Jeff Guenther on Jun 09, 2019
I was talking to my therapist buddy, Rochelle, about countertransference on this week’s podcast episode of Say More About That. In our conversation, I talk about a few times countertransference snuck up on me and screwed up therapy. Rochelle and I do a deep dive into countertransference on the show and had a really fun time talking about it. It’s a must listen for all therapists. Click play below or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
I wanted to take the opportunity here to write more about my countertransference experiences so that other therapists might have the opportunity to relate. Or at least have a good laugh or cry at the mistakes I’ve made as a therapist. But hopefully you’ll learn from my mistakes.
And just to be sure we are all on the same page here, countertransference occurs when feelings from the therapist are unconsciously directed on to the client.
As I mention in the podcast, my very first client when I was still just a baby therapist in grad school was a 12 year old skater boy who was not interested in going to therapy. I’ll admit that this was not one of my finer moments as a counselor. Before I entered the waiting room, I seriously considered sneaking out the back window and quitting school. But I imagine most therapists have a pretty cringeworthy experience seeing their very first client so I don’t feel too embarrassed about the whole ordeal.
What I remember most about this experience was seeing the 12 year old boy for the first time and thinking to myself how incredibly cool this kid looked. He had long hair that draped over his face, skinny jeans that were tattered from skating and his skateboard in hand that seemed to signal to me that he was about to skate off into the distance if I didn’t impress him. Even though my feelings were overwhelming at the time, I didn’t quite realize until later that it was my countertransference that was getting the best of me. The primary feeling I had was how much I wanted the kid to think I was cool. If I could just convince him that I was a hip therapist and different than all the stuffy counselors he’d seen in the past then maybe he’d trust me. The desire to want to be seen as cool and hip got in the way of being a good counselor. Instead of challenging him or being curious about his feelings, I tried to make him laugh and prove to him how much I knew about skating culture.
My supervisor at the time was quick to point out that my countertransference was getting in the way. But I pushed back for months trying to make my case that the kid needed to see me in a certain way. Eventually I was able to see all of this was coming from my own insecurity. Luckily, I saw the client for a year and I was able to drop the act and eventually do some good therapy.
As therapists we all have experiences with clients that we secretly, or maybe not so secretly, want to be friends with. I mention this in the podcast. But sometimes it’s not so easy to spot at first. And unfortunately the countertransference of wanting my client to see me as someone they can be friends with is so subtle that I might not catch it until it’s really effected therapy in a negative way.
Most of my clients are around the same age as me. That’s on purpose. I like to talk to people that I can connect with on a generational level. It helps me to empathize with their situation and feel more compassion. It also sets me up for imagining what a friendship would look like. I am thinking about one client in particular that at first I felt like I had good boundaries with. But it turned out that I had crossed a line that neither of us caught until it was super obvious.
The client I have in mind works in the creative industry. She’s hip. She’s cool. She’s funny. And she’s really down to earth. She’s one of those clients that wants to chit chat for 5 to 10 minutes before a session starts. She doesn’t want to get into anything too deep right when she sits down. She wants to ease into therapy. I get it. I can feel the same way when I see a counselor. I have no problem obliging. Over the years we were seeing each other, the 5 to 10 minute chit chat stayed really consistent. Until one day the client came in and was going through something pretty upsetting. The chit chat was abandoned and we dove into what she was experiencing. This lasted weeks as she and I processed all that was going on in her life. And after the crisis had settled and things were back to normal for her I figured the sessions would start with the chit chat that I was used to. But that didn’t happen. Every time she came in she just dove into what was coming up for her that week.
I didn’t realize it for a while, but something had changed for me. I knew the banter before sessions had gone away and that changed the tone a bit but I viewed that as good progress. She didn’t have to warm up in order to get into the therapy groove. But something had changed for me. I had a harder time connecting with her. I felt the urge to make sessions lighter and not so heavy. It was affecting my connection with her. Through talking to my supervisor, I realized that a part of me was sad that the chit chat was missing. It felt like we weren’t friends anymore. And that’s when I realized how much I wanted to be friends with her and how much that desire was getting in the way of our therapeutic relationship. I was able to work through this issue with proper supervision.
I’m 38 years young and I have no children. Don’t plan on having any and I feel pretty good about that. Every now and then I’ll take on a client that is in their early 20’s. Recently a 21 year old woman came in to talk. Eventually the sessions turned into processing her many issues with her father. She told me that her dad just never really “got her”. That there was a big generational gap that created a ton of miscommunication and fights about politics. She was sad that her father never tried to understand her perspective and validate her experience.
As therapy continued she eventually started to dismiss certain things I’d say. She’d roll her eyes and exclaim that I “just didn’t get it.” She was bummed that I couldn’t understand her and she was becoming disconnected with me. I quickly made the connection that she was brushing me off just like she did with her father and she saw me as some older man that just couldn’t understand her. But I did understand her! I could totally get what she was saying and how she was feeling. She just wasn’t giving me the chance. Clearly she was transferring her dad stuff on to me and I felt really weird about it. I saw the client as a person that was in my generation. I didn’t see myself as someone that was her dad’s age. I was too young to be her dad!
Obviously I was having some bizarre issues about wanting to be seen as a peer and not someone who could be a parent. Every time the client rolled her big eyes at me I wanted to scream at her and tell her that “I’m not your dad!” In the podcast episode, Rochelle points out that there are plenty of dads out there that are 38 years old. While that very well could be a true fact, I choose not to believe it! (Obviously I need some supervision around this issue.)
As much as I enjoy writing these blogs in order to connect with the therapist community and hopefully provide some counselors with teachable moments and a few laughs, I am also trying to gently influence you to join my therapist directory at therapyden.com. I feel like when I ask you to create a profile you’ll disregard the whole article and click away with disgust. I know that some people can get really turned off by marketing pitches. But TherapyDen is a business I run and I need to try my best to get people to read these blogs and think about signing up to support an inclusive and progressive modern therapist directory. It’s important to me that therapist directories serve all populations and not just the majority. So as much as it pains me and makes me feel uncomfortable, would you please consider signing up for a profile with TherapyDen? It would mean a lot to the mental health community if you helped us build an alternative to the big online directories out there today. If signing up for a profile doesn’t make sense for you right now, would you please share this article, or my podcast, with others on social media and through your local therapist groups and list serves? The content that TherapyDen creates helps make therapy more approachable and less stigmatized. Thanks for reading!
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.