Countertransference is a phenomenon of psychotherapy which in simple terms, means that as psychological professionals, our feelings / emotions can become entangled with certain aspects of an individual that we’re working with. These can be instances that are both conscious where we relate to people, or even sub-conscious when people’s circumstances take us by surprise. Either way, these instances do occur and they don’t define us as clinicians unless we act upon these instances negatively.
As a new Assistant Psychologist, I have to say I only really understood this phenomenon during supervision after I experienced countertransference myself and found myself quite upset after an assessment. I personally don’t think it was the first time I felt countertransference amongst my clinical psychology experience, but rather this was the first time I was told of the phenomenon and why a particular case impacted me in such a way. It’s rather odd to reflect on two years of experience not knowing of the phenomena and putting a name to my experiences, but also pleasantly goal-orientating for my learning.
I can’t and won’t divulge into the nature of the case that impacted recently as we all know about patient confidentiality and to this day, the countertransference of a particular individual I worked with is something that still evokes emotion in me. However, what I will say is that whilst this countertransference is something we as aspiring psychologists may find difficult to open up about, I’d encourage these talks in supervision. It largely depends on the sensitivity levels of settings that you work in, but the countertransference that you experience will help shape you as an aspiring psychologist and give you insight into the clinician you are. We all have triggers despite our professional role and unfortunately for some of us, we don’t realise these triggers until we’ve worked with someone who evokes these emotional responses.
I’ve truly learnt from my experience and I’d have to say that I’ve also had a few take home messages to help me along my clinical psychology journey.
Firstly, I’d have to say that regardless of whether countertransference has happened to you before, is to take some self-reflection time and think about your triggers. I remember starting on my first day and my supervisor openly asking me to reflect if there was anything that could trigger me. Naively I thought nothing would. I work in a setting that is completely unrelated (I thought) to where my triggers are derived from. But I was wrong! Regardless of where we work, some individuals who we work with in psychology will evoke some emotion in us and it’s for this reason I’d encourage self-reflection. This can be hard but think about the 5P’s and how this applies to your life and how this may transfer across your line of work and impact you.
Secondly, if you feel comfortable, discuss these triggers with your supervisor at work. Measures can be put into place to alter your job plan and encourage you to work on your own triggers whilst you’re doing your role.
Thirdly, and this may be a hard one, but try to keep composed when you are sensing countertransference and you’re working with an individual. It is hard when you have a task in mind and you’ve been told something that’s shocking but it’s not the topic you’re covering with someone. It’s also hard when you understand people’s pain and you’re worried about pushing them too far in a psychological assessment. But if you keep yourself composed you can try and work through the emotions and appropriately explore areas that you need to. And this is exactly where you should also not be afraid to ask to stop or swap. If you feel your emotions will hinder you, your supervisor will understand and they will step in.
Countertransference is something that now I’ve experienced, I know will be inevitable in my career going forward as an aspiring clinical psychologist. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a flaw of who we are as professionals or individuals, but rather that we are able to relate and care for those we assess and see as we can resonate either consciously or sub-consciously. Our roles as psychological professionals are varied. The people we see vary and day to day, we will be triggered. I know it’s hard, but writing this in reflection to a scenario which made me feel this phenomena, I can only be thankful for the experience and the growth it’s given me to become a better psychologist. I now know my triggers, my boundaries and my goals.
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