The classical definition of countertransference was first coined by Freud and was defined as an unconscious phenomenon based on the therapist’s unresolved issues (Kernberg, 1965; Reich, 195, 1960 as cited in Hofsess & Tracey, 2010). Since Freud there have been other views of countertransference such as the totalist view, the contemporary view, and the relational conception of countertransference (Hofsess & Tracey, 2010). Presently the most agreed upon generalized definition is noted by Gelso and Hayes (2007), “countertransference refers to the therapists feelings, cognitions, and behaviours that occur in response to dynamics occurring in the counseling relationship that stem from either the therapists unresolved issues or from the maladaptive behaviours elicited by the client” (as cited in Hofsess & Tracey, 2010).
In general, countertransference is a normal process in therapy and can be effective in understanding client dynamics in order to improve therapy (Friedman & Gelso, 2000). However, if the therapist ignores the feelings than they can be acted out and damage therapy which is referred to as countertransference behaviour (Friedman & Gelso, 2000). Countertransference behaviour is a direct reflection of the therapist’s own conflicts which need to be managed so they are not acted out during therapy with the client (Friedman & Gelso, 2000). Countertransference behaviour can be manifested as avoidance, withdrawal, loss of therapeutic objectivity, too much talk from the therapist, an over supportive stance by the therapist, or the therapist can become anxious (Friedman & Gelso, 2000).
Five qualities that may be important for countertransference management as described by Van Wagoner, Gelso, Hayes, and Diemer (1991) include self-insight, self-integration, conceptualizing ability, empathy, and anxiety management (as cited in Friedman & Gelso, 2000). Ultimately, it is up to the therapist to understand and manage their countertransference issues so situations do not occur making an already vulnerable situation worse.