Managing Transference and Countertransference in Somatic Therapy

Does Body-Oriented Therapy Increase the Risk of Transference and Countertransference Responses?

Managing Transference and Countertransference in Somatic Therapy

Therapeutic skeptics still cite the possibility of stirring up intense transference and countertransference responses as a compelling reason not to use more body-oriented approaches. But therapists who work somatically maintain that transference and countertransference (the feelings and projections stirred up in the therapist by the client) are no more a problem for highly trained and skilled body psychotherapists than for well-trained talk therapists.

Nancy Napier, a therapist in New York City who focuses on the somatic experience, suggests that somatically-oriented work may help therapists avoid the guerrilla wars for dominance that sometimes simmer just beneath the surface of therapy.

“In Somatic Experiencing, there are no control battles,” she says. “When all you’re trying to do is get clients to be more aware of their own bodies, it doesn’t much matter what’s going on in therapy as long as they notice what they’re feeling.”

Body-oriented practitioners even argue that clients may feel less defensive and reveal more when describing the state of their innards than when trying to verbally describe the various train wrecks in their lives. Even when a client doesn’t want to tell the therapist what’s going on in her body, says Napier, the therapist can simply ask her to “notice how it feels for you to make that choice not to tell me.”

Regardless, managing transference requires a high level of therapeutic skills. Working with the body in particular requires a high degree of therapeutic consciousness and caution to control what’s happening in the client. Physical experience can be more raw, more inherently arousing, than verbalization.

Babette Rothschild, author of The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, says “Provoking body systems, going beneath the verbal, can be very powerful, but it can also be very volatile. Therapies that work with body mechanisms can set processes in motion that, once activated, can be hard to shut down. You need skill and concentration and commitment in order to help clients regulate their own body systems.”

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.