The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Utilizing Transference & Countertransference to Deepen the Treatment of Eating Disorders, with Kathryn Zerbe, M.D.

Following an incredibly positive response to her April 2009 presentation on integrated treatment for eating disorders, we are thrilled to welcome Kathryn Zerbe, M.D. back to Baltimore for our 2010 annual professional symposium.  Dr. Zerbe will present, along with 5 other distinguished experts, at Eating Disorders: State of the Art Treatment on Saturday September 25th, 2010.  Her much anticipated  presentation will focus on psychodynamic approaches and the use of transference and countertransference to enhance clinical practice in the treatment of individuals with eating disorders.

Kathryn Zerbe, M.D. is a Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics & Gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University.  She also serves as the Director of the Oregon Psychoanalytic Institute and has authored over 60 clinical papers and four books including, Integrated Treatment for Eating Disorders: Beyond the Body Betrayed.  Dr. Zerbe is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a Fellow of the Academy of Eating Disorders. She has been repeatedly selected as one of “America’s Top Doctors” and is a highly sought after speaker both in the united states and internationally.

Find out more about Dr. Zerbe’s work and her upcoming presentation in Baltimore by reading her insightful and thought provoking responses to our questions below.  And don’t miss your chance to attend all six expert presentations on September 25th, 2010. (This event has been approved for 7 CME/CEUs). REGISTER soon!  Space is limited

Q & A with Kathryn Zerbe, M.D.

The title of your upcoming talk in Baltimore is “Resiliency, Vulnerability and Growth: Utilizing Transference and Countertransference Reactions to deepen the Treatment of Eating Disorders”.  What specific role does vulnerability play in this process?

KZ: Bewilderment, boundaries, and burnout — these are just a few of the concerns that clinicians are liable to struggle with when treating patients with an eating disorder.  Recognizing that in our quest to be helpful to our patients, we also face a potential undertow because the work to preserve life is taxing in the short run and often takes a commitment of time, energy, and sacrifice in the long run.  Clinicians ‘in the trenches’ know these facts, but what do we do to help ourselves to deal with the hurt feelings that arise when tenacious negative transferences arise, or when we are in a seemingly unwinnable battle with 3rd parties, or experience powerlessness when the patient refutes our counsel?  Awareness to these vulnerabilities, and others, are the first line of defense in staying attuned, steadfast, and nimble in robust clinical practice.

What would you say is the biggest barrier clinicians may face in trying to implement improved strategies for utilizing transference and countertransference in the clinical setting?

KZ: “To know thyself’ and “To be true to thyself’ have been laudable goals since the time of Socrates and Shakespeare, respectively, but such ideals are easier to write about in the abstract than to achieve in real time.  With the daily challenge of managing a lively practice and tending to one’s busy personal life, it is easy to put one’s own needs on the back burner.  Taking a small amount of time weekly to think about the impact of clients is enormously helpful.  In this way, one works on the feelings and clinical formulation one has about each specific person in practice but is simultaneously humbled by what each person teaches us by sharing their unique history and viewpoints.


What are the potential consequences of ignoring or ineffectively addressing transference and countertransference issues in the therapeutic process?

KZ: Like most clinicians, I feel extraordinarily blessed to be working in this field where one has the opportunity to witness individuals grow and change over time.  However, burnout is a formidable foe to contend with because change is often difficult, slow, and painful for the patient.  Sensitive clinicians pick up on, or in technical parlance, “contain,” these feelings.  To avoid burnout and to keep the work fresh, invigorating, and growth promoting, the therapist  who ‘knows himself or herself’ best is in a better position to assist the patient, and this is a ‘work in progress’  that is never done until one retires from practice altogether.

In your upcoming presentation, you will discuss strategies for managing “cultural countertransference”. Can you briefly define this term in the context of treating individuals with eating disorders?

KZ: Therapists as well as patients are prone to having conscious and unconscious reactions to media stereotypes, idealized body images, and culture norms as a whole.  We clinicians are in a better position to help our patients by becoming more aware of these potential ‘blind spots’ to  the  prevailing cultural  in ourselves and thinking them through.  Recovery can be enhanced by a timely discussion and critique of noxious cultural norms in therapy.  Both patient and clinician can make use of reading, media, movies, self-scrutiny, and ongoing dialogues with peers or consultants to become more cognizant of our largely unconscious idealization and overvaluation of beauty.   However, as Dr. Catherine Steiner Adair of Harvard University pointed out when she defined the term ‘cultural countertransference,’ in the early 1990s, we must also be wary that too much focus on the culture can be a defense to deepening the patient’s treatment.

Overall, what do you hope symposium attendees will take away from your presentation at The Center for Eating Disorders on September 25th?

KZ: If participants emerge from my talk (which will use art history slides to demonstrate concepts and to provide encouragement for each therapist to bring his/her unique creativity and tenacity to the therapy hour) with permission to ‘take care of yourself’ as you take care of the patient, I will be very happy, indeed.  Perhaps there will be an idea or two that will be new to the ear, but more likely the listener will simply take more seriously the need for ‘time outs’ and the pragmatic and psychodynamic reasons that undergird that need and recommendation.  One of my heroines, Eleanor Roosevelt, said “Do something that is scary everyday!”  I keep that saying on my desk as a reminder that our daily work as clinicians presents us with mysteries and a summons for personal growth that we can’t predict when we get to the office in the morning.  The more tools that we have in our therapeutic hip pocket, the better!  So, I’m looking forward to gaining wisdom from the other speakers who come first and hearing the comments and questions from the audience to, very selfishly, enhance my individual practice!

Our enduring thanks to Dr. Zerbe for taking time out of a busy schedule to provide such thorough answers. Be sure to join us on September 25th for what is sure to be an engaging and enlightening presentation.  Download the Eating Disorders: State of the Art Treatment PROGRAM BROCHURE (pdf) for registration details and deadlines.

If you’d like to order or find out more about Dr. Zerbe’s publications, please click on the links below.  These titles will also be available for purchase at the upcoming symposium.

Leave a Reply