Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Teaching Countertransference

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 6, 2014

Is there a pipeline from the unconscious of the patient to the unconscious of the therapist?  Imagining this pipeline is part of the psychotherapeutic  art. “Tell me what I should talk about.” Willa, forty-three, says with, what I perceive to be, a demanding tone. “I am feeling angry right now and I am not sure why,” I respond, suggesting that I am picking up on her anger, but not certain of that. “I do have some self-awareness” Willa says forcefully. “I am confused,” I say, interrupting her, when I should have waited for her to continue. “I do have anger,” she says, as if that should have been obvious to me. “Tell me more about your anger,” I say, not clear as to who or what this feeling is about for her. A dramatic change in tension ensues, where Willa and I begin a comfortable conversation about her husband and her resentment of his behavior. My feeling of anger, I guessed, was a perception which came from Willa’s anger, and yet I had no basis for this assessment, other than my own internal state. Using my feelings, my countertransference, allowed me to unleash Willa’s self-imposed strangulation, of her not allowing herself to be forthcoming about her marital problems. Willa communicated with me through a nonverbal pipeline, which in my early years of work, I would have sat there confused and uncomfortable, instead of harnessing my feelings to deepen our therapeutic work.

5 Responses to “Teaching Countertransference”

  1. Shelly said

    In the diagram above, shouldn’t the Client’s unconscious also impact the Therapist’s reaction to the Client directly, and not work directly on the Therapist’s unconscious? I have a feeling that Willa’s anger at you did not act on your unconscious but on your here and now. Why were you angry at her? Because of her demanding tone? Perhaps Willa is feeling misunderstood by you, or that you share with her that you feel that she is not self-aware. That, in my eyes, would make your Client feel angry.

    • Yes, all of the above are possible. Multiple actions are taking place simultaneously, making psychotherapy an endlessly fascinating and challenging profession. Yes, tone has a lot to do with feelings transmitted, but in this case, I was more confused by my anger, but with time and patience, Willa and I were able to achieve a calmness which allowed for reflection and thought. Thanks.

  2. Roia said

    It always is rather tricky to figure out a way to bring, first, our own awareness to the projective identification and then our client’s awareness. It is also fascinating to me how when an unexpected feeling response emerges as I’m working with someone it leaves once the client is able to take ownership of the feeling. For me, as a music therapist, countertransference often takes the form of a song emerging unexpectedly in the session. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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