Transference & Countertransference: Its Sacramental Side

The human sciences offer meaningful insights into the sacred work on spiritual direction. By virtue of creation and the Incarnation, all things human are meant to be graced and sanctified, finding their telos in Christ. 

This is precisely why the human sciences can be helpful in spiritual development. In psychology, we discover insights, even if they be kernels of truth, that can help us see how God uses all aspects of our humanity to encounter him.

Transference and Countertransference 

One of these insights is transference and countertransference, particularly in helping professions or in the case of spiritual direction. Transference occurs when a person being helped projects (in this case, a directee) puts upon the helper certain thoughts, feelings, or wishes that originate from a prior experience, usually from childhood. It is a process that brings subconscious, repressed thoughts to the surface where it can be further explored and healed. 

Countertransference is the response of the helper (the spiritual director in this case) that comes from the helper’s own psychological needs and conflicts and may be unexpressed or revealed through conscious responses to the one being helped. In the case of spiritual direction, this can look like the director’s reactions to the directee’s transference.

In the case of transference, this concretely looks like a person transferring memories and emotions, often unconsciously, onto a person and acting out of that place. The relationship brings you back to something further down within you, something from deeper in one’s past. 

It could be that a particular type of person takes us back to a subconscious memory and informs our response to the person.  We react positively or negatively to certain types of people, usually because of some experience.

Transference is a natural process that is to be expected. It is not to be feared, but to become aware of so as to know how to respond.

Because transference and countertransference can lead us to judge people in a rash manner, it is important to become aware of so we can truly be present to the other. We can see how this can be a danger, especially when tied to romantic feelings. A certain person may be a reminder of a past girlfriend or boyfriend, leading one to treat the actual person with a skewed judgment. 

In spiritual direction this can be especially important. For example, a director could begin to treat the directee more like a friend if there is some feeling of familiarity due to transference of a previous feeling or memory of someone similar in the director’s life. 

At the same time, because Christian virtue makes the relationship a space where kindness and charity can dwell, and because all human realities are to be graced, it is clear that these human relationships, even in the context of transference and countertransference, are called to be graced. 

This intersubjective field, or in other words, what takes place between human persons, is a space for sanctification.

Transference, Countertransference and Spiritual Direction

Because all of reality is sacramental, a sign pointing us to the divine, so too transference is meant to draw us deeper into reality, not away from it. These deeper moments of the human spirit that draw us in, they are manifestations of something deeper. It is affected by sin but still fundamental. 

In spiritual direction, this awareness is fundamental. It can be a disservice when we emotionally paint a person into a place where he or she is not, and not supposed to be. This kind of transference takes us away from the present moment and often to a place of overreaction.

It can also affect boundaries with the directee. Perhaps the transference is from a positive memory and makes the directee seem more like a friend. The dynamic between the director and directee begins to overpower the fundamental purpose of spiritual direction: the directee’s spiritual development and relationship with God.

“He must increase, I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30)

The relationship is about the directee’s growth with God. 

The awareness on transference and countertransference can help the director. This does not mean the director is not warm and human; indeed it is meant to be a warm relationship due to the depth with which the directee opens up.

However, the director is not meant to be the savior, father, mother, or any other relationship to the person. This means the director must grow in awareness of the inner movements of his or her own heart, emotions, “hot buttons” and unspoken thoughts that come up in the context of conducting spiritual direction.  Ultimately, it means to treat with reverence the sacred ground of a person’s spiritual development in direction, not appropriating what belongs to God alone, but pointing the directee more and more toward the Lord. 

Are you called to accompany others spiritually as a spiritual director? Check out Divine Mercy University Spiritual Direction Certificate Program

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