Transference in Spiritual Direction

Transference in Spiritual Direction February 7, 2014


The psychological term transference is a concept that spiritual directors need to know and understand in order to not be derailed by it. It’s the natural, to-be-expected process by which a person seeking help in a direction relationship (or any helping relationship) transfers his or her own feelings, thoughts, impulses and fantasies about a person from one’s past (feelings not fully resolved) to the spiritual director.  The directee in the midst of transference is not aware that he or she is doing this “transferring” of feelings. An example of this might be a directee who reacts negatively to a director who happens to look a little like the father who punished them harshly as a child.

The term counter-transference refers to the process by which the person providing help—in this case the spiritual director—reacts to his or her own feelings, thoughts, impulses and fantasies aroused by the directee.  An example of this might be a director finding herself becoming overly protective of a young directee that reminds her of her son or daughter. The director’s task when confronted with counter-transference is to differentiate which emotional reactions are coming from their own past and which are coming from the transference of the person seeking help.

All this may seem daunting, but don’t panic. These emotional reactions and the work of differentiation is exactly what supervisors are trained to help with. So the first step to take after noticing that transference or counter-transference is happening is to bring your concern to supervision.

The most important thing to remember is that transference and counter-transference are opportunities for personal growth both for the director and the directee. Be curious about what is going on in the relationship. If and when you suspect some kind of transference, give voice to your curiousity and say “tell me more about this.” If you remain a non-anxious presence in the face of transference or counter-transference, you will be able to harness this opportunity for growth and development.

If and when the two of you move through the transference issues, you will have forged a stronger direction relationship.

One caution, though. If you are not careful about your boundaries and allow transference or counter-transference to move the relationship out of direction and into a re-enactment of a relationship from the past (whether yours or theirs), you will destroy the direction relationship and truncate the opportunity for growth. This is especially true if you enter a romantic or intimate relationship with a directee—a highly unethical and emotionally dangerous step.

So be aware of transference and counter-transference. Work with it in spiritual direction and take your concerns about it to supervision.  Do not let it become a destructive force that violates ethical boundaries.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

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