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Countertransference and the therapeutic relationship

5 August 1991


This paper is a study of countertransference, broadly defined to include all of the affective responses of the therapist to the client. The primary foeus is on objective countertransference, or those emotional reactions of the therapist which are stimulated by the behavior and material of the client rather than by the specific conflicts or vulnerabilities of the therapist. The development of the psychoanalytic persp~tive on countertransference is traced through the 1950s. There is a discussion of the initial ideal of the detach(",.d and objective analyst which dominated the first 40 years of psychoanalytic practice and the challenge to that view which occurred in the decade after 1950. Projective identification and empathy are also investigated as sPecific forms of objective countertransference which received considerable attention if! the literature after the mid-:1950s. Jung's understanding of the emotional experience of the analyst in therapy is also examined, as is the evolution in perspective. brought abollt by other analytical psychologists.- Two trend-s are observed. in both -the Jungian and Freudian approaches to the practice of therapy or analysis. The first is the " evolution away from the concept of the therapist as uninvolved and distant, towards a. recognition that the analyst is invariably significantly emotionally affected by the work with clients. It is recognized that the therapist's emotional responses can often convey information about the psychological state of the client. The second trend is the movement away from a hierarchical, role-differentiated relationship towards greater mutuality. There is an increasing recognition that both therapist and client are engaged in a common struggle with the disordered parts of themselves and that to structure the analytic relationship otherwise inhibits the therapy. Another issue studied is the nature of the transfer or communication of affective states that is described in reports on objective countertransference, projective identification, and empathy. The literature frequently suggests that these emotional conditions are unconsciously or subliminally conveyed from one person to another. It is proposed that there is an ongoing, complex, and dynamic unconscious relationship that arises in depth therapy, through which both analyst and client subliminally receive and record substantial information about the psychological condition of the other. This unconscious relationship can be consciously perceived by both analyst and client as an energetically charged therapeutic field arising between them which takes on elements of an entity in its own right. Working consciously with the therapeutic field can have substantial and positive effects on the therapy, including opening new and deeper dimensions in the relationship, allowing access to very meaningful but less personal archetypal layers of the psyche, and the possibility of the kind of profound and authentic meeting between analyst and client which has substantial healing effect.


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