Traumatic Transference And Its Impact On The Therapist

Ann O’Duffy

”Repeated trauma in adult life erodes the structure of the personality already 
formed. But repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the
 personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with
 formidable tasks of adaptation.

They must find ways to preserve a sense of trust in people who are 
untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that
 is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness.

Unable to care for or protect themselves, they must compensate for the
 failures of adult care and protection – with the only means at their disposal,
 an immature system of psychological defences.

Chronic childhood abuse takes place in a climate of pervasive terror, 
physical violence, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, threats,
 isolation, petty rules, psychological domination, secrecy, betrayal,
 intermittent rewards.

Within this environment they develop abnormal states of consciousness. It
 is as if the child goes into hiding deep within the unconscious part of the

In this article I would like to discuss the powerful yet often insidious impact that
 our clients’ anger and rage has on us as therapists. We are all aware of anger at a 
basic level and are quick to recognise it in others. However, what I really want to 
highlight is when we perceive anger coming from our clients at an energetic level.
 Particularly from clients who, as a result of their traumatic experiences, 
traumatically transfer their disconnected rage.

From time to time in the course of my work as a therapist, I meet such clients who 
challenge me in all aspects of my humanity. Clients who are suffering from 
complex post traumatic stress disorder with histories of chronic repeated trauma in 
their most formative years. They become children of the dark, contaminated to 
their very core, wandering through life searching for their soul. Going through the
 motions of living, yet feeling they don’t exist. Alienated from human connection, 
yet desperately seeking a place to rest.

”Feelings of rage and murderous fantasies are normal responses to abusive
 treatment. Like abused adults, abused children are often rageful and
 aggressive. They often lack verbal and social skills for resolving conflict.
 They approach each new situation from a fight, flight position.”²

“Even more than adults, children who develop in this climate of domination 
develop pathological attachments or bond traumatically to those who abuse 
and neglect them, attachments that they will strive to maintain even at the
 sacrifice of their own welfare, their own reality, or their lives.”³

Many believe that growing up will bring escape and freedom. Hampered by the 
burden of their earlier experiences they have great difficulty adapting to adult life. T
hey hunger for rescue, to be loved, cared for and protected yet are haunted by the 
fear of abandonment or exploitation.

They seek out anyone who seems to offer the promise of a special caretaking 
relationship. By idealising the person they become attached to, they attempt to 
keep at bay the constant fear of either being dominated or betrayed. They project 
onto the relationship their high expectations, huge demands and insatiable needs.

Sooner or later the helper falls from grace when they fail to live up to, by word or 
deed, or action, the huge needs, demands and expectations placed upon them. They 
become furious at the person they once adored. Unable to deal with interpersonal 
conflicts they develop a pattern of unstable relationships repeatedly enacting
 dramas of rescue, injustice and betrayal.

As a human being, I believe that no matter how wounded we have been by life we
 have a choice to move towards healing and light or choose to live out of our hurts 
and stay with the darkness. I also believe as human beings we are neither all good 
or all bad. It is in the acceptance and integration of all aspects of ourselves that
 healing can and does occur.

I always remember something that was said to me a long time ago: “There comes
 a time in life when we have to take responsibility even for the hurts we were not 
responsible for.” It was only when I began my own journey into healing that its 
meaning became clear to me. Even though I had been wounded by others, it was 
now my responsibility to heal past hurts.

We have a right to feel angry and enraged at those who hurt and abuse us. In fact 
the expression of justified and righteous anger once we have owned it can be a 
powerful healing experience enabling us to move from a helpless position to
 empowerment and liberation.

What we have no right to do is to project by word, deed or action our displaced, 
disconnected or disowned anger and rage onto those who do not deserve it. As 
therapists we may often find ourselves, when faced with a furious client, having to
 hold and contain the misdirected anger and rage that is consciously/unconsciously 
projected directly at us.

As I sit with clients, at times it feels like I am in the bowels of human suffering.
 Other times I am at the coal face of human darkness. For me to say I am a
 completely healed, whole, integrated human being would be an untruth. I, like the
 clients, struggle with my own negative emotional responses, especially when it
 touches into my own process.

However, as I face my own darkness and grow more into my spirit, I have come to
 recognise that there are some human beings either consciously or unconsciously 
who are unable to face the truth. I am reminded of a line from the film Jesus of 
Nazereth when asked by Pilate, “Who are you? Why have you come?” Jesus
 replied, “My one purpose is to bear witness to the truth.” For some it is the light 
not their darkness that most frightens them. They have turned away from truth,
 goodness, life, spirituality. They are unable to foster and maintain healing 
relationships. They live in terror of being found out. They come from all walks of 
life, professional, middle class, working class people.

Disconnected from self they create a persona or false self, needing to draw on the 
energy of others in order to survive and exist. They use everyone around them,
 then blame others for their relationship difficulties. They seek out those they can
 disempower to feel empowered, or the unsuspecting helper who becomes 
exhausted by their insatiable neediness. They rage at any attempt to draw them
 into the light. They fear annihilation and at all costs must defend or avoid ever
facing their darkness. They become energy vampires.

It is this impact on an energetic level that I would like to talk about. My earliest 
experience happened when as a trainee therapist, I facilitated a small group that 
was part of a large workshop. As soon as I sat down I could feel a pair of eyes
 boring into me. The energy was so strong I could feel heat on the side of my face.
 The idea of the group was to give each person space to integrate the day’s work. 
As I moved around the group, still conscious of the eyes, I asked the person would 
they like to share.

I had never met this person before. They looked at me, eyes blazing, and began to 
verbally attack me about my Dublin accent, who did I think I was trying to be, a 
therapist? and so on. I was stunned and shocked and had to struggle really hard to 
hold my composure. Inside I was disintegrating, confidence shattering with the
 velocity of the attack. Even though in my head I knew this was not about me, I
 was unable at that point to protect my inner responses.

All the therapists met at the end of each day to debrief. When it came to my turn
 I found myself unable to speak. I must have cried for about ten minutes before I 
was able to say what happened. Feeling really embarrassed, stupid, unprofessional
 in front of my colleagues who I might add were very supportive. I found out this 
person had spent their life perfecting their accent for fear of anyone recognising
 their working class background, I on the other hand was a reminder of everything 
they hated about themselves.

My next experience was much more profound. It happened during an initial 
meeting with a client. It was at the end of a long day, I was a little tired and was 
looking forward to going home. During the session I directly challenged
 something the client said. For a few seconds there was silence. The response to 
my challenge came at me with such force. For an instant I thought I had been shot.
 I was blown off my feet. I felt what I can only describe as a strong electrical
 current course through my body. Something had invaded my very being. I was 
stunned, disorientated as I listened to this disembodied voice that seemed to fill the
 room. I was being held by a force outside of myself. The energy was so strong it 
rendered me powerless, helpless and totally unprotected in the face of its
 onslaught. I understand now what it means to be in the eye of the storm, to be at
 the very core of terror. I was unable to respond or react. It was as if I was between 
two realities. (1) In the physical reality neither of us had moved or changed 
position and (2) at an energetic level powerful changes had occurred. All I could
 do was wait until the destructive force moved on. I had come face to face with the
 depths of human darkness. It shook me to my very core. I was totally ungrounded.
 All I wanted was to get this person out of the room and the building.

As this was the last client of the day, everyone else had gone home. I sat alone, 
trying to make some sense of what I had experienced. I felt like a rape victim.
 How could I talk to anyone about this? A mixture of emotions began to surface: 
shamed by my powerlessness/helplessness; guilt that I in some way invited the
 attack; inadequate in my ability to respond; exposed in that it touched into my own 
process; isolated in that others might not understand; fear that I might be judged. I 
have no doubt by my own emotional response that it touched into a very deep place
 in my psyche. I knew I was going to have to take a huge risk both for my sanity
 and the safety of my clients.

Thankfully, with the help of my supervisor, therapist and on-going personal
 therapy group, I was, in time, able to separate, own and integrate what was mine 
from the client.

One of the many pitfalls which therapists face when working with traumatic 
transference is a denial of their own emotional responses or reactions. We are 
human, we think, feel and react. No one likes to acknowledge the shadow side, 
negative fantasies, feelings and thoughts we may harbour towards our clients. Yet 
at the same time this is what the client is unconsciously demanding from us. When 
they traumatically transfer it’s as if they’re saying I need you to feel shame, hurt,
 humiliation, rage, fear and at times that of an abuser.

You may find yourself bestowed with the role of omnipotent rescuer, who has the
 power to save them from self or others, make them better, take their pain away, be
 available when needed, say all the right things, become caring mother, father,
 sister, brother, friend, lover. Showering you with praise, how good you are, you’re
 the best, recommending you to friends, the last therapist was no use. You may even begin to experience the saviour complex. Then you realise there is a loaded gun to
 your head. In their minds there is no room for error. The transference in 
traumatised clients does not reflect a simple dyadic relationship but rather a triad.

The therapist when working with the client will often feel the presence of the
 shadow victimiser, who has invaded all aspects of the clients’ psyche, which in turn
 affects all their relationships with others.

As the therapist establishes boundaries, the client rages against them. Either 
consciously/unconsciously, verbally or nonverbally. They distrust the motives of
 the therapist, trauma destroys the clients ability to enter into a trusting relationship.
’No one was there to help when the trauma occurred, why would anyone be willing 
to help now?’ Reflections are interpreted as accusations. Statements are 
interpreted as judgements, challenges as hostile attacks. It’s as if a destructive 
force appears to intrude repeatedly into the relationship between therapist and
 client as the violence of the perpetrator is re-enacted by the client onto the

The corner stone of therapy is based on safety, trust and honesty. As healing does 
not occur in isolation no therapist can work alone. Experiences of working with 
trauma have taught me that in order to work more effectively the therapist needs to
 take care of themselves, on a physical, emotional, spiritual and energy level.
 Therapists should work with their own process in a safe therapeutic relationship,
 have regular supervision, individual and or group supervision of client work and
 ongoing support. It is also important that we trust our own intuition when we sense
 dangerous or malevolent forces emanating from the clients’ energy field. I would
 suggest that we give great care and attention to our own sensitivity and energy 
remembering always to guard and protect ourselves, using whatever rituals needed 
to protect the psyche. The more space destructive energy is given the more it can
 take. Otherwise we are in danger of suffering vicarious symptoms of post 
traumatic stress disorder, feel incompetent and unskilled in the face of the 
traumatised person. We may lose sight of our basic trust in humanity, become
 vulnerable, fearful and cynical. We could violate our own boundaries and that of 
the client. Feel horrified at our identification with the perpetrator, lose sight of the
 clients strengths, disempower the client in our need to rescue, pre-empt the clients 
anger with our own and eventually lose confidence in the power of the 
psychotherapy relationship. ‘It is impossible to participate in another’s suffering
 without first healing ourselves’ Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling.


Judith Herman Lewis, Trauma & Recovery, Harper Collins Publishers.

Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling, Vintage.

Ann O’Duffy is a psychotherapist working with the New Day Counselling Centre,