Embodied Countertransference

extracts from a chapter for “New dimensions in Body Psychotherapy”, edited by Nick Totton, published Sept. 2005 – the work of Michael Soth


It is a very remarkable thing that the Ucs. [unconscious] of one human being can react upon that of another, without passing through the Cs [conscious].

Freud, 1915:194

The surprise in Freud’s statement is an expression of the zeitgeist of his time: his conception of the relationship both between body and mind as well as between patient and doctor was steeped in 19th century Cartesian, positivistic paradigms. Since the 1930’s Reich has helped us deconstruct the mind-over-body bias in ways which are being confirmed by modern neuroscience (Damasio 1994, Schore 1994, 2003). And since the ‘countertransference revolution’ of the 1950’s (Samuels 1993: Chapter 2), modern psychoanalysis has come to appreciate the patient’s and therapist’s inner worlds as enmeshed and interwoven to a degree which radically deconstructs traditional assumptions regarding the therapist’s role and function (Mitchell 2002, Samuels 1993). A further recent development is the notion of ‘parallel process’ (Hawkins & Shohet 2000, Searles 1999): not only can one person’s unconscious communicate itself to the other person in the room, but the relationship dynamic between client and therapist can unconsciously be re-enacted in another relationship, i.e. between therapist and supervisor.

The body psychotherapy tradition has a refined body/mind understanding of transference (Reich 1972; Leites 1976; Mindell 1982; Conger 1994; Johnson 1994; Totton 2003). Modern psychoanalysis (including relational, intersubjective, object relations and self psychology approaches) has a refined relational understanding of countertransference (Heiman 1950; Langs 1981; Greenberg and Mitchell 1983; Mitchell and Aron 1999). These traditions have grown out of classical psychoanalysis, and a (re-)integration of their theoretical frameworks may generate an holistic phenomenology of relationship (Boadella 1987, Fairbairn 1958, Lowen 1958, Schwartz-Salant 1998, Winnicott 1971) see Fig. 1.

I will attempt to bring the two traditions together, without minimising their contradictions or reducing one to the other, by formulating both transference and countertransference, internal and external relationships in body/mind terms as parallel process. I will propose several fairly large-scale extensions to the established notion of ‘parallel process’, with relational dynamics being embodied and reflected on different levels intra-psychically and enacted interpersonally. This model allows us to consider ’embodied countertransference’ as a cornerstone of an holistic, integral (Wilber 2000), relational framework which sees the therapeutic relationship as an intersubjective, culturally contextualised system of complex parallel body/mind processes. To make this abstract framework applicable and practical, I will focus on the therapist’s stream-of-consciousness in relation to that system. As within any system, spontaneous processes of self-organisation (Maturana & Varela 1980) are always already occurring: we can attend to the body/mind phenomenology of the integrations and dis-integrations, the transformations and repetitive patterns of the system itself and the two people within it who are both wounded and whole.

How to apprehend, understand and facilitate these systemic processes is, of course, therapy’s essential conundrum. How can I do this when as the therapist I am part of these processes, including my unconscious, my subjectivity, my countertransference? How can I facilitate a system when I am part of the system? ……

Transference as parallel process

Body psychotherapy and modern analysis share an understanding of the origins of transference (Soth 1999, 2003, Jacobs 1986, Masterson 1985): the originally wounding relationship gets internalised – as a script, a working model, a character structure, internal object relations. ……

An aspect of internalisation which tends to get neglected in character structure theory (Reich 1972, Lowen 1958, Boadella 1987, Johnson 1994) is that both poles of the originally wounding relationship manifest in the client’s spontaneous experience (e.g. both the wounded child and the internalised father). In characteristic holding patterns on a muscular level and throughout the rest of the body/mind spectrum, the client’s body reflects – like two superimposed negatives – both the child’s original and fixated experience and the wounding parent’s body/mind, as perceived and internalised by the child. It is usually not difficult to find at least one physical anchor each for the various internalised objects. ……

By subdividing the internalised relationship into the conflicted ego in conflict with a spontaneous conflict, we thus arrive at a totality of five parallel relationships, manifest in the here and now between client and therapist (see Fig. 3). We can then include parallel process in its established sense, and consider the repetition of the client-therapist dynamic in the supervisory dyad the sixth parallel relationship. It is possible to take the original dynamic back into the dynamic between the parents, and further into the inner world of each of the parents, opening out into possible transgenerational parallels as explored in family constellations (Hellinger 1998, Schuetzenberger 1998). ……

Allowing transference to construct the therapist as an object

It is in the nature of parallel process that every relational experience is over-determined: it resonates with multiple other relationships from which the dynamic has been internalised or in which the dynamic has been acted out, through ‘osmosis’, projection or projective identification (Bion 1962). Parallel process in the extended definition proposed here matches theoretically what experienced therapists report regarding their perception of the client: the sense of a tapestry, with recurring themes weaving in and out of a person’s psyche and life, with multiple occurrences and resonances all the time. ……


As body psychotherapists, we think of ‘internal process’ in body/mind terms, along a spectrum comprising body-emotion-image-mind-spirit (for a detailed list of body/mind processes along this spectrum, see Soth 2004). One term in use in the body psychotherapy tradition (Boadella 1987, Kepner 1987, Eiden 2002) which nicely captures the energetic and process quality of the interaction (rather than the verbal and content aspects) is ‘charge’.

There can be ‘charge’ in a therapeutic moment when, for example, the client realises that he has spent most of his life in a contracted, paralysed position which is fuelled by an underlying fear, recognisable now in the contact with the therapist. Although there may be little sense of aliveness in his body, as he is becoming aware of his actual paralysis, there is a lot of ‘charge’ in the embodied, meaningful recognition and in the relational contact; although the body is not ‘alive and well’ at this point, there is a sense of embodiment as the client’s reflection is connected to the actual condition of his body rather than to a compensatory self-image of how his body should be. ……

Three kinds of contact

We can think about charge in terms of three kinds of contact which reflect how transference and countertransference are mutually linked via parallel process. The ‘quality of relating’ implicit in these kinds of contact also constitutes three kinds of ‘working alliance’. I mean not only the working alliance as a bond between the ‘adult, healthy ego’ of the client and therapist (Clarkson 1995): this rather static notion becomes questionable when we see the ego itself reflecting internalised object relations. I am complementing this with a more fluid, dynamic notion of an alliance with the client’s (partially unconscious) ‘spontaneous process’. This will become clearer as we proceed.

There are moments when the therapist’s sense of the working alliance is:

1) unambiguous: the therapist has no concerns about the working alliance, as it is currently taken for granted. The transference is not constellated, active or in the foreground – the client is unambiguously using the therapist in role, or relating to the therapist as a person.

2) ambiguous: the therapist has a sense of the working alliance as ambivalent. The transference reality has entered the room, is constellated and active, but kept in check by, balanced by, or existing side by side with the ego-ego working alliance. This kind of contact is a confusing mix, full of double messages, which eventually affect the therapist via projective identification. This, in turn, often leads to apparent mis-attunement and miscommunication.

3) intensely conflicted: the therapist has a sense of the working alliance being severely threatened or broken down. Usually this means the transference reality has taken over, not only in the client but in the whole relational system: always a largely unpalatable and painful experience, which constitutes both the worst and – if it can be survived and eventually contained – the best therapy has to offer. In this moment client and therapist participate in a spontaneous re-enactment of the client’s wound, for once not mediated and diluted by the client’s ego. Paradoxically, re-enactment and relational transformation of the wound are two sides of the same coin (Soth 1998, 2003, 2004). ……

Countertransference as parallel process: the client’s conflict becomes the therapist’s conflict

In relation to the client’s character conflict, the therapist is in an impossible position: having conceptualised the internalised aspects of character as the conflicted ego in conflict with a spontaneous conflict, whose ‘side’ does the therapist take: the side of the ego or the side of the spontaneous conflict?

The ego’s overall aim, in relation to the spontaneous experience of the wound, is to keep it at bay and to maintain, if not improve, the status quo. The pressure from inside, whether we conceptualise this as the re-emergence of the wound which is hoping for resolution, or in Jungian terms along the ego-self axis as the impulse towards individuation, is opposed to the status quo.

The answer of traditional body psychotherapy was largely unequivocal: Reich took sides with the ‘body’ against the ‘ego’ (Reich 1983, chapter V). Psychoanalysis, through insisting on verbalisation and symbolisation, precisely because it appreciates the dangers of re-enactment, can be seen to be implicitly siding not exactly with the ego, but with the ego’s capacities. ……

Surrendering to re-enactment

If we accept that the wounding relationship not only enters the client’s perception, nor only their experience in the consulting room, but indeed enters and affects the therapist’s subjectivity as a pervasive, and largely subliminal body/mind process, we are embracing the fundamental premise of the ‘countertransference revolution’ in holistic, embodied terms. This is equivalent to surrendering to re-enactment as emergent process. The therapeutic inevitability of re-enactment can be formulated like this:

It is impossible for a therapist to follow a strategy of overcoming a dysfunctional pattern without enacting in the transference the person in relation to whom the pattern originated.

I see re-enactment and how to deal with it as the central issue of all relational psychotherapy (Soth 2004). ……

Body/mind transformation in the relationship

As I have tried to establish, ’embodied countertransference’ is necessarily a complex phenomenon, both relationally and in body/mind terms. However, it is essential for making sense of re-enactment and remaining response-able when caught in the middle of it. Here is the basic principle I have formulated for myself as to what inclines the re-enactment experience to become transformative:

When all the fragments of the conflict inherent in the re-enactment can be held in sufficient awareness across the levels of body-emotion-image-mind in the relationship in the ‘here and now’, the conflict will tend to re-organise itself.

This is formulated deliberately from the perspective of the client-therapist relationship as a system. Transformation cannot be brought about by the therapist unilaterally and intentionally: it is the whole system which re-organises itself. ……

By empathising and identifying with split and opposed objects, which are manifest in the client as a conflicted ego in conflict with a spontaneous conflict, the therapist ends up internalising the client’s body/mind split and its implicit object relational dynamics.

Gathering/holding the fragments

The body-emotion-image-mind fragments of the conflict and the relational fragments are, of course, only two sides of the same coin, but they do tend to get apprehended separately by the therapist. The relational fragments are apprehended more readily through a perspective which sees the re-enactment in terms of the originally wounding relationship and the steps of character formation. But as the steps of character formation reflect the internalisation process, the same point could equally be formulated as the conflicted ego in conflict with a spontaneous conflict. This formulation tends to alert us more to the body/mind matrix which constitutes the experience of the re-enactment. It, therefore, is more helpful in focussing the therapist on the multitude and subtlety of charged spontaneous processes and how they are being managed, in client and therapist. ……


I have tried to show that by integrating the body/mind sensitivities of the body psychotherapy tradition and the relational sensibilities of modern psychoanalysis we can arrive at an embodied notion of countertransference. Making use of the full body/mind complexity of ’embodied countertransference’ relies on the recognition that the therapist’s experience is necessarily conflicted, torn between polarities, and that the therapist’s conflict – both as a person and as a professional – frequently reflects the client’s inner world as a parallel process. The therapist’s subjective body/mind process therefore contains information about the ‘other’. If the therapist can surrender to this, the spontaneous, self-organising processes occurring within the therapist’s body/mind constitute the construction and de-construction of the therapist as an object by the client’s unconscious. The therapist is forever drawn into uncontained and uncontainable re-enactments which require re-organisation and transformation of both people involved in order to stand a chance of eventually being contained. ‘Containment’ and ‘working alliance’ are paradoxical notions: they need to break down in order for them to exist. The therapist’s surrender to the constellated re-enactment is facilitated by a differentiated and attuned awareness to the multiple parallel processes resonating throughout the therapeutic relationship and the body/mind of both people involved. The therapist needs to be aware both of the overall relational pattern and of the specific and subtle spontaneous body/mind detail of ’emergent process’.

I have considered countertransference as embodied in contrast to the historically developed notion of countertransference – a meta-psychological context which has a good portion of disembodiment structured into it. But the systemic, parallel process view I have proposed here goes beyond the issue of embodiment. My hunch would be that in a couple of decades we will have moved beyond the 19th century embodiment / disembodiment juncture into an integral-systemic-parallel process view of what I would call the ‘fractal self’.

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