Counter-transference:the Obscene Other

Counter-transference:the Obscene Other

ShootersIn my last post Transference: the Saviour the Madonna and the Slut, I dealt with the issue of transference and some of the ways this affects our lives and our relationships. Now I want us to consider the flipside of that coin, counter-transference.

Simply, counter-transference is what happens when someone transfers onto you and you react to their transference. This reaction can take two typical forms:

You transfer your unconscious contents onto them in response to their transference, which means you now no longer see them objectively.


You embody their transference, which means you no longer feel exactly like you, either when you’re with them or frequently even for a while after your contact with them ( by them I mean the other who is transferring onto you). This is typically called projective identification.

Both of these situations can be quite annoying , and remarkably resistant to consciousness intervention. Knowing you are counter-transferring, as with transference itself, does not mean it goes away. It can, but its bloody hard work.

Possibly the best description of counter-transference or at least embodied counter transference I have ever read comes from the French existentialist Sartre. He says, in Being and Nothingness, that it is only in the eyes of the other that you become yourself. At first this sounds quite sweet doesn’t it…however don’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency here.

Really what he means is you are reduced by the gaze of the other.

The (I) that I am in my own subjectivity becomes a (you), that you perceive me to be, in your objectifying gaze.

Think about it like this.

Why do you dress a certain way? For example, why do you buy a brand label item of clothing and not a generic no-name-brand? Why do you buy a certain type of motor car, design your home to look beautiful (well in Johannesburg of course most so called beautiful homes are really nasty pseudo Tuscan monstrosities, but that a subject for another post), why do you do your hair and wear makeup, go to the gym etc. etc.

Now admittedly you could give some quite pragmatic answers to these. I look after my home because it gives me pleasure, I go to the gym because I picked up a copy of Men’s Health and they advised it and so on. And maybe you even shop at Mr. Price and not Young Designers Emporium or some such. However regardless of these rather facile defences with a little bit of digging you will come to the point I’m sure.

You do many, most, or all of these things because you care about how you appear/seem/are in the eyes of the other.

Me too, don’t get me wrong. God knows I wouldn’t spend hours writing these posts if I didn’t care what you thought. In fact I have quite a bad dose of it (whatever it might be). The point is simply that both you and I exist in a state of almost sublime transcendence until we are concretised and thereby reduced by the gaze of the other.

As I sit writing this I am totally relaxed and without a care in the world I exist in a kind of imaginary reverie, all things are possible and so on.

However when we met and you cast your very judgemental gaze over my person, and in a matter of seconds sum me up and pass judgement about my age, figure, height, dress, looks, context and so forth, not only do I feel considerably less relaxed, but I am reduced to what you see. At least temporarily until you leave and once more I can return to my reverie.

I become for a time what you perceive me to be.

If you think about it like that, the allure of the stage becomes quite apparent. As an actor I assume different roles and in so doing I explore different parts of my being. Because in your eyes I become that which I am pretending to be, and through that becoming I experience it as a reality. Think of what it must be like to be singer or dancer performing in front of thousands of adoring fans. For the time that you are on stage you transcend the human and become divine- this is the gift that is bestowed on performers. It comes at a high price though so let us not envy them excessively.

In your gaze my infinite possibilities are reduced and take on a definite form. Analogous I would say to the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics. Any position and outcome is possible until a definite one is assumed at the point of measurement (your gaze).

How this affects you practically

Well this is not too difficult to figure out. You only need to think of how you feel in the company of others as opposed to on your own. But more practically seeing as I’m assuming you don’t wish to become a hermit, the thing to consider is the specifics.

How do you feel, think and behave in the company of different people?

Some I imagine, make you feel better about yourself than others. This could be through what they say, but equally it could be the kind of silent communication that occurs in transference. Whether or not you were already aware of this ‘ i.e. prior to reading this post, it is really worth thinking about.


How you are with different people.
Who brings out the best in you, and who the worst?
Who makes you feel good about yourself, and who less than good?

Now we don’t always have a choice as to who we socialise with. For example you may not be able to choose your colleagues at work or even less so your family. However where you can choose who you spend your time with, it is well worth being selective. This is what we mean when we speak of consciousness- make conscious choices about who you will spend your time with.

When considering such a question be sure to ask yourself not only who you enjoy being with- but why? In other words which personality or unconscious complex (of yours) is being fed by this relationship? What are you nurturing in yourself through this association?

Naturally what you nurture will bloom, and what you don’t will not. So it’s really not an unimportant question to consider. Spend time with people who bring out what you want to be, over time their unconscious transference on to you becomes your reality.

Until next time.


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Comments (5)

  • Myke Reply

    Thanks for this post. It’s been very helpful. I’d like to get in on the conversation … transference/countertransference.

    October 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm
  • Mike Reply

    We all do what we do, and behave like we behave, because we want to get layed. Simple as that!

    October 22, 2013 at 9:00 pm
    • Marius Reply

      So how is that approach working for you, Mike?

      October 23, 2013 at 10:14 am
    • JRW Reply

      Funny! Are you serious?!!

      October 24, 2013 at 11:19 am
  • Kathy Reply

    Wow. Wow. Wow. These questions really hit home. I am trying to work out why I am in (and staying in) my current long long distance relationship where I am just realizing there are all sorts of issues related to his anima, my animus, transference, narcissistic behavior, etc. (I know, I know, the answer of what to do about it is obvious.) But I am going to spend some dedicated time answering these questions. It’s easy to point the finger and say he’s wrong, he has the problem BUT what am I getting out of it is the bigger question! Because I must be getting something significant. I’m just not sure what, besides the almost ridiculous notion of « love ».

    April 19, 2021 at 1:56 am

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