I am very sensitive to other people, to how they react to me. It’s like I have a 6th sense. I instinctively know what they think of me. I think it’s like my superpower. I pick up on things really quickly. I can always tell when someone doesn’t like me. They might try to hide it, but they don’t fool me.Anonymous client
Can we always trust our feelings ?
Some people are quick to develop ideas about what other people think of them. It may be that this is information that they find a way to use constructively. But in other cases, like the example above, it can become an obstacle to developing good relationships.
We tend to project certain ideas onto the people we meet
This can be such an automatic process that we have very little idea that it is going on. Before we know it, we have come to a conclusion about what another person thinks of us. This is like the example above where someone is very quick to detect the presence of aggressive and critical ideas about them.
What kind of ideas do you project onto other people?
We might not be like the person in the example above, but what if, without knowing how we do it, we are always projecting assumptions onto other people. Assumptions that get in the way of us seeing what other person are like?
- Where do we get these ideas from?
- How much do we know about them?
- Can we trust them?
- How can we identify and stop doing it?
Transference, countertransference, and psychotherapy
If we go back to Freud’s work, to psychoanalysis, to the origins of modern psychotherapy, we find Freud trying to understand these things.
Freud and Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria (1895), presented short and accessible case studies. These are case studies that look at ordinary psychological experiences. One of the features that stood out and may have become a reason Freud and Breuer parted company was to do with transference.
- Freud and Breuer found that the patients they worked with projected ideas onto them. This psychological phenomena they called transference. Understanding his patient’s transferences to him became a route into working with them.
- Countertransference is the term that describes the psychotherapists’ projections and feelings about and onto the patient. This was not something that Freud developed very much.
Since Freud countertransference has become a key focus in psychotherapy
Certain therapists have found a way to understand and think that everything that happens within the psychotherapy relationship relates to the transference, (Betty Joseph). Others limit it to the therapists’ reactions.
Countertransference, why psychotherapists need to have been in psychotherapy
A therapist needs to understand their own countertransferences. It is one of the reasons why it is important for a therapist to have been in therapy. It is important that the therapist knows a lot about themselves so that they can follow and understand their reactions to being with people.
This is because as psychotherapy developed it was understood more as a relationship that develops over time. The more the psychotherapist is able to follow the progress of his or her countertransference the more this material can be used to understand what is happening in the therapy.
Countertransference is not a static phenomenon
Countertransference’s develop over the course of a psychotherapy relationship. And it is through carefully observing and monitoring how it develops, that change becomes possible.
- The client in the example above came to see me because of a recurring problem in their relationships. It happened in romantic and work relationships.
- They found that relationships would often develop well at the start but that quite quickly they would become convinced that the other person thought badly of them.
The client’s life had been dominated by this recurring experience and it might have continued like that had it not been for something a new partner said to them. The new partner said they thought the client was projecting things onto them. The client became interested in this and came to see me.
We started working together in once weekly therapy and quite quickly this exact thing started to happen between us. At first, they found me exceptionally helpful, but then they reacted against something I said. Rather than this being something that could be discussed, it became an obstacle. Had we not found a way into thinking about it as a repetition of exactly what had brought them to me in the first place it is almost certain that the work would have ended there.
I think that it helped that I was able to recognise reactions in myself to what was being said about me.
At first, I found the person rather difficult to be with. But I was able to recognise this as a countertransference to them. So instead of reacting in a way that would have alienated us from each other. I was able to find a way to work with the experience.
This became a gateway to thinking about what was going on in the therapy relationship. To seeing it as rather typical of what they described in other relationships.
Working with the countertransference
If you can learn to use your reactions in this way, not to act on them, but to be able to think about them, to contain them, then you may be able to open up new possibilities for yourself and your clients.
The countertransference becomes a vital piece of information that enable us to open up ways into new possibilities for the client and ourselves. Instead of being destined to endlessly repeat the same patterns of relating over and over again, we find a way into new ways of living and relating. This means that relationships can develop and grow, studies, employment and careers can go better.
- If you have a sense that you get caught up in unhelpful repetitions to things
- that you find your ideas hitting the same obstacles, and
- that it is stopping you from engaging in more meaningful life,
then it might be helpful to talk about this.
I have been working with people on issues such as this for twenty years. My work is built around helping people to engage with the problems that hold them back. Problems that block their energy, creativity and self-expression.
Working like this in psychotherapy can be a route to being able to see the difference between what you imagine someone might think about you and what they do think about you.
Contact me to arrange a free 15-minute conversation to discuss how my work might be useful to you. I have a lot of experience of using telephone and online platforms and I would be pleased to hear from you.
Telephone: 01494 521311
Mobile: 07980 750376