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Transference and Countertransference in Counseling Sex-Crime Victims and Offenders: A Personal Reflection and Plan for Professional Development

A significant challenge during the most recent years of my career has been my transference and countertranference issues, particularly whilst counseling sex-crime victims and offenders. The most current manifestation of this challenge is my apparent inability to advocate for the rights and well-being of offenders, and I have subsequently relinquished this part of my practice entirely. The following reflection explores and synthesizes the most current literature on the relevant topics of transference, countertransference, gender identity issues, counseling sex crime victims and offenders, and the most salient ways in which a professional can overcome obstacles similar to my own.

Mar 14, 2019   /   Visits: 9,212

Defining the Challenge

My professional past has been defined by working primarily with a multigenerational, male population within the context of the criminal justice system. I have defended men who have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement and other civil agencies due to perceived sexual orientation, and I have worked closely with homosexual men who have been charged with wide-ranging offenses. Whilst seeking my Post Graduate Diploma in counseling, I made a proactive attempt to work more closely with a younger population, specifically.

Sex Crime Research
Though I still work with a predominantly male population, my attempt at working both with youth offenders and youth victims has been a thus-far insurmountable challenge. I find that I identify closely with the victims and am consequently unable to remain unbiased and retain a professional distance when counselling offenders. Because I recognized my transference issues as less than ethically sound, I have recently stopped counselling sex offenders. Though I now only work with victims of sex crimes, I feel that I have been impeded by my inability to advocate for the rights and well being of sex offenders. In short, I believe that my issues with counseling offenders present a significant obstacle to counseling victims, as well, as they are indicative of underlying transference and countertransference influences. I have been unable to balance the rights of victims of offenders, and I feel that I have been both professionally and personally defeated by this challenge.

Personal and professional development is a process of ongoing reflection and integration. Authors Cross and Papadopoulos contend in their text entitled Becoming a Counselor that this development "requires openness to experience, a commitment to experiment, an engagement with the world and a critical reflection on experience.... Personal development is of critical importance for counselors and therapists as they participate in the process of helping" (2001, p. 1). The invaluable self-knowledge that arises from reflection eradicates personal blindspots and cultivates a sort of self-trust that births confidence in professional practice (Cross and Papadopoulos, 2001). The helping relationship between counselor and client can be impeded by a lack of consistent reflection and professional development, and consulting relevant literature is a salient way in which to renew and remold professional theories and insights.

Review of Relevant Literature

Both transference and countertransference can manifest in a range of relationships, including therapeutic, personal, and professional (Jones, 2004). Regardless of the specific relationship context, however, the concepts of transference and countertransference are at once complex and enigmatic, with analysts such as Carl Jung advocating for the benefits of countertransference and others rallying against the phenomenon (Jones, 2004; Sedgwick, 1994). The following review of literature explores transference and countertransference in counselling relationships, affording particular attention to related theories and empirical studies of countertransference in counselling male sex-crime victims and offenders.

Transference and Countertransference in Counselling Relationships

In essence, transference is the unconscious transferring of experiences or perceptions from one, interpersonal situation to another (Jones, 2004). Emotions, opinions, and other thoughts are projected onto another being during transference. Within the therapeutic context, transference generally refers to the client's projection of these issues onto the therapist; this can positively affect the relationship by alerting the counselor to unresolved issues and, in turn, aid the therapeutic process (Jones, 2004).

Countertransference, conversely, is generally viewed negatively in professional discourse (Jones, 2004; Winick, 2003). Countertransference can occur when the therapist responds to a client's transference issues with those of his or her won, and consistent, professional mentoring and feedback is traditionally viewed as the most effective way in which to successfully remedy pervasive countertransference in the client-counselor relationship. Both countertransference and transference are integral to understanding the catalysts behind human behaviors, and, for the counselor, can be a vehicle for learning and development.

Alternatively, transference is a form of mental defense. For victims of abuse, in particular, transference is a means of coping with unresolved traumas. In her article simply entitled "Transference and Countertransference," Jones cites that "instead of remembering, the person transfer attitudes and conflicts are enacted in current relationships, sometimes with unfortunate results. Manifestations are likely to occur in all human encounters; feelings toward the significant other often begin to emerge early on in relationships" (2004, p. 13). Because transference holds the ability to significantly distort communications in the client-counselor relationship, it can be an impediment to healing as often as it is an aid (Jones, 2004).

For instance, if a client has significant, underlying memories of a positive, therapeutic relationship, than his/her transference of that experience onto the client-counselor relationship could result in enhanced trust, honesty, and compassion. Conversely, however, if a client has underlying memories of a negative relationship which s/he transfers to the therapeutic context, the transference could manifest as hostility and distrust. Generally invoked by specific characteristics such as speech rhythms or facial features, transference counters an authentic interpretation of the client-counselor relationship (Jones, 2004); the intensity of feelings is skewed.

Countertransference complicates communications in the same way that transference impedes authentic, interpersonal exchanges. Invoked by the patient's expression of transference, countertransference results in a counselor's lack of objectivity. Because countertransference is significantly informed by a counselor's ability to empathize with his or her clients, emotional intelligence on the part of counselor is a predictor of countertransference. In an empirical, longitudinal study of the relationship between counselors' self-efficacy and emotional intelligence, authors Easton, Martin, and Wilson concluded that there was a strong link between the self-efficacy of novice counselors and their emotional intelligence (2008). While there is a dearth of literature linking countertransference to emotional intelligence, the connection is undoubtedly present and may hold the ability to frame countertransference in a more positive light.

Theoretical Framework: Countertransference from a Jungian Perspective

Carl Jung's perspective on countertransference was birthed largely in reaction to Sigmund Freud's negative, rigid perception of the phenomenon (Sedgwick, 1994). Jung was the first analyst to strategically employ countertransference as a beneficial, therapeutic technique (Sedgwick, 1994). Relinquishing the notion that countertransference was an unfailingly negative aspect of the client-counselor relationship, Jung contended that the exchange between client and counselor was an archetypal, mutually transformative process (Sedgwick, 1994). In the text entitled The Wounded Healer, Sedgwick cites that "Jung elucidated this complex analytic interaction via ideas and examples from chemistry, anthropology, alchemy, medicine (infection, contagion), mythological and shamanistic healing (the "wounded physician"), and eastern religion (Taoism-the "rainmaker")" (1994, p. 10). Jung posited that a training analysis in which the counselor would routinely be analysed him/herself was essential to fostering the positive aspects of countertransference. The goal of such an analysis would be to identify any potential channels for diverting treatment as, in Jung's words, the therapist was "just as responsible for the cleanness of his hands as the surgeon" (qtd. in Sedgwick, 1994, p. 10). However, the complementary phenomena of transference and countertransference hold the ability to cultivate a more empathetic relationship between client and counselor in the absence of the negative implications of the phenomena.

While Jung perceives countertransference, in particular, as markedly delicate, he also viewed the reciprocal influence of patient and therapist to be an integral aspect of the therapy process. In line with more recent literature, Jung viewed countertransference as a symptom of transference (Jones, 2004; Sedgwick, 1994). Jung posited, however, that the counselor's personality is the "main factor" in determining whether the countertransference will manifest positively or negatively (qtd. in Sedgwick, 1994). By extension, training analysis was an essential safeguard against the negative manifestations of countertransference (Sedgwick, 1994) Critics of the Jungian perspective on countertransference as holding positive capabilities contend that the nature of countertransference precludes its utility (Marchon, 2006). In short, because countertransference is unconscious, the purposeful use of the phenomenon is not possible. Even the critics, however, contend that countertransference is indicative of an emotional link between client and counselor and this link can foster a higher level of tolerance in the therapeutic relationship.

Both the value and the danger of countertranference is linked to the role played by a therapist's intuition in engaging with the client (Marchon, 2006). In his article entitled "Beyond Transference," Marchon contends that "intuition possesses a persuasive power which is lacking in the intellect; when it is present it is almost impossible to doubt of its truth. But when we subject it to examination it shows itself to be just as fallible as the intellect and its greater subjective certainty is transformed into a demerit, indicating it as only more irresistible in its capacity to deceive" (2006, p. 63). However, intuition can be a positive influence on the client-counselor relationship as well, as it is birthed, in part, at the juncture between personal and professional experience. Consistent, external feedback is crucial in ensuring that the role played by both intuition and countertransference is a positive one (Fink, 2007).

Transference, Countertransference, Sexual Identity, and Male Victims of Sexual Abuse

Male victims of sexual abuse react differently than their female counterparts. Generally, the sexual abuse forces men to counter issues of gender-role identity and sexual orientation. As children, human beings learn to identify closely with their gender, developing a sense of self built entirely around social perceptions of what it means to be male or female (Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005). The first of two major phases of identity formation occurs at age two when a boy realizes that he is anatomically different from his mother but similar to his father; it is then that he begins to associate his sense of self with the male gender. The second major stage occurs around adolescence when gender identity is extended to gender-role identity, and the boy internalizes notions of masculinity (Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005).

Within the framework of social learning theory, boys are more vulnerable during each of the two stages than are girls. Because the first stage usually separates the boy from his mother, his primary caregiver, he begins to disassociate with the individual with whom he spends the most time (Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005). Authors Tremblay and Turcotte cite that "rejection of this early identification requires a break with the mother which is particularly difficult for boys... and initiates a mourning process..." (2005, p. 131). During the latter stage, a similar mourning process occurs when adolescents are forced to reject all feminine aspects of their personality in order to conform to social perceptions of masculinity.

Sexual abuse renders the already fragile process of male identity formation as even more complex. Tremblay and Turcotte contend that victimhood does not exist within the domain of masculinity and male survivors of abuse are taught that they are supposed to be strong and protect themselves (2005). By extension, male survivors face the added notion that they have failed in effectively protecting themselves against their abusers. The loss of power frequently manifests as the compulsion to prove masculinity through having a multiplicity of female sexual partners, sexually victimizing others, or other forms of deviancy (Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005).

The position of the male victim of sexual abuse whilst seeking therapy is highly fragile and can significantly preclude the therapeutic bond. Tremblay and Turcotte contend that "even though distinguishing the person from his behavior is recognized as a basic principle in psychotherapeutic interventions, in working with men often the therapist does not relate in the first place to a human being but rather to a behavior to be controlled and suppressed" (2005, p. 134). The counselor than unwittingly allows his or her discomfort to dominate the therapeutic relationship and results in an emotional distancing, particularly for male therapists. The counselor may hide behind intervention protocols and fail to utilize his intuition or intellect in defining the therapeutic relationship (Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005).

An additionally frequent countertransference issue between male counselors and male victims of abuse is a converse, personalization of the abuse by the therapist. In short, the therapist reacts to the abuse as if it were his own struggle, demanding certain actions be taken even when they are refused by the client. In either instance, the therapist is not as supportive of the client as he should be, as his own gender identity significantly informs the therapeutic relationship in a negative manner (Raby, 2006; Tremblay and Turcotte, 2005). Tranference is a weighted consideration as well, as victims project their experiences with control and abuse onto the counselor.

Empirical evidence suggests that countertransference occurs significantly between therapists and adolescent clients (Sarles, 1994). Sarles posits that adolescence, even in terms of healthy development, is already a state of crisis, and countertransference can exacerbate this precarious state. Adolescent clients, in particular, birth an idealized perception of countertransference on the part of the counselor which can result in a lack of objectivity when counselling those in this age group (Fletcher and Hinkle, 2002; Sarles, 1994).

Countertransference and Counselling Sex Offenders

Working with sex offenders is significantly challenging for counselors and countertransference is a pervasive issue. Empirical evidence suggests that countertransference can manifest as a counselor is drawn into the sexually deviant world of the offender and subsequently, adamantly rejects any empathy stemming from that connection. Surveys of counselling students demonstrate an extreme preference for counselling sexual abuse victims over offenders, and these findings were particularly true when counselors were victims of abuse themselves. Younger victims of abuse and younger offenders were generally preferred over their adult counterparts by counselors (Caronne and Lafleur, 2000).

The negative implications of countertransference have lead to a widespread rejection of sex offenders as clients. Despite the prevalence of disorders that birth offender behavior, the most typical therapeutic relationship for sexual addictions and deviancy is the support group; this is not always the optimum context for healing but a lack of qualified, willing counselors precludes needed one-on-one treatment (Hagedorn and Juhnke, 2005).


The literature suggests that countertransference is pervasive in client-counselor relationships defined by sexual abuse. While the Jungian perspective on countertransference posits that the phenomenon holds the ability to positively affect the therapeutic relationship by emphasizing the human engagement between client and counselor, there is a dearth of literature regarding how this strategic sort of countertransference can occur with either sex crime victims or offenders. The literature also suggests that countertransference is present to a greater extent when the client is an adolescent, and that male counselors will identify closely with male victims of abuse. Soliciting professional feedback and receiving therapy oneself seems to be the most salient strategies suggested by the literature in countering the negative form of countertransference, beyond simply being aware of the most frequent channels for countertransference to manifest.

Personal Reflection on the Literature

My personal experience has been largely in line with the literature. I found that I could not impede countransference between myself and sex offenders, in particular, and consequently stopped any therapeutic relationship with this type of client. I believe that consistent professional feedback and supervision has been somewhat lacking in my recent career, and, as the literature suggests, I am certain this could aid in my acknowledgement of how countertransference manifests. With respect to victims of sex crimes, the literature suggests that countertransference is exacerbated between male victims and male counselors, and this has been my experience as well; I have never found any presence of countertransference between me and female victims, regardless of their age.

The greatest challenge in integrating theory with practice is the lack of literature regarding how to enhance the positive form of countertransference whilst eradicating the negative form of countertransference. I believe that supervision and feedback can provide a substantial aid in becoming more sensitive to the channels for countertransference, however, and I aim to include this element in my plans for professional development. The optimum channel for linking theory with practice, it seems, is to be cognizant of the potential for countertransference between myself and adolescent victims, in particular. A salient goal, by extension, is to aim to garner greater distance between myself and the young victims, not trying to unwittingly force them into legal action or other avenues they would not otherwise pursue.

Strategies for Professional Development

In fervent recognition that I need to strategically challenge my issues with transference and countertransference, the most integral part of my ongoing professional development will be consistent reflection on my thoughts and feelings whilst counseling sex crime victims. I do not believe, as yet, that I am ready to counsel sex offenders, but I do aim to reopen this aspect of my practice in the future. In Cross and Papadopoulos' aforementioned text, the authors cite that "many counselors find meaning in the metaphor of the 'counsellor's journey', an image which allows them to trace the roots of their counselling role back to its earliest origins, and to make sense of the different territories and obstacles encountered on the way to becoming a counselor" (2001, p. 96). The pattern of childhood experience is a significant predictor of how the role of counselor will be internalized, and self-discovery ensures that these patterns do not unwittingly limit therapeutic relationships.

My plan for continued development relies heavily on a consistent, journaling practice and a therapeutic relationship with one of my most trusted co-workers. I believe that receiving feedback on my experiences with transference and countertransference can significantly dissolve the channels through which the negative manifestations of these phenomena occur. Cross and Papadopoulos conclude that "counselors learn and discover just as do their clients, and it is important that they are able to assimilate and accommodate the processes of change in order for them to achieve and maintain optimal effectiveness" (2001, p. 98). Counselors challenge their clients to examine themselves and make choices aligned with the life they seek; this is also the crux of effective, professional development.

While the literature suggests that my issues with transference and countertransference with respect to male, sex crime victims and offenders are not unique, they are undoubtedly an impediment to my own practice. I fervently seek to be as objective as possible during counselling my clients and have always maintained a keen eye on how my own issues and experiences might hinder the therapeutic context. In most instances, I have identified too closely with the victims and conversely dismissed the rights and well-being of the offenders. Understanding the manner in which my issues manifest, however, is a significant and salient first step in ensuring that I can provide my clients with the care they deserve. In having a feedback mechanism in place, I will be able to ascertain at what point and in what context I can return to counselling sex offenders, having acknowledged their rights in balance with that of their victims.


Carone, S. S., & Lafleur, N. K. (2000). The Effect of Adolescent Sex Offender Abuse History on Counselor Attitudes. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counselling, 20(2), 56.

Chassman, L., Kottler, J., & Madison, J. (2010). An Exploration of Counselor Experiences of Adolescents with Sexual Behavior Problems. Journal of Counselling and Development, 88(3), 269-294.

Cross, M. C., & Papadopoulos, L. (2001). Becoming a Counsellor: A Manual for Personal and Professional Development. London: Brunner-Routledge.

Easton, C., Martin, W. E., & Wilson, S. (2008). Emotional Intelligence and Implications for Counselling Self-Efficacy: Phase II. Counselor Education and Supervision, 47(4), 218-236.

Fink, K. (2007). Supervision, Transference and Countertransference. 1263-1299.

Fletcher, T. B., & Hinkle, J. S. (2002). Adventure Based Counselling: An Innovation in Counselling. Journal of Counselling and Development, 80(3), 277-293.

Hagedorn, W. B., & Juhnke, G. A. (2005). Treating the Sexually Addicted Client: Establishing a Need for Increased Counselor Awareness. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counselling, 25(2), 66-82.

Jones, A. C. (2004). Transference and Countertransference. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 40(1), 13-53.

Mann, D. (1997). Psychotherapy, an Erotic Relationship: Transference and Countertransference Passions. London: Routledge.

Mann, D. (Ed.). (1999). Erotic Transference and Countertransference: Clincal Practice in Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Marchon, P. (2006). Beyond Transference, Countertransference the Silences and the Opinion1. 63-84.

Raby, R. (2006). Children in Sex, Adults in Crime: Constructing and Confining Teens. Resources for Feminist Research, 31(3/4), 9-35.

Sarles, R. M. (1994). Transference-countertransference Issues with Adolescents: Personal Reflections. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48(1), 64-75.

Sedgwick, D. (1994). The Wounded Healer: Countertransference from a Jungian Perspective. New York: Routledge.

Tremblay, G., & Turcotte, P. (2005). Gender Identity Construction and Sexual Orientation in Sexually Abused Males. International Journal of Men's Health, 4(2), 131-143.

Winick, B. J. (2003). Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Problem Solving Courts. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 30(3), 1055-1068.

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