ASWB Prep: Transference, Countertransference and Supervision

By Heidi Tobe on February 25, 2024

As one of TDC’s LCSW coaches, I receive hundreds of questions per week from customers preparing for their social work exams. Over the next few months, our social work blogs will focus on some of the most commonly asked questions for the ASWB exam that we’ve received in 2024. Whether you're preparing for your LMSW, LCSW, or LICSW exams, these blogs are for you.

This month, the focus is on transference, countertransference, and supervision. I'll be responding to the questions: What is countertransference? When should I seek supervision on the exam? When should I NOT seek supervision?

Transference, Countertransference and Supervision

What is countertransference?

Simply put, countertransference is the emotional reaction of the social worker to the client. While we often think of countertransference as being about negative responses to a client, these reactions can be positive or negative. If we find ourselves experiencing anything from feeling happier around a particular client, to feeling maternal or protective, to feeling irritated or having a lower mood after meeting with a client, these all can be forms of countertransference. When we experience this, a good first step is to seek supervision. 

When should social workers seek supervision?

On the exam, there are two main times when social workers should seek supervision:

  1. When they are experiencing countertransference.
  2. When the question stem tells us the social worker is unsure of how to proceed.

Even if it seems minor, if countertransference is happening, we should seek supervision. This is best practice and the best place to start when countertransference comes up. Additional steps may be needed after this, but the supervision will help us figure out what those next steps are.

Similarly, if we don’t know how to proceed in any given situation with a client (be it big or small) a good first step is supervision. On the test, be on the lookout for phrases like 'the social worker is unsure of how to proceed' or 'the social worker isn't sure whether ____ is ethical'. If you see something along those lines, a good first step is seeking supervision.

When do we not need to seek supervision?  

On the exam, there are a couple instances where people think we need to seek supervision, but we actually do not. 

  1. When a client is experiencing transference.
  2. When there is a values difference between the social worker and client.

I think of transference and countertransference as opposites. Countertransference is about the social worker and transference is about the client. Transference is the emotional reaction of the client to the social worker. Because transference is about the client's emotional reactions, it does not generally warrant a need for consultation or supervision on the exam. When transference is present, it is appropriate to use it therapeutically with the client. However, if a question tells us that the client is experiencing transference and the social worker is unsure of how to proceed, then (as noted above) we should seek supervision.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is a difference between values differences and countertransference. While a values difference can lead to countertransference, that is not always the case.  It is absolutely okay (and common) to have values differences with our client, and that in and of itself does not warrant a need for supervision. For example, if I have different political or religious beliefs than a client, that is absolutely okay and doesn't mean I need to seek supervision every time that occurs. In those instances, I should continue to treat the client without bias despite my views. However, as soon as countertransference occurs, I need to immediately seek supervision. So, if I have different political views from a client-totally okay; no need for supervision. If I have different political views from a client and I find myself frustrated by their beliefs (or I find that I am easily annoyed by them or feel less empathy for them, etc.), that is countertransference and I should seek supervision immediately. 

Next Month:

Next month we will cover the questions: How do I know when to seek supervision vs. consultation? When should social workers seek personal psychotherapy?

ASWB Exam Prep:

Are you ready for questions on transference vs. countertransference, countertransference vs. values differences, and when we need to seek supervision vs. when we don’t? TDC is here to help you with all of these topics and more. These can be challenging, nuanced topics, and our coaches are here to help with any lingering questions you have. All of our exam prep programs come with access to a coach who has passed the very exam you're preparing to take. We’re here to help you PASS with CONFIDENCE in 2024. TDC has helped over a hundred thousand mental health professionals become licensed-are you next?



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