Just Like Steve: Transference and Countertransference

Pop Quiz Time!

Q.  A client meeting with a social worker for the first time remarks that she felt comfortable during the intake interview because the social worker reminds her of her grandmother, who had a warm and caring disposition, and whom the client was very fond of.  Which concept does this BEST illustrate?

A. Projection
B. Transference
C. Client/worker boundaries
D.  Countertransference

The correct answer, of course, is B.  Within the client/worker relationship, transference is defined (broadly) as the client’s feelings toward the worker, who may “transfer” her experience of relationships with earlier individuals (often early caregivers) onto the working relationship.  Projection would seem like a close answer, but only if the client had been directly ascribing those qualities to the worker.

Conversely, countertransference involves the worker’s feelings toward the client, experienced in a similar way, which is why self-awareness becomes so important in the work, and becomes important in maintaining boundaries.

An apt (but probably not the most ethical!) representation of this happens in the 1999 movie Analyze This, shown to us in class by our film-saavy psychoanalytically-oriented professor.  Billy Crystal’s character, Dr. Ben Sobel, is going away on vacation, and his recently broken-hearted patient becomes afraid he is going to “abandon” her:

Caroline: You’re just like Steve…you wanna…just wanna…get rid of me and throw me out!

Dr. Sobel: Now, Caroline, you know that’s not true.

Caroline: Yes, it’s true…

Dr. Sobel: I am gonna see you next week, whereas Steve never wants to see you again. 

While Dr. Sobel probably has some issues of his own to resolve (as does Hollywood and its portrayal of therapists), as a therapist he can work through the patient’s transference (i.e., experiencing all men as abandoning) and strengthen her ego by the experience of his safe (yet-boundaried) permanence.

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