The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, capacity to metnalize and therapy resistant depression, and negative effects of psychotherapy
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
The Interactive Nature of Countertransference
The Interactive Nature of Countertransference
Connery, A. L., & Murdock, N. L. (2019). An interactive view of countertransference: Differentiation of self and client presentation. Psychotherapy, 56(2), 181–192.
Countertransference in psychotherapy is ubiquitous – it is experienced by every therapist with many clients. An early supervisor of mine once quipped, “You might not be interested in countertransference, but it is certainly interested in you.” Countertransference refers to a therapist’s emotional, cognitive, behavioral responses that are triggered by a client, and that are caused in part by the therapist’s unresolved conflicts, sensitivities, or vulnerabilities. So, it is useful to consider countertransference as a result of an interaction between client factors and therapist factors. Research indicates that therapists’ experience of countertransference is related to negative outcomes in their clients, and that identification and management of countertransference results in better client outcomes. In this study, Connery and Murdoch posited that therapists who had lower levels of differentiation of self would experience higher countertransference reactions. That is, those therapists with lower ability to balance the inherent pulls of separateness and togetherness in interpersonal relations, and who had more difficulty maintaining a sense of self in intimate relationships would be more susceptible to the interpersonal pressures inherent in some psychotherapy relationships. The authors conducted a clever study in which 262 practicing psychotherapists of varying professions, orientations, experience, and ages completed some questionnaires. Then the researchers randomly assigned the therapists either to watch 10 video clips simulating a hostile and dominant patient (i.e., with features of narcissism or paranoia) or to watch 10 video clips simulating a hostile and submissive patient (i.e., with features of passive-aggression). After viewing the videos, researchers asked the therapists to describe their own emotional reactions to the client they viewed using a questionnaire that rates countertransference. In general, therapists tended to respond with over-involvement to the videos of hostile and submissive clients. However, those therapists with more problems with maintaining their sense of self in close relationships were particularly susceptible to feelings of over-involvement with these clients. On the other hand, therapists in general tended to respond with more under-involvement to the videos of hostile and dominant clients. However, those therapists who had more problems with maintaining a sense of self in relationships were not any more susceptible to these countertransference reactions compared to therapists with better differentiation of self.
Differentiation of self indicates the capacity to develop a healthy balance of interpersonal relatedness and self-differentiation that allows one to balance emotional reactions and rational thought when under stress. This study suggests that therapists’ ability to manage closeness and distance in relationships affects the intensity with which they experience countertransference reactions towards clients who have passive-aggressive qualities. This provide further evidence that not only client characteristics, but also some therapist vulnerabilities play a role in determining countertransference reactions. The findings point to the importance of continued peer supervision and of personal therapy for psychotherapists so that they may be less susceptible to the stress inherent in their work, and so that their clients can achieve optimal outcomes.
A Wake up Call on Psychotherapists’ Mental Health
Laverdière, O., Kealy, D., Ogrodniczuk, J. S., & Morin, A. J. S. (2018). Psychological health profiles of Canadian psychotherapists: A wake up call on psychotherapists’ mental health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 59(4), 315-322.
Patients prefer to work with psychotherapists whom they perceive as psychologically healthy and satisfied with their lives. Psychological health and satisfaction in therapists may be related to their ability to manage their own reactions to clients (countertransference), as well as to their ability to maintain personal and psychological well-being. However, the work circumstances on psychotherapists may compromise their psychological health. Patients often present in ways that may result in emotional reactions in therapists, such as self-doubt and frustration. Also, therapists may develop vicarious or secondary traumatic stress when exposed to patients with a history of trauma. Such emotional stressors may overwhelm therapists and contribute to burnout, distress, and lower quality of life. Previous research found that difficulties in therapist mental health may lead to emotional disengagement, patient early termination, and a lowered therapeutic alliance. Large-scale international surveys indicate that 87% of psychotherapists were involved in psychotherapy at some point in their careers. This suggests that many psychotherapists understand or have experienced the hazards of their work. In this survey of registered Canadian psychotherapists, Laverdière and colleagues were interested in the self-reported psychological health of psychotherapists. The sample included 240 psychotherapists who were mostly women (78%) and psychologists (84%), with a mean age of 42 years (SD = 11.66), practicing psychotherapy for an average of 13 years (SD = 9.42), and working primarily in independent practice (40%) or in an institutional setting (40%). Most identified their primary theoretical orientation as psychodynamic (31%), CBT (31%), integrative (22%), or humanistic (15%). Using a standardized measure of burnout, the authors found that 22% of psychotherapists were experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion (with a further 20% in the moderate range), and 12% experienced a high level of depersonalization. Only 8% could be classified as having probable serious mental health issues and life dissatisfaction. The authors then developed statistical profiles of psychotherapists using latent class analysis. Using these profiles, 35% of psychotherapists were characterized by moderately high levels of burnout and distress and moderately low quality of life. A further 12% of psychotherapists had very high levels of burnout and distress and very low quality of life. Those with healthier profiles tended to be more experienced (B = .14, p = .008, OR = 1.15) and to have lower perceived workload (B = -1.10, p = .006, OR = .33).
One in five psychotherapists in this survey were experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion, and another 20% were in the moderately high range. Emotionally exhausted professionals are at higher risk of making errors, depersonalizing patients, and becoming emotionally exhausted. Psychotherapists at higher risk would benefit from organizational and therapeutic interventions. Peer support groups may help to alleviate some of the distress, as would regular consultation and supervision that partly focuses on countertransference and managing the stress of working with traumatized patients. Psychotherapists need to be aware of the risks involved in having a high workload, which is a well-known risk factor for poor mental health at work. On the positive side, greater experience as a psychotherapist may be a protective factor. Experience may bring with it more self-confidence, greater emotion regulation skills, and a better ability to manage countertransference.
Do Psychotherapy Trainees Get Better with More Training?
Owen, J., Wampold, B. E., Kopta, M., Rousmaniere, T., & Miller, S. D. (2016). As good as it gets? Therapy outcomes of trainees over time. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63, 12-19.
Does psychotherapy training improve trainees’ knowledge and skills? Do trainees improve in their ability to produce positive client outcomes over time? The research on training psychotherapists is mostly inconclusive. Some studies show little or no difference between trainees and experienced therapists, and others found no association between level of experience and client outcomes. On the other hand, some researchers have found a relationship between training and competence in delivering a particular type of treatment. Overall, the research seems to show that there is a lot of variability between therapists in their outcomes and on how training affects their practice and their clients’ outcomes. However, rarely do these studies assess outcomes within the same trainee over time as they accumulate more training. In this study, Owen and colleagues evaluate if psychotherapy trainees’ client outcomes improved with training over time. They assessed 114 psychology trainees at different levels of training in 47 clinics across the U.S. These training therapists saw over 1100 clients over at least a 12-month period, and many therapists were followed for three years. The average client improved, but with small effects (d = .31, CIs not reported). Therapists were more effective with clients who were more distressed (d = .66) than clients who were less distressed (d = .10), probably because more distressed clients had more room to improve. Trainees’ outcomes improved significantly over time, although their average improvement over time was small. Most importantly, trainees’ improvements over time varied so that the researchers were able to identify four patterns of change over a three year period of training: (1) one group of trainees started out with moderately good outcomes and their outcomes remained moderately good over time; (2) a second group started out with small positive effects in their client outcomes and they improved to achieve moderately good outcomes by their third year; (3) a third group of trainees started out with small positive client outcomes but their outcomes got worse by their third year; and (4) a fourth group started out with poor outcomes and improved to achieve small positive outcomes by year 3 of their training.
Trainees appear to have various trajectories in their ability to foster positive client outcomes over time, and, at times, that trajectory is negative. Trainees whose outcomes get worse over time (group 3) or who do not achieve at least moderately good outcomes (group 4) may need specific training to foster better interpersonal effectiveness, empathy, management of countertransference, and humility. In general, therapists should assess their clients’ outcomes with progress monitoring tools in order to use the feedback to improve their outcomes over time. If outcomes are not positive on average, then therapists should consider remediation, further training, or consultation.
Effectiveness of Psychodynamic Couple Therapy in a Naturalistic Setting
Hewison, D., Casey, P., & Mwamba, N. (2016). The effectiveness of couple therapy: Clinical outcomes in a naturalistic United Kingdom setting. Psychotherapy, 53, 377-387.
Current randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of couple therapy indicate that about 60% to 70% of couples improve to some degree, and that about 35% to 50% are no longer distressed by the end of therapy. But RCTs have been criticized for being somewhat artificial because their design is based on how pharmacological treatments are tested. Psychotherapy may be more complex than pharmacotherapy in its implementation, and compared to pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy relies more heavily on the qualities of the therapist and therapeutic relationship in order to achieve good outcomes. In an RCT, individuals often have to have a specific disorder to be included in the study, and those with co-morbid disorders may be excluded. This may limit what the findings have to say about real world applications of a particular treatment. Further, therapists in RCTs may receive unusual levels of supervision and support that is seldom seen in regular clinical practice. In this large study of over 435 couples, Hewison and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of a psychodynamically-oriented couple therapy as practiced in a large not-for-profit centre that provides psychological treatment (i.e., the Tavistock clinic in the United Kingdom). All participants received couple treatment and none were randomly assigned to a control group. The couple therapy focused on insight and emotional connection and expression within the context of a therapeutic relationship. The couple relationship rather than the individual partners were the object of the therapy. The unconscious meaning of couple communication was often discussed, and therapist countertransference was seen as a source of information about the couple. Most couples in the study identified as White (77.0%), heterosexual (93.9%), and married or living in a civil partnership (58.4%). More than half of the couples were in the relationship for over 5 years and had children. Therapists were qualified couple therapists or Masters level trainees, had a mean age of 50 (range: 26 – 71), tended to be White women (60%), and were all trained at the clinic. The average number of sessions that a couple attended was 23.3 (SD = 23.5), but with a wide range (2 to 150 sessions) as might be typical in a clinical setting. Overall, individual clients reported a large significant decrease in individual psychological distress (d = -1.04), and a moderate significant decrease in marital distress (d = -0.58). Half of individuals showed a reliable reduction in their individual distress, and over a quarter of couples reported a reliable decline in their couple distress.
This is the largest study of couple therapy in a naturalistic setting. The psychodynamic couple therapy was effective in reducing individual distress for almost half of the participants although reliable change in couple distress was lower. The results of this field trial indicate that couple therapy that is offered in a functioning real-world clinic setting produces results similar to what is seen in highly controlled randomized trials.
Therapists Affect Patient Dropout and Deterioration
Saxon, D., Barkham, M., Foster, A., & Parry, G. (2016). The contribution of therapist effects to patient dropout and deterioration in the psychological therapies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. Advanced online publication, DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2028.
Outcomes for patients receiving psychotherapy are generally positive, but not always. For example, patients might drop out of therapy (i.e., unilaterally end therapy). In clinical trials, the average drop out rate is somewhere between 17% and 26% of patients. Also, patients might deteriorate during therapy (i.e., show a reliable negative change in symptoms from pre- to post-therapy). On average, about 8.2% of patients show a reliable deterioration after therapy. In this large study from a practice-based research network in the UK, Saxon and colleagues were interested in estimating the effect that therapists had on patient drop out and deterioration. Therapist effects refer to differences between therapists and the effects of this difference on patient outcomes. The authors were also interested in whether therapist effects predicted negative outcomes after controlling for therapist case-mix (i.e., patient variables like severity of symptoms, risk of self harm). Their study included 85 therapists who treated more than 10,000 adult patients over a 10-year period. Each therapist saw between 30 and 468 patients at one of 14 sites in the UK. About half of patients had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and/or moderate to severe anxiety symptoms prior to starting therapy. Outcomes were measured with a reliable and valid psychometric instrument at pre- and post-treatment. The proportion of patients who dropped out of therapy was 33.8%. Patients who dropped out attended an average of 2.8 sessions (SD = 1.91), whereas treatment completers attended an average of 6.1 sessions (SD = 2.68). About 23.5% of therapists had drop out rates that were significantly worse than average. These below average therapists (n = 13) had 49% of their patients drop out, whereas above average therapists (n = 20) had only 12% of their patients drop out. Most patients who completed therapy improved (72.2%), but about 7.2% of patients deteriorated to some degree. The average therapist (i.e., 74% of therapists) had 4.6% of their patients who got worse, whereas below average therapists (i.e., 4.7% of therapists) had up to 14.9% of their patients who got worse. That is, almost 3 times as many patients deteriorated with below average therapists.
We know from previous studies that the type and amount of therapist training or theoretical orientation are not predictive of patient outcomes. However, previous research does suggest that therapists’ lack of empathy, negative countertransference, over-use of transference interpretations, and disagreement with patients about therapy process was associated with negative outcomes. Patient safety concerns might necessitate below average therapists to be identified and provided with greater support, supervision, and training.
Therapist Emotional Responses are Associated with Patient Personality
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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