It was already
30 minutes into the session and I was feeling intensely uncomfortable.
Specifically, in my countertransference to this obviously talented
and active woman, I felt useless and ineffective as a therapist. Although
I have suffered bouts of low self-esteem in my life, I do not generally
feel this way, so the event was noteworthy. Helen, my
client, kept talking, coming up with insights and feelings, which, at
least outwardly, made the session look like real psychotherapy. I
knew however, that I had done very little except to squirm occasionally,
and say an infrequent “uh huh”, as she had undertaken the
session very much on her own.
is a transference/countertransference system?
and clients, as well as intimate partners, easily slip into relational
systems based on neurologically held historical models of the world.
These systems involve repetitive sequences of perception, feeling
and behavior that elicit predictable reactions from others. These
reactions, in turn, reinforce the underlying beliefs and models of
the world of each person. For instance, a client may have an internal
representation of relationships in which no one is there to help her.
She then acts from this by doing therapy all by herself without really
using the expertise of the therapist or depending in any way on them. The
therapist then starts feeling extraneous and gives up trying, letting
the client do it by herself. This reinforces her original belief
that the she cannot depend on anyone.
do you notice it?
therapist will begin to notice some form of personal discomfort when
systems begin to play out. This
can take many forms such as: feeling overwhelmed, bored, intimidated,
parental, admiring, useless, very interested, or attracted; feeling
like a savior or persecutor; wanting to get away from the client;
having an impulse to push or punish the client; becoming highly goal
oriented or pressured to perform; , having a sense that things are
spinning and not moving forward, or being basically stuck. Any of
these may be clues to the client’s
If you find
yourself experiencing some of this, it is time to sit back and notice
what the client is doing to evoke this in you. It is
equally important to separate out what part OF this interaction resides
in your own psychology, and notice what you are doing to contribute to
the perpetuance of the system.
What can you do about it?
intervening in systems is one of the most difficult and, if well done,
masterful aspects of psychotherapy. Often the system
that occurs in a session is a hologram of how the client limits him or
herself in outside life and provides a key to disentangling their psyche. It
also creates a substantial potential for alienating a client if not performed
skillfully, as comments in engagement with this realm can easily be interpreted
as judgmental. Here are some basic approaches to begin to
work with care in this arena:
Name the observable elements silently:
Internally notice what the client is doing to contribute to the system
as well as what you, the therapist might be doing to initiate or maintain
it. For instance, you may notice yourself getting angry. Then
you notice a pattern: the client seems to agree to pursue a certain
topic, but when you start they either slow things down or gradually
find a way to change the direction.
a way of communicating this to client: Lets
assume, for this example, that your client tends to be self reliant,
has difficulty stating their needs and approaches therapy consistently
with this characterological trait. (How a client does therapy is
an important key to understanding their character and underlying issues.)
Four possible ways to name it:
Operationally: “You seem to be doing this
all by yourself.”
Generously: “You have a lot of skill in
staying focused on a topic and having insights without my having to
do very much.”
are like a lone wolf here, strong and self reliant, but still separate”
Relationally: “You aren’t
taking much from me here and I am left feeling kind of like a fifth
it together: Naming it is not enough. Find a way to explore
with the client the underlying models of the world and relationship (in
this case, perhaps, “No one is ever here for me”). This
can be done in more or less cognitive formats depending on your theoretical
orientation. In Hakomi Experiential Psychology we work directly with
the live, present moment experience, first having the client study
in mindfulness the somatic and emotional nuances how they construct
their interpretation of the relationship, and then experimenting with
new options in an experiential way.
example, the therapist might say, “So, you seem to be
doing this all by yourself, like a lone wolf. Maybe you can keep
working this way, but also study it from the inside. You even sit forward
without letting yourself rest against the back of the couch. Really
let yourself do that and notice what memories, images, sensations,
feelings etc. seem to go along with that”. This would immerse
him in his current experience so that he can become conscious of the
underlying emotionally laden beliefs that govern his current behavior.
Information comes from his current experience rather than from conjecture
about his psyche. Later the therapist might say, “Maybe
we can try something different. How about I’ll take the
lead and you can notice what you like and what you don’t like
about it, how it may feel nourishing, and how some part of you may
Summary: While it is presumptuous to simplify this complex and
subtle aspect of therapy into a few short paragraphs, exploring systems
between client and therapist can be a key to successful psychotherapy. Recognizing
the presence of a system in psychotherapy, naming it and finding a skillful
way to explore it with the client can help release them from the dominance
of early wounds, beliefs and blueprints of reality that limit both their
therapy progress and everyday worlds.