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Counter-transference refers to the analyst's unconscious reactions to the transference of the patient, including the feelings projected onto the analyst by the patient.

Sigmund Freud introduced the concept at the Nuremberg congress of the International Association of Psychoanalysis in 1910: "We have become aware of the 'counter-transference', which arises in [the analyst] as a result of the patient's influence on his unconscious feelings, and we are almost inclined to insist that he shall recognize this counter-transference in himself and overcome it" (Freud, 1910d, p. 144-145).

He spoke of it again in a letter to Ludwig Binswanger dated February 20, 1913: "The problem of counter-transference . . . istechnicallyamong the most intricate in psychoanalysis. Theoretically I believe it is much easier to solve. What we give to the patient should, however, be a spontaneous affect, but measured out consciously at all times, to a greater or lesser extent according to need. In certain circumstances a great deal, but never one's own unconscious. I would look upon that as the formula. One must, therefore, always recognise one's counter-transference and overcome it, for not till then is one free oneself" (letter 86f, p.112). He made reference to it again in "Observations on Transference-Love" (1915a [1914]): "For the doctor the phenomenon [the patient's falling in love with successive analysts] signifies a valuable piece of enlightenment and a useful warning against any tendency to a counter-transference which may be present in his own mind" (p. 160).

In spite of these references, the notion of counter-transference remains ambiguous in Freud's work. What are the analyst's unconscious feelings? Can the analyst merely master the counter-transference or must he or she overcome it, which would imply a working-through? These three texts sowed the seeds of a theoretical and technical debate that developed after Freud's death.

The conceptual tools needed for a theorization and explication of the counter-transference were introduced by Melanie Klein (1946) with her discovery of projective identification. This made it possible to understand how the patient could act upon the analyst's psyche by projecting a part of his or her own psyche onto the analyst. Thus the counter-transference no longer appeared to be just the sum of the analyst's blind spots, but instead became a way of perceiving certain aspects of the patient's communicationprimitive communication in particular. Melanie Klein did not use the term counter-transference very often, thought it could be said that her entire technique is founded on the concept.

It was her student Paula Heimann who, at the 1949 International Psychoanalytical Association conference in Zurich, first made counter-transference a genuine tool for perceiving certain aspects of the patient's communication: "My thesis is that the analyst's emotional response to his patient within the analytic situation represents one of the most important tools for his work. The analyst's counter-transference is an instrument of research into the patient's unconscious" (1950, p. 81). From this point on, the concept became an object of increasing interest, most notably in relation to developing research in the fields of child analysis and the psychoses.

The definition of counter-transference remains controversial insofar as it is understood either strictly as a response to the unconscious processes that the patient's transference produces in the analyst or more globally as the part played within the framework of the treatment by the analyst's personality. In analytic work, this concept is used in two different ways: on the one hand, as a defensive position on the part of the analyst, who must take care to remain as much as possible a projective surface, a mirror, for the patient's transference, and on the other, as a position in which the personality of the analyst, most notably his or her emotions, is engaged in the transferential/counter-transferential dynamic on the basis of a more three-dimensional conception of the transference. For the analyst, then, it is a matter of working through the counter-transferential experience in order to distinguish between the patient's projections and his or her own internal objects and see the common elements that might serve to guide the interpretation.

This concept carries two potential pitfalls. On the one hand there is a possibility of psychologizing the analytic relation to the extent that it could be considered more in terms of personal interaction than in terms of a transferential repetition of unconscious scenarios (Fédida, 1986). On the other is the possibility of forgetting that while counter-transference can be a guide for understanding and the most faithful of servants, it can also be the harshest of masters (Segal, 1981).

Claudine Geissmann

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Balint group; Boundary violations; Case histories/description; Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects ; Complex (analytical psychology); Development of Psycho-Analysis ; Elasticity; Empathy; Ethnopsychoanalysis; Fourth analysis; Heimann, Paula; Initial interview(s); Interpretation; Listening; Mutual analysis; Neutrality/benevolent neutrality; Nonverbal communication; Object relations theory; Projective identification; Psychoanalyst; Psychoanalytic treatment; Racker, Heinrich; Self-analysis; Silence; Supervised analysis (control case); Therapeutic alliance; Training analysis; Training of the psychoanalyst; Transference; Transference and Counter-transference .


Fédida, Pierre. (1986Le contre-transfert en question. Psychanalyseà l 'Université, XI (41), 19-21.

Freud, Sigmund. (1910d). The future prospects of psychoanalytic therapy. SE, 11: 139-151.

. (1915a [1914]). Observations on transference-love (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis III). SE, 12: 157-171.

Freud, Sigmund, and Binswanger, Ludwig. (2003). The Sigmund Freud-Ludwig Binswanger correspondence: 1908-1938 (Arnold J. Pomerans, Trans.; Gerhard Fichtner, Ed.). New York: Other Press.

Heimann, Paula. (1950). On countertransference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31, 81-84.

Klein, Melanie. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99-110.

Segal, Hanna. (1981). Countertransference. In The work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson.

Further Reading

Gabbard, Glen O. (1995). Countertransference: the emerging common ground. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76, 475-486.

Greenberg, Jay R. (1991). Countertransference and reality. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 1, 52-73.

Jacobs, Theodore. (1999). Countertransference past and present:a review of the concept. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 80, 575-594.

Levine, Howard. (1997). The capacity for countertransference. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 17, 44-68.

Ogden, Thomas H. (1995). Aliveness and deadness of the transference and countertransference. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76, 695-710.Smith, Henry. (2000). Countertransference, conflictual listening and the analytic object. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 95-128.

Steiner, John. (1994). Patient-centered and analyst-centered interpretations: Some implications of containment and countertransference. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 14, 406-422.4