Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Countering Transference or Just Havin’ Feelings?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 21, 2014


As I re-enter into the blogging world, I am reminded that one purpose of this blog is to focus my attention towards teaching about psychoanalytic concepts. In this way, this blog serves as my notepad, my preparation to stimulate a dialogue about the human condition in a psychotherapeutic setting. In that light, I want to focus on the notion of countertransference; a notion which is vague but generally means the unconscious and conscious feelings that the therapist has towards his patient. Edna and James, the therapeutic dyad, struggle together to make sense of Edna’s past and present anxieties. Edna, seen four times a week, for many years, is often angry and frustrated with James. She feels stuck and guilty, for no apparent reason, except she thinks that James could be doing a better job. At the same time, she comes regularly and reliably to her appointments and it never occurs to her to switch psychoanalysts.

James likes Edna, looks forward to seeing her, but feels that his feelings towards her are shallow, despite the many hours they have spent together. He assumes these shallow feelings are a result of both Edna keeping her emotional distance and James, not wanting to be drained at the end of each day. Still, of all of James’ patients, Edna, he would say is the one he feels the least connected to. James come to me for consultation about this troubling realization. “Maybe you have just not gotten close to her because she is so defended? And/or maybe she reminds you of people from your past who you spent a lot of time with, but who really never had emotional meaning for you?” I say, expressing layers of understanding to begin a discussion with James as to why he is seeking consultation with me, with regards to his therapeutic relationship with Edna.

The parallel process between trying to draw James out, via free association, follows James attempt to understand Edna, by the same means. Yet, my relationship with James is a teacher, or  a supervisor, as the psychoanalytic world likes to call me. My job is to help with his concern, not about his life, or his personal relationships, but with his psychotherapeutic dilemmas. At the same time, I teach a class, struggling with the idea of countertransference, and in particular, struggling with the word “counter.” This, as I will talk about in class, is a major misnomer. There is nothing “counter” in countertransference, but rather, feelings go both ways, and the dyad changes over time-both sides, of course.  This changing dyad is a result of the struggle to understand what happens when two people come together, hour after hour,  trying to heal, trying to understand, with an attempt to offer up many answers, to seemingly unanswerable questions. These answers, are ideas, not definitive conclusions, and yet ideas help soothe anxiety, and create forward momentum,  given the limitations of our own biology and the stressors in the world around us.

4 Responses to “Countering Transference or Just Havin’ Feelings?”

  1. Jon said

    You say that there is nothing counter in countertransference, but as I read this, I wonder about the transference itself. As your title of the post asks, could the situation you describe just be feelings of concern? To my naïve understanding, transference is related to an inappropriate repetition in a present relationship from a past one. James is concerned about his emotional distance from Edna. Are the reasons inappropriate? Hard to say.

    • Grist for the therapeutic mill…the mantra which says all feelings, thoughts, ideas, are fair game…part of free association..which opens up the therapy to allow for scrutiny and inquiry into the nature of these thoughts and feelings. Feelings of concern are often one layer in this dyad, but typically the layers go deeper to bring up past relationships and memories of those relationships, some of which are comforting, and others of which cause great distress and distortion. Thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    James likes Edna, but “his feelings towards her are shallow” and Edna is “the one he feels the least connected to.” Why can’t James still be her psychotherapist but not feel connected? Who says that he needs to feel connected? Like all physician-patient relationships, he should try his best to heal her, but he doesn’t necessarily need to be the patient’s best friend. Why can’t he just be a professional instead of a pal?

    • Friendship and connection are two different dimensions. James needs to feel an emotional connection in order to help Edna heal from her emotional wounds. This sharing of emotional experience is what we, analysts, believe is the major component of therapeutic change. Thanks.

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