Countertransference the Friendly Ghost

Emotions happen. And at times, they can be uncomfortable and difficult to manage. When emotions about personal matters surface while we are wearing our so-called professional social work hats, we must decide if and when this “countertransference” can be used to help support our clients.

By becoming a direct practice social worker, I made a choice to frequently discuss difficult and/or distressing experiences with clients. Privately, I can cry or become otherwise overwhelmed by emotion when I witness or hear about something particularly sad or terrible. Containing my reaction in public (except in movies where I am that girl) is usually only a challenge when something poignantly reminds me of difficult experiences of my own. In my personal life I know that I can simply choose to leave or “step outside” when necessary, but in the room with a client, their needs come first.

I remember two generalizations my grad school professors frequently made about social work students:
1. We all spend more time caring for our friends/family than ourselves (more on that another day).
2. There was a major event, an experience, or a something in our lives that we identify as directly linked to and possibly as the impetus for our choice to enter this field.
Whether or not either of these things are true for all social workers, I have found that many at least identify with the second. Myself included.

Not long after starting my first (and current) full-time social work position, one of my clients experienced something eerily similar to the very something I identify as most connected to my decision to enter this field. The potential comparisons seemed endless. Her father’s death was equally unexpected. She was the same age and in the same grade. It happened during the same month. And for me, it wasn’t just the experience, but everything that didn’t happen afterwards that eventually propelled me towards social work. So of course I felt immediately that this was it—that this was the moment where I had to be for her what no one was for me.

Talk about countertransference. I thought: so much for taking that Grief, Loss & Bereavement class to “professionalize” my experience and be ready to help grieving clients… And so much for all my own therapy…

But the good news about countertransference is that, like Casper, it is a friendly ghost. The metaphor is far from perfect, but just like seeing a ghost, experiencing strong countertransference can make us want to turn and run. Yet professionally we know that fleeing is the wrong choice. It can cause us to lose control of how our emotions affect the therapeutic relationship and risk causing harm. So if we choose to face the ghost head on, learn about its “unfinished business,” make friends with it and let it deepen our empathy, countertransference can help to strengthen the bond instead.

There is a fine line between the concepts of use of self and self-disclosure, but taking the time to walk carefully along that line can be rewarding. My intimate understanding of losing a father at a certain point in development helped to inform and frame my conversation with this client. Maybe she sensed it, but maybe she didn’t. Ultimately, knowing what I went through would not have helped her grieving process.

So in conclusion, despite these similarities, I sadly do not think that the role of Countertransference would be played by Devon Sawa in a movie. Because that was the point. Clearly. But honestly… afterwards, when I was able to “step outside,” I did. I called the BF and cried, then met with my supervisor to process (and maybe to cry a little more). What can I say? I’m only human… And I know this friendly ghost and I will meet again…

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