When we tell someone at a party that we are a psychotherapist, they inevitable ask “Don’t you get bored hearing about everyone’s problems”? Or “Doesn’t it get irritating listen to people complain about their problems all day”? Most therapists would agree that our work is hardly irritating or boring. It is more typically engaging, riveting, compelling, enlivening, interesting, and satiating. It can certainly also be exhausting, depleting, frustrating, distressing, and humbling. And yes, sometimes it is irritating or boring. But not because we are tired of hearing peoples distress. It is much more meaningful and complicated than that.
When our client is able to illicit boredom or irritation in us, we may instinctively turn to some self-flagellation. We might reprimand our impatience. We might speculate that that we are off our game or that they are triggering us in some simplistic counter-transferencial way, like they remind of someone we never liked. These responses assume that a problem lies within us, and our goal should be to lose our boredom or irritation.
Early in the days of analytic thinking, counter-transference was a reference to a clinician transferring experiences from their relationships onto the client. Basically it was considered the same concept as transference, only reversing the players. Contemporary analytic theorists refer to this as just transference, simply referencing the reversal of players. The term “counter-transference”, is reserved for and much more complex process.
In this contemporary view, feelings stirred up in the clinician are explored by the clinician with an understanding that clients are able to illicit feelings in their therapist as a means of communication (through projective identification*). In this theoretical view, while a client with their conscious mind is exploring their presenting content with us, their unconscious is reaching out to our unconscious, to communicate about the core relational dynamics that make up their internal world.
As children, we develop our knowledge of interaction from the way primary individuals in our lives interact with us and with each other. The rhythm and style of these interactions is like the air we breathe. We do not know we are interacting in a particular way, and that other options exist. It is the way some children in abused households don’t know something wrong is happening, because how are they to know abuse doesn’t know happen in every household?
In adulthood we offer up to everyone that we encounter our conscious and unconscious understanding of the rhythm and style of human interaction as we understanding it. We are drawn to people who offer complimentary or concordant responses, and them to us. This is why we often find ourselves so perfectly/horribly matched with someone who behaves/engages us in the exact way that makes us insane.
In therapy our clients offer up their style of interaction, in that condensed way that makes the 50-minute psychotherapy hour so rich. They invite us, as they do everyone, to play the complementary or concordant role. And this is what we get paid the big bucks for; instead of dismissing the interaction because it isn’t the rhythm or style of our internal understanding of relational dynamics, or simply falling in to the complimentary or concordant role because it is our style of interaction, we analyze the invitation.
Working with Counter-Transference
If the same client is boring or irritating us week after week, that is what we need to pay attention to. We need to focus on how they are boring or irritating us. We need to taste the quality of our irritation and boredom. We need to note if it is topic specific, or if it lands in a particular part of the session. We need to notice what they were talking about before and after it. We need to listen to our associations related to the feelings they are eliciting in us.
A client who bores or irritates us on a regular basis is enacting one of the roles in a two -person dynamic they were intimately familiar with. They may be playing the role they played as a child, or perhaps the role of the person they interacted with. They are offering us the complimentary role to help them understand their distress. They, or their interaction partner, felt the same feelings that are being stirred up in us, with the same nuances we are feeling. Our client is offering us a diagram of their internal object relations; giving us half of their relational story for the tasting.
Our client is trapped in a tragic, repetitive, enactment of a relevant dynamic in their family of origin. They likely bore or irritate many folks in their lives. They might even know this, but not understand why. Learning how to explore our counter-transferencial experiences, without acting on them, is one of our greatest tools as clinicians. Not only in the case of boredom or irritation, but though-out all our sessions with all our clients. Scanning our thoughts, feelings, associations, and body sensations during a session, is a key method for identifying our clients’ unconscious communication with us; not just about relational dynamics, but also for split off, disowned and dissociated elements in their narrative.
Certainly as clinicians we need to do our due diligence of making sure we enter sessions as clear and clean of our own internal distractions. And certainly there are times when a client triggers us in a transferencial way related to similarities between them and ourselves, or people in our lives. But there is a much more complex process that can over-take us in a session, and it demands our attention, both for the risk of enactment it poses, and the rich opportunity it offers. So, stop with the self-doubt therapists, and start mining those unpleasant feelings for information!
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.