How is Freudian psychotherapy currently viewed?

Original work (title topic)

Hans Holderegger

The importance of transference and countertransference in everyday life and in psychotherapy

(Lecture given on May 17, 2014 at the Intercantonal University for Curative Education)

Summary: The aim of the present work is to show how helpful the concept of transference and countertransference can be for understanding complex relationship situations - in everyday life and in psychotherapy. The transference connects the past with the present and makes it clear what influence past conflicts and traumas have on our daily lives. Using various examples, a conflict situation between teacher and student, a father transference in the staff room, a marriage crisis and a direct trauma transfer through a suicide threat towards the therapist, it is also shown which role the recognition of countertransference contributes to the solution of the mentioned conflict situations. The transfer of trauma clearly shows that split off, dissociated inner scenes threaten to break into current life again and again, in the sense of an urge to further develop frozen affects and inner images.

Key words: transference, countertransference, trauma transference, dissociation, staging of past scenes, urge for further development

Abstract: The meaning of transference and counter transference in daily life and in psychotherapy

The aim of the work to hand is to demonstrate how helpful the concepts of transference and counter-transference are for understanding complex relationship situations in daily life and in psychotherapy. Transference links the past with the present and makes the influence of earlier conflicts and traumata on our daily lives, understandable. On the basis of various examples, (a conflict situation between teacher and pupil, father transference in the classroom, a marital crisis and direct trauma transference in the form of a suicide threat directed towards the therapist) shows which role the recognition of counter-transference plays in the resolution of these conflict situations. Trauma transference shows clearly that the split-off, dissociated inner scenes repeatedly threaten to break into actual life in the sense of an urge towards the further development of frozen affects and inner images.

Keywords: transference, counter-transference, trauma transference, dissociation, production of earlier scenes, drive to further development

The concepts of transference and countertransference belong to the foundations of every psychodynamically oriented psychology and psychotherapy today. There is no actual experience without a connection to memory; Past experiences are transferred into the currently experienced present and the corresponding reaction, the countertransference from affected relationship partners, is more or less closely related to it. A transmission is about the re-staging of memories under changed external conditions, about a process that takes place unconsciously and is constantly repeated (Barwinski, 2010). Knowledge of these dynamics must be acquired above all by those who work in pedagogical and therapeutic professions so that they can better orientate themselves in the field of tension in their everyday work.

The transference is a completely natural phenomenon and is necessary for psychological survival, because familiar conflict solutions and past experiences help you to find your way in the onslaught of current perceptions and demands; they therefore also serve as protection against overstimulation. The transfer of unresolved conflicts and trauma, which is usually referred to when one speaks of transference, has the opposite effect, however, it can distort the perception of the present in a negative way and the current experience and the relationships associated with it in the present affect or even destroy.

But for now let me d. That is, before I go into the topic of my lecture more explicitly, report on an episode from the everyday life of a teacher in which the phenomenon and the meaning of the transference can be made visible:

Transfer and role reversal: an example from the classroom

Imagine the following scene: A teacher leaves the classroom of his high school graduation class in a lively mood. The students were active and focused during the lesson. The working alliance and the working atmosphere, so the teacher thought, could not have been better, you were about to graduate, the lesson had shown the understanding of literature the class had acquired. You could build on this in the next lessons, the working method seemed ideal, the students seemed stimulated and satisfied.

When the teacher visits the room of the class in question two days later, he looks forward to the continuation of the work and expects to be received by the class with attention and interest. His disappointment is great: when he enters the room, he is hardly or not at all noticed. A group of students is sitting at the teachers table and playing cards, shouting and gesturing, others are busy doing things that are also unrelated to the current lesson. Nobody notices that the lesson has already started: there is no reading book to be seen, nothing of the mood, which from the teacher's point of view is so pleasant, seems to have lingered. It gives the impression that it is not even noticed and expected, as if it is disturbing and superfluous.

How should he, as a teacher, react to this situation? Obviously annoyed by the disrespect of his students, he instructs that he should be picked up from the staff room when the class is ready for work. Unfortunately, in his disappointment, he lets himself be carried away with a threat; He regrets that shortly after leaving the room. A shared positive experience has turned into something disappointing, sobering, a kind of betrayal, at least that is how the teacher experiences the event.

The episode I have described will hardly surprise you, perhaps you, as a bystander, are even amused by the audacity of the card players: It is a group of adolescents, do you think their behavior is not unusual and not infrequently seen in everyday school life. Continuing the work does not mean as much to the students as it does to the teacher, who has carefully prepared for the lesson. They also know that their behavior will not result in severe sanctions with this teacher. They like the teacher, they later believe that the continuation of their game is not directed against him, they did not want to annoy him - and yet he received a message that put him in a bad mood, at least for a certain time, yes even offended.

I suggest that you look at a story like the one just mentioned from a somewhat unusual perspective, from the perspective of transference and countertransference, i.e. from the perspective of our topic. Take the following interpretation as one among many; in the best case scenario, it should expand perception by an unconscious dimension and be a help in such situations to behave in such a way that one feels less exposed. Paying attention to the mentioned countertransference of the teacher enables direct access to the unconscious dynamics of the situation described here.

The life of high school students is not easy to master. There is hardly a period of life in which it is so difficult to find a more or less stable identity, which, as the relevant statistics show, is shown in an accumulated number of mental crises. You lose a familiar world and still don't know how you will arrive in another. The daily pressure to perform is great; and meeting school requirements is not always easy. The physical and mental changes demand a new self-image and awaken new needs. The desire for a love relationship and for sexuality forces you to expose yourself and take the risk of rejection and shame.

The fear of being rejected or not noticed at all, of being considered ridiculous or uninteresting: These are feelings that are part of the everyday life of adolescents and with which the teacher comes into direct contact in his countertransference, as the students share their negative experiences transfer the teacher by reversing the roles in the sense of a projective transference. For once, they are not victims, but perpetrators. They want to know how the teacher cope with the role of the rejected, the unnoticed. And the teacher fell victim to the manipulative power of transference at least to some extent and in his countertransference has taken on the role that is laid out by the scene design, which was therefore unconsciously assigned to him in the sense of affective communication: “Now let's see how to deal with bad feelings! "

With the inappropriate threats made against the students, the teacher showed his vulnerability, a lack of sovereignty to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of remorse and shame that had arisen from the situation. That is understandable and not too bad, especially because he can distance himself from his vengeful remarks in the following hour. The students expect their teacher to be not only a professional, but also a human role model, a person who can naturally also be unsettled, but who can cope with this uncertainty, who does not turn the tables and the students with one must turn unreasonable punishment into new victims. It is often not easy to deal with a countertransference, one is affected by the transference and there is also the risk that old wounds are touched and the view of current reality is lost. Despite its subjective character, countertransference is an indispensable instrument that allows human relationships to be understood more profoundly than conscious rationality can.

It should also be added that our example is a group transference, i.e. a phenomenon that I did not go into in more detail. The situation that the teacher encounters would also have to be presented in a more differentiated manner, e.g. B. what concerns the different behavior of pupils and how a group transfer comes about.

A father transmission in the staff room

When one speaks of a transference in psychology or in psychoanalysis, one usually means, as already mentioned at the beginning, that an unconscious memory and an inner scene connected with it is transferred to a current relationship situation. And as indicated in the example, every transference contains a kind of manipulative power to seduce the other person into a reaction that belongs to this scene. Freud related this phenomenon to the concept of the compulsion to repeat. In his opinion, transfers stage an unresolved past and the repetition of the misfortune is planned straight away, in that the partner is seductively made into a representative of a negative inner figure. So if I stage a negative father transference, I behave towards the alleged father figure in such a way that she really threatens to reject me, which normally would not have been her intention. There is then something like a perceptual identity, it is confirmed to me that the father whom I courted rejects me, also in his substitute figure. If, as a pedagogue, one sees through the staging, one can and should reject the offer of sterile repetition in the countertransference. that is, one should adequately defend oneself from being perceived as a bad father.

Dealing with the transference is part of everyday life in psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy, yes, this phenomenon claims a central role in therapy, in which the vicious circle of the compulsory repetition can be broken by understanding the story behind the corresponding dramaturgy, and thus the can counter senseless repetition. One then learns to understand that it is not actually about a problem of the present, but about the repetition of an unprocessed story, which often has a traumatic character.

With my next example, I will remain in the school area for the time being, i. h with the mentioned teacher. It doesn't just have to pass in the classroom, but also in the teachers' room. There he makes transfers to his colleagues and, conversely, is also exposed to transfers from their side. In the staff room there is a world of realities and a world of perceptions distorted by transference, and it is above all this latter world that often makes teachers' lives unnecessarily difficult. This phenomenon was made particularly clear to me in psychotherapy with a teacher.

The teacher grew up without a father, he knew that he also lived in Switzerland, but despite his repeated requests, he did not see him for a long time - namely, only when he was fourteen years old. The father's visit could hardly have been more disappointing. He spoke almost exclusively to my patient's mother, did not inquire about his son's condition and then disappeared from his eyes for a long time. During later, rather sparse, meetings, the young adult continued to experience disinterest, rejection and the feeling of not really being noticed. The man had always been rejected by the patient's mother, in spite of his intensive advertising and their child, and she neither wanted to marry him nor live with him. Perhaps, so my patient speculated, that was the reason why he heard the aforementioned refusal from his father, in the sense of postponement and retribution. However, you can imagine the unconscious expectations of this teacher in the staff room and why he only showed himself there when it was absolutely necessary. The negative transference was so dominant in his case that he judged positive experiences, benevolent care and genuine interest on the part of other colleagues as negative experiences in retrospect. Imagine you express your honest appreciation and interest to a colleague and he drives home desperate and agitated because he assumes that you reject and despise him and that you are not really serious about him.

In many conversations we succeeded in going through the negative assessment of the experience point by point and recognizing the distortion. At the end of a session, the patient was completely astonished to understand that he was often not rejected at all, but on the contrary appreciated and perceived in a positive way. But only the connection with the father's image, which was a burden to him, freed the teacher from the negative transference that had made him so unhappy and the staff room such an uncomfortable place. In this case, the distortion of perception was not about nuances, but about an inversion that seemed hardly possible, which required a large degree of perceptual distortion and demonstrated the impressive power of a transference (Barwinski, 2005).

The importance of positive transference, called transference love

Any type of relationship includes, among other things, about recognizing negative transferences and countertransference and dealing with them sensibly. And one must not forget how important the different types of positive transference are, especially in the educational and therapeutic area. In his early technical writings, Freud referred to it as the engine of treatment. We all experience daily how affection, sympathy or even admiration for educational and therapeutic work can be beneficial if the positive feelings do not go beyond an appropriate framework, which can be the case when negative inner images are hidden behind idealizing projections. The transference connects the present with the past and it can relate to a relational experience from any stage in life. Transfers associated with trauma have a particularly intense, often destructive effect; I'll come back to that later.

The most powerful positive transference has its origins in the area of ​​early relationship experience. It cannot be remembered, and yet we “know” about it, in the sense of “implicit relational knowledge”. The English psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (1997) called this experience "the unthought known" and he assumed that the knowledge of this experience was the basic structure of our way of creating and experiencing relationships. One could also speak of a basic transmission.The basic relationship structures stored in the brain reflect or represent the early relationship experiences or, in other words, the early relationship experiences create an inner structure that shapes later life, which connects with the phylogenetic knowledge, with the “memory” of the experiences genetically stored in the individual Ancestors, parents and grandparents etc. (Panksepp, 1998; Holderegger, 2002; Damasio, 2011).

Dealing with positive transferences is usually not a problem; they create an aura of trust, confidence, hope and openness. It is often very difficult to cope with negative transferences, which of course can also relate to very early experiences, especially if one assigns their content and causality exclusively to the present and reacts accordingly inappropriately. H. surrenders to the countertransference without reflection. I will present two short examples of trauma transference, and I am now switching from everyday experiences in the educational field to the field of psychotherapy, in which, as already mentioned, dealing with the dynamics of transference and countertransference plays a central role.

The transmission of trauma and its importance in a marital conflict

The direct transferences like the mentioned father transference are easier to handle in therapy than the projective ones because the roles are less confusing. As a transmitter, I remain who I am, albeit in an earlier form. The other person is different, albeit distorted, i.e. H. perceived as a representative of an inner figure. Projective transference is often difficult to understand because there is a diffusion of identities, a kind of role reversal, but it is extremely important, especially when dealing with a trauma, because the core of the traumatic experience is not psychologically processed and therefore only in projective form Transfers can be represented, e.g. B. by making the therapist or the relationship partner a traumatized child, while the transferor - of course unconsciously - slips into the role of the perpetrator. In my first example I mentioned such a transference, albeit a harmless one, related to the present person, not to a past, traumatized one. In connection with my next example, which comes from clinical work, I am reporting on a projective trauma transference, a traumatizing transference. In the trauma transference, to emphasize it again, the opposite is at least partially confronted with the trauma of the transferor, hence the term "traumatizing transference" (Holderegger, 2003, 2012). The opposite should come to terms with the trauma in the countertransference, should take the first steps towards processing that the patient is unable to do. - So now the example.

A 40-year-old man comes into therapy because his life has been mixed up. He is married and lives with his wife and a 15 year old daughter. He has fallen in love with another woman, has an affair with her and is now afraid that he will lose his family and destroy them. He gets caught up in daily conflicts with his wife, he feels misunderstood and hurt by her, an intimate life is hardly conceivable any more. With the new woman he experiences paradisiacal hours, he has never been able to let himself go like this, he has never experienced this dimension of closeness and security. He is happy and desperate, he does not want to lose his family, but also his beloved.

Everything can be explained on the present level in an understandable way: the way he describes his wife, one understands his annoyance, his weariness. When he talks enthusiastically about his sensitive lover, one would like to encourage him to dare to step out of his life situation, which he experienced as a dead end, and to start a new life. But what doubts brought him into therapy and what role do hidden transferences and countertransference play in this situation?

As a four-year-old boy, he was separated from his parents on a trip around the world for several months. He lived with relatives during that time. After their return, the parents found him as a changed child, difficult, closed and unruly. But they were never able to take these changes as a message to them, perhaps as a protest and as an indication that something was broken in him. - There was another serious story of separation in this man's life. As an adolescent, around the current age of his daughter, his mother became seriously ill and died after a long period of suffering. As mentioned, both stories were shaped by the topic of separation and, interestingly, they appeared shortly after the start of treatment. Their facts were still present, but feelings of abandonment, being lost, or fear were not associated with them. They had never found their way into a psychological process and remained, as his current life situation indicated, still a latent threat. A third separation issue related to his adolescent daughter and her need to gain more autonomy and freedom, e.g. B. to spend the night with her boyfriend and gradually break away from her parents.

“Can you imagine,” I asked him, “that the beginning of the replacement of the daughter and the separation stories mentioned are involved in directing the current marital conflict? That unfinished stories in the sense of a repetition compulsion keep pushing for a new staging in current life? Is it conceivable that the new life situation with your daughter will affect the separation stories you mentioned and you fear that you will again be pushed into a threatening situation of the abandoned? ”I dare to ask this question after the patient was caught by a half-dried, dying young plant dreamed of a plant that is exposed to a violent storm and which he, on his own initiative, brings into a connection with the child abandoned by the parents.

If the man leaves the family, his wife gets into the dreaded situation, she is then the one abandoned, devalued and betrayed. In other words: The defense against the threatened recurrence of traumatic emotions would succeed with the help of a projective transference, his wife was given the role of the abandoned child who had split off within him, she should cope with the unbearable feelings. Although she also becomes the victim of another transference, he experiences the same insoluble conflicts with her as he had with his mother, he cannot be understood by her either. He finds the pretraumatic early mother, the mother who has not yet left him, in his new lover, with whom he can experience an untroubled early security and fusion, at least for a while.

The life situation of his daughter - if we still want to linger in this speculative structure of thought - possibly acted as a trigger, it activated the threatening medical history of the mother in his unconscious and reminded of the associated inhibition to follow the path of an adolescent and from to leave home. He is now trying to make up for this missed departure by leaving his wife and wanting to throw himself into the adolescent role of a new lover.

The role reversal, which was mentioned earlier in connection with his betrayed wife, is one of the most important maneuvers of trauma defense; the re-staging of unprocessed stories, as we believe to recognize them in our example, promises new life opportunities and the overcoming of old breaks in mental development. The prerequisite for integrating the aforementioned traumatizations would be, instead of projective, traumatizing transference to one's wife, i.e. instead of unreflected repetition, rather the processing of the feared panic feelings of being abandoned and lost, which the grown-up can better endure with the help of therapeutic support than then for the child and the adolescent.

The traumatic transference within the therapeutic relationship

In the example just mentioned, the therapist learned of a transfer of trauma in the patient's environment; he was not directly affected by it. In the following and last example, which I will present in a very abbreviated form, it is about a trauma transfer that affects the therapist very directly and thus puts the treatment situation to a stress test.

A patient calls his therapist and says on the phone that he is standing on the balcony of his apartment and that the next moment he will throw himself down. He was in an unbearable state of despair and fear, from which he could only escape by jumping into the depths. It is easy to imagine what feelings and thoughts these words trigger in the therapist, what kind of countertransference he suddenly falls into, what fear, what worry, perhaps what guilt threatens to overwhelm him and how little time he has, the impending catastrophe that the patient credibly announces to prevent.

The therapist succeeds in dissuading the patient from his plan and it becomes possible to receive him in his practice a short time later. The two discuss what happened and gradually calm down after they have been able to talk about the background to the threatening situation. A telephone conversation with his former partner, who complained to him about her poor health, had given the patient the idea that he was responsible for her current life crisis, even though he had not broken up months ago. As a child he had felt responsible for his mother's depression and was now clearly experiencing the return of an old feeling of guilt, and indeed with such violence that he was overwhelmed by the above-mentioned despair and fear.

The patient was able to establish this link himself, as we had already spoken about this topic several times. The emotional shock to the therapist, however, pointed to another, more hidden meaning of the entire action dialogue - to an unconscious transference dynamic that was supposed to express the actual traumatization of the patient very directly. The boy was exposed to a permanent threat of suicide by his mother for months and years and it is difficult to understand the anxiety he came home with after school, full of fear of finding his mother dead in her or even his bed. The threat to which the therapist felt exposed by the patient's cry for help was probably based on the unconscious motive of putting him in a situation that overwhelmed the patient as a child. The therapist should experience directly or at least get an idea of ​​how the boy felt at the time. “There was no other way you could have better conveyed,” said the therapist to the patient, what it meant for you as a boy to come home every day for months with the excruciating fear that your suicidal mother was lying dead in her bed. “He thus points to the communicative function of traumatizing transference. In a projective transference (Holderegger, 2012) the patient had put his therapist - unconsciously of course - in the situation of the frightened boy and confronted him with his unbearable fears of his mother's suicide.

Only the understanding of the transference-countertransference dynamic resolved the tension between the two participants in this dramatic action dialogue and also made it understandable that the first steps towards trauma processing take place in recognizing and understanding the countertransference, since the primary survival of the traumatic shock is only through a projective transference, through a role reversal is possible.

That it can be very difficult to deal with such a type of transmission, i. H. This last example clearly shows how to cope with a traumatizing transference. It also shows the importance of dealing with countertransference, especially negative countertransference. The commitment of the therapist, the understanding of the message and the verbal handling of the traumatizing feelings are important prerequisites for the patient to free the events experienced as a child from the isolation and gradually integrate them into the flow of mental development.

The countertransference as an instrument and the importance of the structure of time

With the countertransference we have a very fine instrument that facilitates orientation in complex relationship situations. It is worthwhile to practice the recognition and awareness of the countertransference in individual or group supervision. Because if we pay attention to our countertransference feelings, it often becomes clearer to us what kind of transference we are exposed to and what role play we are at risk of being seduced into. If we feel particularly threatened in the dynamics of transference and countertransference, we can e.g. B. ask whether we are not exposed to manipulation through a projective, traumatizing transference.

Mental development takes place on a time axis. Experiences are constantly being modified by new ones; the new that is added usually expands the mental integration, the perception and the form of adaptation to the environment. Traumatic experience overwhelms the ability to integrate and is therefore warded off by dissociation, by splitting off and separating from the emotional life. This isolation has the advantage that the effect of the trauma is limited and part of the psychological development can continue to take place. If a child z. For example, if a family member is lost, dissociation of this trauma enables psychological survival. The disadvantage of this archaic form of trauma processing is that the traumatic experience cannot be changed or corrected because it is banned from the flow of time and development. Modification through new experiences is excluded, there is no development in the dissociated area of ​​the psyche. The child's interpretation of the previously mentioned death, e.g. B. the phantasy of being to blame for this death cannot be corrected by later, more mature interpretations.

These considerations make it clear why old, split-off traumas keep breaking into current life - among other things. perhaps in the sense of an urge to further develop frozen images and affects. But they also point to the timelessness of the trauma and the old, unchanged worlds of experience with which we are confronted in the trauma transmission. We can only understand these transfers if we try to restore the time structure; this also opens up the chance to make up for the missed development.


Dr. phil. Hans Holderegger is a psychoanalyst and supervisor in private practice in Zurich, lecturer at the Freud Institute in Zurich and at the Swiss Institute for Psychotraumatology (SIPT), numerous publications on the topics of trauma, trauma therapy and adolescence


Email: [email protected]


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