Colli, A., Tanzilli, A., Dimaggio, G., & Lingiardi, V. (2013). Patient personality and therapist response: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Psychiatry.
Therapist emotional responses to patients may refer to emotional reactions or to countertransference. Emotional responses can inform therapeutic interventions if therapists view their responses as informative about the patient’s feelings, perspectives, and relationship patterns. Clinicians have an intuitive sense that specific patient characteristics tend to evoke distinct emotional reactions (i.e., countertransferences) in the therapist. However, there are very few studies that examine the association between patient personality features and therapist emotional responses. A study Colli and colleagues examined this issue. They sampled 203 therapists from two theoretical orientations (psychodynamic = 103; cognitive-behavioral = 100). Among the therapists, 58% were women, mean age was 43 years, average experience was 10 years, average time spent providing psychotherapy was 16 hours per week, and 78% were in private practice. Each therapist was asked to randomly select a patient in their caseload, and complete a validated personality assessment questionnaire about the patient. Three weeks later, and immediately following a therapy session with the patient, the therapist completed a validated therapist emotional response questionnaire. Half of the patients were women (53%), mean age was 34 years, average length of treatment was 5 months (once per week), and 72% were diagnosed with a personality disorder (either comorbid or as a primary diagnosis). Patient paranoid and antisocial features were associated with therapists feeling criticized/mistreated. Patient borderline personality features were associated with therapists feeling helpless/inadequate, overwhelmed/disorganized, and special/overinvolved. Patient narcissistic features were associated with therapists feeling disengaged. Patient dependent personality features were associated with therapists feeling both parental/protective and special/overinvolved. The results were not affected by clinicians’ theoretical orientation. That is, psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapists showed similar emotional responses to each patient personality pattern.
The results do not appear to be an artifact of therapist theoretical orientation, and so the authors argue that patient interpersonal patterns are quite robust in evoking specific therapist countertransference. A therapist’s emotional responses that are not primarily related to the therapist’s own issues could be an important source of information about the patient’s emotional and interpersonal patterns. Therapist emotional responses can also impede the therapist’s work if the responses are not well understood. Therapists who treat those with borderline personality features may avoid their own experience of negative thoughts and feelings during a session and this may unwittingly manifest as a sudden confrontation of the patient. With patients who have narcissistic features, therapists may feel disengaged, unempathic, and emotionally mis-attuned, which could lead to an impasse or premature termination. Therapists who treat patients with dependent features may be overprotective and may avoid exploring the patient’s painful feelings.
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