Probably the most important message I have tried to relay in all of my posts at this point is that the counselor is not perfect–shocking, I know–and certainly not immune to depositing his or her own baggage in the midst of a session, not in the least. Various forms of this imperfection present within a session, and luckily many of them are noticeable or at the very least easy to rectify once detected.
Yet there are some that are undetectable, manifesting in what is called counter-transference. (For reference, transference is when the client projects feelings unrelated to the counselor onto the counselor. Counter-transference would be a process just opposite of that.)
Yes. The counselor may in fact be unintentionally projecting his or her own feelings on to the client. This may manifest in attraction or slight avoidance, depending on who or what the feelings really belong to or concern.
You might be thinking, “How hard can it be to dispel those feelings?” To a point, perhaps it is not that difficult at all. However, preceding that point, it may be rather difficult to diffuse those feelings if in fact we don’t know that we are doing it.
For clarity, here is an example.
Let’s say the counselor, within a normal, secular counseling setting has recently had a disagreement or altercation of some sort with a brother or sister. Let’s also say, for the sake of example, that in a certain or general way, this counselor is in a session with a client who resembles that brother or sister. Unknowingly, the counselor may find themselves judging the client and his or her presenting situation more harshly than normal based on an experience they actually have not had with this client.
This is one of those relatively harmless forms of transference that, once detected, can be rectified in a way that may that does not interrupt the therapeutic process. However, there are some, as I have eluded, which are not so easily detected or rectified.
I mean those of a sexual nature, to be direct.
The proverbially uncomfortable subject of sexual attraction, tension, counter-transference, etc, is one that, as long as one is human, may actually affect just about anyone, in the most subtle of ways, which renders it necessary to talk about.
Please bear with me–and, if I may ask, do not judge me. Another of my personal examples is to follow.
Not too long ago, I had a client assigned to me at the clinic who was pregnant with a child who would be her 4th within 5 years. Naturally, she was a bit angsty. Already a sarcastic and somewhat bitter individual, she bluntly explained to me over 2 or 3 sessions how she had a history of abuse as a kid, and recently a history of sexual abuse from her child’s father.
We had a natural rapport. I had been able to relate, emotionally at least, to much of her angst, and she told me very soon in the process that she trusted me right away, which never happens with people.
Soon, she was explaining her experiences with sexual abuse in detail. Not wanting to show any negative reactions or outward judgments, I encouraged her to share as much as she was comfortable with. I quickly found out that this was a dangerous encouragement–she had a very large comfort zone, heightened by her strong trust in me.
Let me just that our relationship was cut off not very long into the process. She was suddenly arrested for a bench warrant she had received many months before and therefore I could no longer counsel her. But I must confess that, at that point in my career as a counselor, my faith in my ability to draw a safe line between indulgence of details for my own curiosity and simply asking for details which would help relieve her of some amount of stress was not all that strong.
This is what is called the “Window Shopper” variety of counter-transference, in which a counselor may find themselves asking for sexual details, unknowingly, to satisfy curiosity of sexual imagination in a presumably safe setting.
Do I think I experienced it? Sort of. As I said, I didn’t really get the chance to, but my knowledge now of my own mental integrity would suggest that I probably would have struggled to draw the line.
So really, what I hope has been wrought of my semi-stream of consciousness type posts is that there really is a personal standard to hold ourselves to when in the counselor’s chair. As the caregiver, we are entrusted with the very personal feelings, thoughts, beliefs and general lifestyles of the clients we are helping, and to a larger extent, those of our own inner mechanisms. I am just as likely as the next person to fall into a state of complacency, over-justification of flaws and, yes, counter-transference of any sort.
But, truthfully, I believe the gift of counseling is not just the ability to inspire change in our clients but to learn the greater depths of ourselves through the looking glass of another human being, and I pray that all those entrusted to this position, whether pastoral, Christian or secular accept willingly the challenge to seek the positive changes we hope to inspire in our clients.