LMSW Exam Prep: Gaining an Understanding of Countertransference

By Emily Pellegrino on July 20, 2012

Woman looking at herself in the mirror


Countertransference has always been one of my favorites topics because it is something that everyone experiences while working with clients. While Freud was the first to coin this term, the way we view countertransference today has changed and been molded over time.  Let's jump right in with a sample question to get a deeper understanding of countertransference.


Which of the following statements BEST describes countertransference within the client-therapist relationship?

A. The projection of the client's feelings regarding past experiences onto the therapist

B. The therapist's emotional response to a client as a result of past experiences, including both conscious and unconscious feelings

C. A defense mechanism used by the client where unacceptable aspects of the client's personality are attributed to the therapist

D. The therapist's understanding of a client's symptoms or behaviors from a psychodynamic perspective

During my graduate program, countertransference frequently seemed to be a hot topic that came up when we discussed work with our clients.  It was always interesting that we each had different reactions or feelings about clients, even if they presented with similar problems. According to The Social Work Dictionary countertransference is defined as, "A set of conscious or unconscious emotional reactions to a client experienced by the social worker or other professional, usually in a clinical setting.  According to psychodynamic theory, these feelings originate in the professional's own developmental conflicts and are projected onto the client" (Barker, 2003).  Therefore, whether we have a positive or negative regard for a client, our feelings may be rooted in our countertransference reactions.  These reactions will affect the client whether we mean for them to or not and as such it is something that we continually need to be aware of in order to separate our "stuff" from the client's.  By doing this, we allow ourselves the opportunity to better understand the client by being more empathic and present in our work.


With this information in mind it should be clear that B is the best answer to the question.  We can rule out A and C because both of those statements are referencing the way the client feels and how that is projected onto the therapist.  When looking at a question regarding countertransference it is important to keep in mind that it is the way the therapist feels in reaction to the client, not the other way around.  Lastly, even though D incorporates some good aspects, such as how we can better understand the client through our own countertransference, it doesn't provide the best definition possible.

Coming up next week: Defense Mechanisms

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your LMSW exam? If you're preparing for the social work exam, check out our LMSW Study Materials. Learn more about our exam prep at the The Therapist Development Center home page.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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