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Feelings in Context: Countertransference

and the Real World in Feminist Therapy


Ä

Laura S. Brown

The concept of countertransference has been seen as problematic by


feminist therapists. However, feminist therapy theory is intensely inter-
ested in the symbolic levels of the relationships between therapists and
clients, with an emphasis on how the here and now social context informs
and transforms those symbols. This article describes a feminist perspec-
tive on the therapist’s symbolic relationships to clients, and the positive
and challenging ramifications of those symbolic encounters. © 2001 John
Wiley & Sons, Inc. J Clin Psychol/In Session 57: 1005–1012, 2001.

Keywords: feminist therapy; countertransference; therapeutic relationship;


social context; symbolic relationship

When John Norcross approached me to write this article, I had to stop and think for a
moment. How could a feminist therapist say anything about countertransference? After
all, transference and countertransference are phenomena that feminist therapy theorists,
including this author, have argued belong in the same category as unicorns and griffons
(Brown, 1984, 1994). The concept of countertransference, in other words, is construed as
a mythical animal, much ballyhooed and written about by mainstream therapy theorists,
but suspect in the minds of feminist practitioners. The concept embodies the notion that
the symbolic, nonconscious level of interaction between therapist and client can be more
real than what is observed in the actual human interaction. Feminist therapists and theo-
rists have been focused on the external world, with its representations of gender, race,
class, and interpersonal power (Brabeck & Brown, 1997; Brown, 1994).
Yet, something is observably happening in the symbolic, emotional, and other-than-
conscious realms of feminist practice. Even the most behaviorally oriented of feminist
practitioners would be able to recite chapter and verse on the importance of context and
history in the creation of the relationship in feminist therapy. In fact, that relationship

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be sent to: Dr. Laura S. Brown, 4527 First Avenue NE, Seattle
WA 98105-4801; e-mail: lsbrownphd@cs.com.

JCLP/In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice, Vol. 57(8), 1005–1012 (2001)


© 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
1006 JCLP/In Session, August 2001

between therapist and client is deemed core to what occurs in feminist therapy (Brown,
1994). Feminist practitioners attend to what they and their clients represent to one another
within the social constructions of reality informing all parties to the transaction. That
context and history create a semiotics of therapy that easily could be included under the
general concept of countertransference. As I have noted elsewhere (Brown, 1994), each
of us brings our personal and cultural histories to the table in feminist practice; those
personal and cultural histories become a part of the shared narrative. The present-day
social and political context, in addition, operates to give current meaning to those histo-
ries and to their interplay in the therapeutic interaction.
So, assuming for the moment that feminist therapists do indeed engage with some-
thing that other therapists would identify as countertransference, this article will offer a
discussion of the ways in which feminist practice defines its version of this mythical
beast and how we see its use to be valuable. Because feminist practice has built into it
certain kinds of assumptions, there also are fairly predictable places where countertrans-
ference, or as feminist practitioners prefer to call it, the symbolic relationship of the
therapist to the client, can lead to difficulties and entanglements in treatment.
This article responds to the three questions posed by the editor. First, what is coun-
tertransference? Second, what are some helpful uses of it, from the experience and per-
spective of the author and her feminist practice colleagues? And third, how can this
symbolic relationship be misused? And, being Jewish, I will add a fourth question: Why
are therapists so terrified of this mythical beast and its appearance in their lives and
work? In my travails as a clinical supervisor and case consultant, I have been struck
repeatedly by the shame, fear, and overall misery that colleagues experience when any
feeling other than a benignly bland one arises in response to the human(s) sitting in the
client chair although feelings of anger, disgust, fear, arousal, and even hatred have been
well documented to occur regularly in the hearts of therapists (Pope & Tabachnick, 1993).

Unpacking Countertransference

I begin with the first question: What is countertransference? I start my answer by choos-
ing not to use the term “countertransference” itself. I do so because to use it requires one
to enter a conceptual universe whose boundaries are created by psychodynamic theories
(Brown, 1994). While feminist practice values some of the insights of psychoanalysis
and its offshoots, it is important to feminist theorists to move outside of that conceptual
universe when and wherever possible. The term used by feminist practitioners, and uti-
lized here, is the “symbolic relationship.” The symbolic relationship for therapists con-
sists of the way in which the therapists’ own feelings, responses, and reactions to a client
as well as the manner in which they relate to and with that client are informed by context
and personal life experiences in a continuous, interactive loop between internal and exter-
nal realities. That context includes the meanings of the personal and cultural heritage and
history of therapist and client(s) alike as well as the manner in which each person repre-
sents certain social constructs to the other. Finally, the context that leads to the symbolic
relationship includes events occurring in the here and now.
There’s a pithy quotation from a late nineteenth century African American suffragist,
Anna Julia Cooper, that perfectly sums up this phenomenon: “When and where I enter,
then and there the whole race enters with me.” That is, each of represents, symbolically,
every one of our social markers to those with whom we interact. For feminist practition-
ers, their symbolic relationships and responses are about the meaning of the social mark-
ers that the client brings to the table of therapy, and with which the therapy is seasoned.
Countertransference and the Real World in Feminist Therapy 1007

Let me illustrate. A client comes to see me who is a Jew and an incest survivor. As a
Jew myself, I have to address the way in which my construction of my Jewish identity
and group membership have included the notion that Jews do not do things like sexually
abuse their children. So my response to what she symbolically represents, which is a
challenge to my own socially constructed identity, may lead me to various emotional
responses to and behaviors with her. I might downplay or minimize what she is telling me
about the incest. I might “forget” things that she tells me in session when I normally have
a auditory memory that can play back, word for word, things said years previously. Or, in
an attempt to make a conscious override of my identity issues, I might be unthinkingly
credulous even if her reports of what occurred strain credibility.
In fact, the very first time that I encountered a Jewish survivor of incest, extremely
early in my career, all of this happened. As I watched myself struggle to simply be open
to and remember her narrative, as I had been to the stories of countless incest survivors
before her, I was given the opportunity to examine my identity and to become a genuine
ally to her. Our parallel process of remembering and forgetting was a powerful compo-
nent of the development of empathy, as a part of her own relationship to the incest had
been to “forget” it herself on the grounds stated by her as memories intruded on her
consciousness, that Jewish fathers didn’t do that. When she lost compassion for her own
process of remembering and forgetting, my experience with forgetting provided me with
a useful handle into her own far greater need to unknow the facts of this particular Jewish
father’s incestuous attacks.
Another example highlights the way in which the changing social context changes
symbolic representation. When the first Rodney King verdict came down, and residents
of Los Angeles exploded in insurrection, I was the therapist of an African American
woman. We had already spent considerable time negotiating the historical and individual
variables that our differences brought to the therapy room, including the highly salient
question of what had informed her choice to work with a White therapist, and had a
productive working relationship that seemed high in trust on both sides. But then Los
Angeles happened, and suddenly our racial difference was punctuated in a new way by
the events occurring in the real world. This was different than what had come before. It
was not about her or my prior experiences of encounter of the other at the edge of the
difficult American conversation on race. It was a fresh, in-the-present attribution of racial-
ized meaning. Trust became a factor anew. What came up for me, for example, was an
increased need to demonstrate myself to be her ally, without attempting to silence her
feelings of renewed distrust of White people, and to be able to sit with her feelings and
words without feeling overly personally confronted about my “whiteness.” It was a highly
challenging part of our work. For a time, I had to tolerate holding the symbolic represen-
tation of the oppressor, and not retaliate by imputing to her “blackness” the sort of crim-
inality that the larger culture was enlacing into the racial narrative.
What, then, is this mythical critter? It is our constructions of ourselves and the other,
encountered at the emotional, nonverbal, symbolic level, as enacted in the present, human
encounter.

Helpful Elements of the Symbolic Relationship

Now on to the second question: What are some helpful uses of symbolic relationship?
The symbolic representation on the part of the therapist is central to how feminist prac-
tice happens—this is an easy question to respond to. Let me share a few examples of
positive impact that have stood out for me.
1008 JCLP/In Session, August 2001

One of them has to do with the emotional response that I as a therapist have to the
people I work with. My general emotional set with people is one of compassion, accep-
tance, and passionate interest and engagement. I expect to like, care about, and be fasci-
nated by my clients—an interesting set of assumptions to hold about the strangers who
walk into my office.
When I feel otherwise, I have several hypotheses to investigate, all of which can be
helpful to the therapy. First, it is possible that my response has to do with what the client
symbolically represents to me, personally and individually. My own deep programming
is being tweaked, pure and simple. Second, it is possible that my personal individual
response also is a reasonable, common human response to something that the client says
or does. Third, there may be something unique occurring in the interaction, mediated not
only by the individuals in question but also by specific contextual issues, that is leading
to my other-than-usual response set. Any or all of these hypotheses, when investigated,
will be a useful component of what happens in the therapy.
So, let me tell you about a client I will call Elaine, who came to see me because she
was dealing with issues of intimacy. She is a White, upper-middle class woman about my
age and educational level from a background extremely similar to mine except that she
was raised in a mainstream liberal Protestant faith. She is a very conventionally attrac-
tive, bright, engaging person who is talented, kind, and well liked by her peers. Intimacy,
however, is a painful territory for her. She has had a history of painful relationships with
men in which she eventually would be emotionally abused and exploited, usually by the
man having a series of affairs. She came to see me because, in her mid-thirties, she was
in despair about ever having an intimate relationship that would work for her and feel like
a safe enough place to have and raise children.
I expected to really like her, to work hard with her, and to be very engaged with her.
I was going to be doing therapy with someone like me: Wouldn’t that be fun? Not so. I
found myself becoming more and more bored, finding what she said dull, lifeless, and
uninteresting. I would sit through sessions resisting the urge to plan my grocery list or my
lunch or anything except pay attention to what Elaine was saying.
So I checked out my hypotheses. There was not much that she represented for me
personally, as it happened, that was problematic for me. In fact, she felt incredibly famil-
iar, like someone from my girl scout troop grown up. When I was not being put to sleep
in sessions, I would occasionally muse that she was one of the rare people I meet in my
work who I would have genuinely liked as a friend, not simply an acquaintance. I explored
with myself the question of whether that familiarity was distracting me, and came to the
conclusion that that was not the problem. I also consulted with a colleague about the
“what if” fantasy—was I disconnecting emotionally from Elaine because I was resentful
that I could not have her as a friend? That avenue, too, appeared to be fruitless as far as
my ability to stay alert in therapy went. So, I went back in my mind’s ear over what I had
been hearing her say about her relationships with people—how she was the caretaker and
how people valued her for her wonderful skills at giving, but how she frequently felt
invisible, especially in terms of her own needs and feelings.
This felt like something worth exploring in terms of the second hypothesis: that I
was responding to Elaine the way that others did, that something she was doing interper-
sonally was directing people to not pay attention to her, and that this something was
occurring far out of her awareness.
This hypothesis linked to the question of whether the context was contributing to my
responses. Elaine had had a series of nonproductive therapy experiences. She had chosen
me in part because of my reputation as a very smart person who saw through the kind of
defenses that certain people (and if no one reading this recognizes ourselves at this
Countertransference and the Real World in Feminist Therapy 1009

moment, then we are in trouble!) bring to therapy with them. She had managed to get a
long list of therapists to gloss over the degree of her emotional injuries. Several had
indeed tried to truncate therapy and initiate a friendship, which she had guiltily complied
with on at least one occasion. I wondered, as I explored this hypothesis, whether what I
was feeling was not simply the trance that Elaine put people into, but in addition, the
particular version of the trance for therapists. After all, as much as any of us consciously
want to change, we also fear change, and are terrified of approaching and touching the
pain of parental betrayal that lay at the heart of Elaine’s intimacy difficulties.
Having explored these hypotheses, and knowing that Elaine had the ego strength to
hear me repeat these explorations out loud, I shared my hypotheses in a session. I told her
that, uncharacteristically for me, I was struggling with boredom and lack of engagement
and interest, that I had paid pretty careful attention to these feelings, and that I knew that
I was essentially not bored with her, and that I could feel genuine caring and commit-
ment. And that here were my two hypotheses, which I proceeded to lay out.
Elaine was somewhat shocked by my frankness. She became tearful and told me that
she was, indeed, terrified of getting close enough to her original issues to really affect
change. And that she did not know what it was that she did to get people to emotionally
ignore her, but that it was a reality of her life that her most intimate people did, in fact,
respond to her in that way. And that she was very frightened that I had perhaps seen
through her. I told her that she had the choice to be seen or not, but that she did not have
to bore me or distract me. She could figure out with me some ways to be more conscious
and in charge of the degree of her emotional visibility or invisibility. That exchange was
a real turning point in the therapy because it allowed me to realize that I was actually
seeing her very well, and that my boredom and disinterest were in response to precisely
what she allowed people to see of her.

Nonhelpful Elements of the Symbolic Relationship

That’s the pretty story. Now for the not-pretty one. This concerns a woman I’ll call
Frieda. She is in her mid-twenties, a working-class woman from the East Coast. Adopted
at birth into a family where she was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused, she
was thrown out onto the streets in mid-adolescence. She kept herself alive by hustling and
prostitution. When she came to see me about five years ago, she sneaked into my closed
practice by telling me that she was just in town temporarily and needed someone to work
with while she was doing the thing that brought her into town, which was going to trigger
pain for her. I learned later how much like her this was; she knew what she wanted and
got it no matter how, although rarely through the most direct route. She expected to be
refused, so she simply side-stepped the possibility of being told no.
Frieda is a very angry woman. She also is bright, charming, engaging, and funny, and
works extraordinarily hard in therapy. A theme quite early was that people in the north-
west were unable to deal with her because of her class and ethnic background. She would
form relationships, which were vitally important to her, and then people would distance,
back away, and tell her that they couldn’t deal with her anger, which made her even
angrier. She attributed their actions to differences of class and ethnicity.
Now, while she and I did not share a class background, we are definitely of the same
ethnicity. And I knew something of what she was talking about. The polite way people
refer to me in Seattle is “energetic and edgy,” or, “you’re from New York, aren’t you?”
Which means I’m a loud pushy Jewish broad (from Cleveland), at least by the standards
of the terminally nice Northern European ancestry White folks of Seattle.
1010 JCLP/In Session, August 2001

But Frieda was, frankly, hard on me. When angry or frustrated, she yelled, more and
louder than even yell-friendly me was comfortable with. Her manner of being angry felt
scary to me. I urged myself to have compassion, to remember the mean streets where she
had been forced at an early age to develop her persona as a dangerous person who no one
would mess with. That defense on my part faded after a few months. I noticed myself
beginning to dread our sessions and getting distant and shut down as time went on. Ever
sensitive to emotional withdrawal, she began to be more angry, leading to a negative
cycle of her anger and my retreat behind the walls of my role. This was not getting the
therapy anywhere.
Back to ye olde hypotheses. I particularly explored the issue of class. Was I being a
classist person who simply didn’t appreciate the affect-expression style of a poverty-class
individual? This was a meaningful possibility; many middle-class people learn to be
extremely polite and indirect in anger expression, even conflict avoidant. Except, as I
noted, many of the people who were giving her feedback about the unacceptability of her
style were themselves poverty and working-class folks. I wasn’t the only one who had
had enough of how she got angry; I was simply the only one with a mandate to stay and
think about it! I considered that it was likely classist of me to go with the hypothesis that
being poverty or working class meant that a person would be a lout where anger was
concerned. But Frieda was certain that classism was the root of what was happening in
therapy. The other folks weren’t ethnic, I was upper-middle class, she was fine, Q.E.D.
So, I gingerly proposed to her that she look at something, which was that people who
were poverty and working class had a hard time with her, and that people of her ethnicity
(not simply yours truly) had the same hard time. And that even if her behavior was based
in class and ethnicity, it wasn’t working. It was getting her the opposite of what she
wanted, and then I was getting to deal with her around the fallout. In other words, the
“any reasonable person would respond like this” hypothesis.
She yelled, she stormed, she did the behavior. I got angry, and told her so, which
violated her expectations of what a nice, upper middle class woman would do, itself a
helpful intervention because it unpacked her rigid rules about how class mediated behav-
ior. I pointed out to her that she was doing an excellent job teaching me to avoid her, to
not give her direct or honest feedback, and to experience her as aversive. She got furious
some more. We struggled with this for weeks. She would come in ready to bite off my
head. I would continue to assert that how I felt in response to being bitten made sense.
Unlike her social network, though, I hung in through the process. I allowed my feelings
of discomfort and unsafety to lead me in my therapeutic choices with her. I disengaged
from the issue of class and focused on the issue of an unproductive behavior that was
hurting her life.
Ultimately, it is unclear what came out of that intervention. Frieda has become slightly
more willing to consider that her own behaviors fall outside of the realm of acceptable, no
matter where one comes from. We continue to struggle with the question of how she can
express her considerable anger at the truly bad things that fall regularly on her head
(because when you’re poor, Murphy’s law applies) without jeopardizing the connections
and relationships that she so needs and values. Life gives her an enormous amount about
which to be angry, which I framed as lots of opportunities to do anger differently. She has
become more competent at effective expressions of affect, but it is an uneasy truce. There
continue to be times when she defaults to her old style, and I find myself moving back to
a safe emotional distance. Even an appropriate use of the symbolic relationship for the
therapist will not necessarily be effective in making therapy work.
Which leads to the clearly unhelpful or even destructive uses of the symbolic. In
feminist therapy, a core guiding concept is that of the egalitarian therapy relationship.
Countertransference and the Real World in Feminist Therapy 1011

The idea of egalitarianism is the creation of a relationship that values the expertise and
competence of both parties, and in which unnecessary power hierarchies are done away
with. This image of a collaborative, competence-based treatment is a primary value for
feminist practice (Brabeck & Brown, 1997; Brown, 1994). Problems in the symbolic
relationship have classically arisen for feminist therapists when we mistake egalitarian
for “equal.” In those instances, we forget that the client is, in fact, in the client posi-
tion, that she or he is, in the artificial universe of the therapy relationship, in a less
powerful position. In such instances, the therapist can mistake the client for a friend or a
potential lover.
My own struggles with this version of the problem have come with those clients
about whom I think, “I wish I had met you outside of therapy.” These are people who
could be my friends, I think, if only I had not been their therapist. In one such instance,
with a woman I’ll call Joyce, I responded to those emotions by becoming extremely
distant and formal with her as a somewhat conscious strategy to insure that nothing
resembling a friendly interaction would happen in the course of the therapy. I became the
boundaries queen, keeping every single rule of therapist disengagement that I could think
of. I usually self-disclose; I shut that down. I normally respond straightforwardly to client
questions about my inner state; I became the master of deflected “and what do you think
I’m feeling?”
Of course, since I was quite right that Joyce would have made a lovely friend for me
if I’d met her under different circumstances, she was intuitive and emotionally attuned,
and knew that there was something very wrong. She expressed her genuine affection and
concern for me, which I responded to by becoming even more formal and distant. This, in
turn, wounded her in some very core places, where she had been punished and rejected
for her ability to see just how few clothes the emperors in her family were wearing. The
process went on for nearly a year, during which therapy became less and less productive
for her. The boundaries were impeccable, but that’s about all.
She finally became angry enough with me to let me know clearly what she was
experiencing. And I was finally able to see how my attempts to avoid my grief and
feelings of loss about never being able to have this woman as my friend, as well as my
fears of losing control and pursuing a friendship if I allowed myself to experience the
warmth and care I had for her, were translating into distance, indifference, and lack of
engagement. Having been able to get more honest with myself about what was going on,
I began the slow and difficult process of mending the relationship, which included my
acknowledging that she was special to me in this way even though I knew that a friend-
ship would never occur.
Joyce finished therapy with me in the spring of 2000, just before I began a nine-
month sabbatical from clinical practice. As we were ending, we were doing the sort of
therapy review that accompanies a good termination. We spent a lot of time on how my
process had been hard for her, but also learned that it had required her to grow some
emotional muscles that she had been avoiding for a long, long time simply because the
pain of doing so had been too great. The risk, of course, would have been that my unhelp-
ful use of my emotional responses would have killed the therapy forever. Because she is
a rare human being, we were able to reconstitute it and make ultimate use of my error.

Our Feelings for Our Clients—Not So Dangerous?


And now, the fourth question: Why are therapists so afraid of our feelings toward our
clients? Ken Pope, writing with Barbara Tabachnick, in one of his many wonderful stud-
ies of the client–therapist relationship, documented the degree to which therapists come
1012 JCLP/In Session, August 2001

to fear, hate, love, feel disgust—in other words, have completely human responses to the
completely human beings with whom we work (Pope & Tabachnick, 1993). Yet, even in
the face of the empirical data proclaiming the normalcy of our responses, many therapists
shame themselves for being other-than-human.
I have a hypothesis about this, and I will leave you with it as I end. My hypothesis is
this. It’s not just that Freud set a bad example when he wrote disparagingly about coun-
tertransference. It’s that the appearance of strong emotion on our parts makes it unavoid-
able that therapy is, in fact, about the heart. It’s a work of emotion. No matter how many
manuals we may use or how cognitive we may attempt to be in our interventions, therapy
is about the heart, about relationships, about the unguardedness of inner life. And such
phenomena are illegitimate in Western cultures, especially as components of the work-
place. Even though it becomes increasingly clear that without emotion, there is simply no
consciousness, no self to participate in the therapeutic exchange (Damasio, 1999), emo-
tion is still a stepchild in a world where emotional neutrality and objectivity are supposed
to reign. We fool ourselves, and then feel shame when our self-deceptions are revealed as
failures. Therapists already have to constantly struggle with the imposter feelings related
to our work (Gibbs, 1984), made worse by managed care’s demands for measurable
concrete outcomes, and by the false dichotomies in our own field between science and art
in clinical practice. The symbolic relationship, countertransference—call it what you
will—comes from our hearts and not our heads.

Concluding Remarks
So in order to make countertransference, the mythical beast, less mythical and less of a
dangerous dragon, I think we need to continue to find ways to legitimate affect, even
more, to prize affect as an important component in therapy, and to privilege intuition and
nonconscious knowing as highly valuable sources of information for the therapist. We
must acknowledge that our feelings about our clients are that powerful data source, rather
than evidence of our failure to maintain some kind of even more mythical objective
distance. This, of course, is an ultimate feminist perspective; that mind and body and
spirit must be addressed together in order to make therapy effective.

Select References/Recommended Readings


Brabeck, M., & Brown, L.S. (1997). Feminist theory and psychological practice. In J. Worell & N.
Johnson (Eds.), Shaping the future of feminist psychology: Education, research and practice
(pp. 15–36). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Brown, L.S. (1984). Finding new language: Beyond analytic verbal shorthand in feminist therapy.
Women and Therapy, 3, 73–80.
Brown, L.S. (1994). Subversive dialogues: Theory in feminist therapy. New York: Basic Books.
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of conscious-
ness. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Gibbs, M.S. (1984). The therapist as imposter. In C.M. Brody (Ed.), Women therapists working
with women: New theory and process in feminist therapy (pp. 22–36). New York: Springer.
Pope, K.S., & Tabachnick, B.G. (1993). Therapists’ anger, hate, fear, and sexual feelings: National
survey of therapist responses, client characteristics, critical events, formal complaints, and
training. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 24, 142–152.