for example – and those that are more closely related to the client’s own issues. Various terminology is used for this, by different writers and theorists.

Clarkson (2003) uses the term proactive countertransference for reactions that are distorted perceptions based in the therapist’s own issues, but you may also come across similar usages defined as:

  • Neurotic countertransference
  • Illusory countertransference

When you are working with clients, you cannot avoid experiencing proactive countertransference, but it is very important to be aware of it, and recognise when it relates to your own issues. This is one of the reasons why trainees work in personal development, group process and personal therapy to develop self-awareness.

Reactive countertransference is what Clarkson calls that part of countertransference that is the therapist’s here-and-now response to the client, based on a realistic rather than distorted perception. You may also see this described as:

  • “Countertransference proper”
  • Objective countertransference

Your here-and-now realistic reactions to the client at the level of feelings, attitudes, wishes and desires are also very important to be aware of. This is because these feelings can give strong hints and clues about what is going on in the relationship, as well as what the client is feeling.

For example, the client may be talking without any consciously noticeable indication of sadness, but at the same time you may notice that a strong sense of sadness arises within you. As long as this is not proactive countertransference (your own past being brought into the present unconsciously) then it could be an indication that the client, deep down, is feeling sad. You might pick on that and say something like “I’m getting a strong sense of sadness when you say that”, which names it and brings it into the room. [The feelings you feel are always yours though.]

Mostly, your reactions will be a mix of the two (reactive and proactive) but sometimes predominantly one or predominantly the other. As a therapist it’s important to be aware of this, and your own work on yourself (in personal development or personal therapy; in being open to and reflective about feedback in supervision) is an important step in your development as a therapist (ongoing personal development work being an ethical imperative of therapeutic practice, as well as a prerequisite for accreditation with BACP or similar organisations).

When working with countertransference, it's useful to be aware of the phenomenon of projective identification.


Clarkson, P. (2003) The Therapeutic Relationship, 2nd Edition. London: Whurr.

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