Therapists: Are You Having Political Countertransference?

How to maintain boundaries and gain self-awareness.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

 Ssstocker on 123RF
Source: Ssstocker on 123RF

The past several years have been politically heated. The past year’s pandemic has added another layer to the picture—social media and the news have become easily accessible and a constant companion on people’s phones and in their lives. This has added to an already polarizing political atmosphere.

More clients are coming to therapy now than in the past and talking emotionally and passionately about politics. They may just want to vent or to see if you agree with their political views. They may also assume that you agree with their view depending on the political majority in the area in which you are working and living as well as assumptions that they may have. They may also feel afraid because they have been obsessively on their phones researching topics, reading social media posts, and listening to podcasts. The political information available is endless, fear-inducing, and persuasive. 

Therapists also have strong political views and this is apparent in conversations with colleagues, reading messages on therapist social media networking groups, and in posts that they make on their personal pages. It is virtually impossible not to carry your own views and judgment into sessions with their clients. After all, we are human.

However, it appears that the lines have become blurred. Therapists may be engaging in political discussions now with their clients that they never may have entered in the past. Everyone has been more socially isolated, utilizing telehealth and needing a release.

You may ask, so what is the problem with talking about politics with a client? Talking about politics with your client is not a problem. The concern is when you are inserting your opinion, using their therapy session to gain validation of your own views, trying to change the views of your client, or having a political discussion that does not benefit the client therapeutically.

Clients come to therapy consciously or unconsciously to experience a safe space to process their emotions and traumas. It is our job not to allow them to contaminate or to contribute to the pollution of that container. 

This contamination can happen because we are not receiving appropriate supervision in order to process the best strategies for countertransference that we are having around political topics. While this may seem like a benign occurrence, it impacts so much of the way that many people are viewing each other.

We have been divided as a country and this has sadly infiltrated our therapy sessions. It is our ethical duty to make an effort to recognize and shift how we are handling political topics in a way that is best for our clients, not what may make us feel the most comfortable.

If you are questioning how you are managing political countertransference, then reach out to several colleagues and a supervisor to get their perspective. Be sure that you are asking someone who can respond in an unbiased way. It can be too easy to discuss this with a colleague whom you know will simply agree with you. 

Here are some strategies to help you to recognize and to manage political countertransference in your therapy sessions:

  1. Accept that we all experience this in some way.
  2. Do not assume that your client agrees with you politically.
  3. Practice mindfulness to allow judgments that you may have about a client for their political views to pass through without “sticking.”
  4. Observe your emotions before, during, and after a session with a client who may have similar political views.
  5. Observe your emotions before, during, and after a session with a client who may have differing political views.
  6. Assess if your client is using political topics to avoid dealing with emotional or personal issues and redirect appropriately.
  7. Use a political topic therapeutically to support the client in processing and managing the emotions that are coming up for them.
  8. If your client appears consumed and stressed by politics, support them by offering coping skills to better moderate their media and social media consumption.
  9. Use the client’s political frustration to talk in a more general way about the challenges of the past year or their lives in general.
  10. Create a nonverbal boundary by not engaging or changing the topic from politics.
  11. State a verbal boundary around specific political discussions by explaining the idea of therapy being a safe space and that you would prefer not to disclose your political views during their therapy time.
  12. If you feel that you have crossed a boundary in the past, have the courage to demonstrate taking responsibility for over disclosing with direct communication.
  13. Respond in such a general way around a political topic that it may appear that you are not informed nor wanting to engage.
  14. Redirect a political topic to a theme that may be occurring in the client’s life.
  15. Support clients in relying less on the external political climate, media, and social media to dictate how they are feeling.
  16. Support your client in taking a media and social media cleanse if it appears that their mood is being significantly impacted by its use.
  17. Lead by example in terms of finding strategies in your own life not to allow political topics to dysregulate your own emotions.
  18. Redirect your client to take action towards a cause that they may feel passionate about instead of just verbalizing their frustration or upset.
  19. Initiate a discussion about where your client obtains information and how this may impact their perspective and frustration level—and about how social media in particular can create polarization and/or an echo chamber.