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 transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
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
Countertransference: Patient Personality Affects Psychotherapist Reactions
Stefana, A., Bulgari, V., Youngstrom, E.A., Dakanalis, A., Bordin, C., & Hopwood, C. (2020). Patient personality and psychotherapist reactions in individual psychotherapy setting: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
Countertransference is one of the oldest concepts in psychotherapy. An over-inclusive definition refers to all of the therapist’s emotional reactions to a patient that is evoked by the patient’s behaviors, thoughts, or feelings in the therapy. However, a more contemporary and integrated definition defines countertransference as a subset of therapist reactions. In this view, countertransference is the internal and external reactions of a psychotherapist evoked by the patient, such that patient behaviors interact with unresolved issues of the therapist. In a previous meta-analysis, countertransference reactions of the therapist was associated with poorer patient outcomes, and therapists’ successful management of countertransference was associated with improved patient outcomes. The clinical literature often reports that patients with a personality disorder often evoke troublesome emotional reactions in therapists. In this systematic review, Stefana and colleagues provide a comprehensive evaluation of the relationship between patient personality problems and psychotherapists’ emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in individual therapy. Seven studies were included in their review. Fifty-three percent of therapists were psychodynamically-oriented, most therapists had more than 3 years of experience, and all patients had a personality disorder or were assessed for problematic personality traits. Overall, the authors found that patients with Cluster A personality traits (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal) tended to evoke therapist responses of feeling criticized, unappreciated, dismissed, or devalued by the patient. Patients with Cluster B personality traits (borderline, histrionic, narcissistic) tended to evoke therapist responses of feeling overwhelmed, helpless/inadequate, sexualized (experiences of sexual tension), and disengaged toward the patient. Patients with Cluster C personality traits (avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive) tended to evoke parental/protective responses in the therapist. Looking at specific personality traits: paranoid personality traits evoked therapists feeling criticized, schizoid personality traits evoked therapists feeling inadequate, schizotypal or obsessive compulsive or narcissistic personality traits evoked therapists feeling disengaged, antisocial personality traits evoked therapists feeling devalued, borderline personality traits evoked therapists feeling overinvolved, avoidant or dependent personality traits evoked therapists feeling parental.
The research appears to show that patients with certain personality traits, and thus certain ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting tend to evoke specific reactions in therapists. Therapists patterns of reactions appeared to be independent of theoretical orientation, suggesting that all therapists tend to have emotional reactions that may affect the therapeutic relationship and patient outcomes. Therapists can manage countertransference by remaining vigilant to their internal reactions, using self-awareness during sessions, consulting with colleagues and supervisors, and engaging in personal therapy.
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.
Therapeutic Alliance Rupture Repair
Eubanks, C. F., Muran, J. C., & Safran, J. D. (2018). Alliance rupture repair: A meta-analysis. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 508-519.
It is difficult to over-state the importance of developing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance in order for patients to experience a good outcome from psychotherapy. The alliance is the collaborative agreement between therapist and patient on the tasks and goals of therapy, and the emotional bond between therapist and patient. A previous meta-analysis found a moderate but highly reliable association between a good alliance and patient outcomes. The alliance is a trans theoretical construct – that is, it is important to all types of therapy regardless of theoretical orientation. Sometimes deteriorations in the alliance occur manifested by a disagreement on the goals, a lack of collaboration on the tasks, or a strain in the relational bond. Other terms for this phenomenon include weakenings, misattunements, challenges, resistances, enactments, and impasses. Such deteriorations can vary from minor tensions to major ruptures in the relationship. Tensions and ruptures in the alliance are common occurrences in therapy with some studies showing 50% of therapy cases experience at least a minor tension within the first six sessions of therapy. There are two main types of alliance tensions/ruptures. (1) Withdrawal tensions/ruptures occur when the patient moves away from the therapist, such as when the patient changes the subject, goes silent, and cancels appointments. These tensions/ruptures are more subtle and harder for therapists to detect. (2) Confrontation tensions/ruptures occur when the patient moves against the therapist, such as when the patient expresses dissatisfaction with or pressures or tries to control the therapist. These tensions/ruptures are more obvious, but also difficult for therapists to manage because of the feelings they evoke. In this meta-analysis, Eubanks and colleagues reviewed 11 studies representing 1,314 patients. They found that the association between rupture repair episodes and patient outcomes was on average moderately large r = .29, d = .62, 95% CI [.10, .47], p = .003.
The research on alliance tensions/ruptures and repairs is still new but points to some important therapist practices that could improve patient outcomes. Therapists must be attuned to indications of tensions and ruptures in the therapeutic relationship. Therapists immediately need to attend to confrontation tensions/ruptures, in which patients express dissatisfaction or hostility. Similarly, therapists must address more subtle withdrawal tensions/ruptures, in which patients go silent, evade, or appease. Therapists can acknowledge the tension/rupture directly and nondefensively by inviting patients to explore their experience of the rupture. If necessary, therapists might change the tasks or goals of the therapy to better match the patient’s concerns. Therapists should empathize with a patient’s negative feelings about the therapy, and validate the patient for bringing up their concerns. If appropriate, therapists should take responsibility for their part in the tension/rupture and not blame the patient. Also, if the tension/rupture is a repetition of an interpersonal pattern for the patient (e.g., the patient tends to withdraw in relationships), then the therapist might consider carefully exploring the tension/rupture as it occurs in the therapy with the understanding that it is a repetitive pattern. Mainly, therapists need to anticipate that tensions and ruptures will occur in therapy, that they can be destabilizing for the therapist and therapeutic relationship, and so therapists need to recognize and know how to explore their own and their patient’s negative feelings.
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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.
The Evidence for Countertransference Management
Hayes, J. A., Gelso, C. J., Goldberg, S., & Kivlighan, D. M. (2018). Countertransference management and effective psychotherapy: Meta-analytic findings. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 496-507.
This is another meta analysis from the Psychotherapy Relationship That Work series that will be published in a book by Norcross and Wampold in 2019. Psychotherapists’ unresolved personal conflicts and the cognitive, emotional, or behavioural manifestations of these conflicts in therapy are called countertransference. Countertransference can result in reactions within the therapist that negatively affect their relationship with patients and patient outcomes. Successfully managing these reactions may be an important aspect of positive outcomes in psychotherapy. The old view of countertransference, dating back to Freud, was that countertransference was detrimental to therapy, and therapists had to work to keep their personal reactions out of therapy. More contemporary views see therapist countertransference as inevitable and as providing potentially important information about the patient. In their model of countertransference management, Hayes and Gelso identified five aspects managing countertransference. 1) Origins of countertransference refer to therapists gaining an understanding of their unresolved issues from their past that can interact with patient characteristics in therapy (therapist unresolved family issues, low professional self esteem). 2) Triggers refer to specific issues within the patient that stimulate a specific unresolved issue in the therapist (the patient is competitive and the therapist has a fragile professional self esteem). 3) Manifestations refer to therapist cognitive, behavioural, or affective reactions to triggers and origins (the therapist puts the competitive client in his or her place). 4) Effects refer to the impact of countertransference manifestations on the therapy process or outcome (patient who is put in his or her place drops out or goes silent). 5) Management refers to therapists’ strategies to manage countertransference, including self awareness, self care, consultation and supervision, or personal therapy. In this series of meta analyses, Hayes and colleagues found that: (1) countertransference reactions are associated with poorer therapy outcomes (r = -.16, p = .02, 95% CI [-.30, -.03], d = -0.33, k = 14 studies, N = 973); (2) therapists’ management of countertransference reduces countertransference reactions (r = -.27, p = .001, 95% CI [-.43, -.10], d = -0.55, k = 13 studies, N = 1,065); and (3) successful countertransference management is related to better therapy outcomes (r = .39, p = .001, 95% CI [.17, .60], d = 0.84, k = 9 studies, N = 392 participants).
The research on countertransference management is still in its early stages but results are promising. Therapists’ ability to identify unresolved issues within themselves, how these issues interact with specific patient behaviors and clinical presentations, and management of therapist reactions are important to their work. The work of psychotherapy is fraught with emotional challenges and potential pitfalls for the therapist. Every therapist will experience confusing or challenging emotional reactions to a client. Better understanding and management of these reactions and their manifestations will not only lead to better patient outcomes, but also to greater therapist personal well-being and work satisfaction.
Psychotherapy Relationships That Work: Becoming an Evidence-Based Therapist II
Norcross, J. C., & Lambert, M. J. (2018). Psychotherapy relationships that work III. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 303-315.
Relationship factors in psychotherapy are some of the most important predictors of patient outcomes. They outweigh factors like the type of therapy provided in determining whether patients get better after psychotherapy. In this second overview article, Norcross and Lambert provide a review of 17 meta-analyses of relationship factors in psychotherapy that contribute to positive outcomes. Like the review of patient factors also found in this blog and E-Newsletter, this article briefly outlines those evidence-based relationship factors that reliably predict patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The therapeutic relationship refers to how the therapist and patient relate to each other, or their interpersonal behaviors. By contrast, techniques or interventions refer to what is done by the therapist. Practice guidelines typically focus on interventions or therapeutic orientation. As the authors argue, what is missing from treatment guidelines are the person of the therapist and the therapeutic relationship – evidence for which is backed up by 5 decades of research. Even in studies of highly structured manualized psychotherapy for a specific disorder in which efforts were made to reduce the effect of individual therapist, up to 18% of outcomes (a moderate to large effect) could be attributed to the person of the therapist. By contrast somewhere between 0% and 10% of outcomes (a small to moderate effect) is attributable to specific treatment methods. So, which therapeutic relationship factors are reliably related to patient outcomes? These include: the therapeutic alliance in individual therapy (306 studies, g = .57) couple therapy (40 studies, g = .62), and adolescent psychotherapy (43 studies, g = .40), collaboration (53 studies, g = .61) and goal consensus (54 studies, g = .49), cohesion in group therapy (55 studies, g = .56), therapist empathy (82 studies, g = .58), collecting and delivering client feedback or progress monitoring (24 studies, g = .14 to .49), managing countertransference (9 studies, g = .84), and repairing therapeutic alliance ruptures (11 studies, g = .62) among others. Over the next few months, I will be reviewing these meta analyses in more detail to discuss how therapists can use this evidence base to improve their patients’ outcomes.
The research as a whole indicates that therapists should make the creation and cultivation of the therapeutic relationship a primary goal of therapy. Factors such as managing the therapeutic alliance, repairing alliance ruptures, engaging in ongoing progress monitoring, managing countertransference and others should be used to modify treatments and interpersonal stances in order to maximize outcomes. When seeking out professional development and training, practitioners should focus on evidence-based relationship factors (managing the alliance, judicious self disclosure, managing emotional expression, promoting credibility of the treatment, collecting formal feedback, managing countertransference) in addition to focusing on evidence-based treatments.