The Definition Of Parallel Processing Psychology

By Nadia Khan

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Michelle Lind

What is Parallel Processing?


The broadest parallel processing psychology definition is the ability of the brain to do many tasks at once. For example, when you observe an object, your brain makes observations about its color, shape, texture, and size to identify that object correctly. Observing these different characteristics requires your brain to accomplish several tasks at once.

Another parallel processing definition in psychology has to do with the way systems interact with one another. Government institutions, organizations, counselors, and clients all exist as part of systems that are nested within one another. Anything that affects one of these systems impacts all of them. Therefore, the counselor is affected by dysfunction in the larger society or civilization and may bring some of that dysfunction with him into the counseling relationship.

Another kind of "parallel processing" can take place in response to this dysfunction. If you are a client, you may not even be aware that it is happening because it happens outside of the therapy session. But if it's done well, you will almost certainly reap the benefits.

For this purpose, our parallel processing definition in ap psychology is the replication of the relationship between a counselor and client in a supervisory setting. In other words, a therapist works with a supervisor to reenact a specific counseling situation. The therapist takes the client's role, and her supervisor takes on the role of the therapist.

For example, a therapist may find that he has been "stuck" during the last few sessions with a client. They keep going over and over the same conflict, emotions, or situation without getting anywhere, and both parties begin to feel frustrated. There are many reasons this could be happening (which we'll touch on later), but in this circumstance, the counselor may need some help from a supervisor. As the counselor assumes the role of his client and experiences his supervisor's response to the situation, he gains new insights about the situation which can help him treat his client more effectively.


How Parallel Processing Works

The effectiveness of parallel processing psychology depends on two processes: transference, and countertransference.

Both processes are subconscious, but awareness of them is necessary for the treatment to be effective.

In transference, the counselor identifies with her client and automatically reflects his or her behaviors and thought processes during parallel processing. There are all kinds of reasons that this may be happening. Sometimes, the counselor is simply trying to put herself into the client's shoes to empathize better. It's also possible that the counselor or therapist may be struggling with some of the same issues that her client is dealing with.

After all, many therapists go into the profession because they see therapy as a route to healing. In turn, the supervisor models' responses or possible solutions.

For a long time, it was thought that parallel processing was happening in one direction only, with transference the sole method through which a solution could take place. But later research has found that the effects of parallel processing move in another direction also: from the supervisor back down to the client through the process of countertransference.

Not only does the therapist replicate the counseling situation, but the relationship between the therapist and his supervisor is mirrored back to the client, as the therapist unconsciously identifies with his supervisor and passes along the same responses to the client.

Benefits of Parallel Processing

While there are many potential problems with parallel processing as a means of treatment, there are situations in which it can be helpful. Here are a few.


    • To move treatment along with more quickly and make it more effective. There are times in the client-counselor relationship where treatment may be moving very slowly. Perhaps you've been rehashing your problems in your marriage for weeks, and your counselor seems hesitant to make suggestions. Or maybe you have been trying to resolve the trauma that resulted from being the victim of a violent crime, while unbeknownst to you, your counselor was also once the victim of a similar crime and has some of his past issues to resolve. In cases like this, parallel processing can help you, and your counselor moves past these problems and works together to find solutions.
    • To help tease out dysfunctional responses from individual counselors or therapists. Therapists are human too! It is possible to become locked into dysfunctional patterns with your therapist or counselor. She may be reacting too harshly or punitively, or perhaps too passively and hesitantly. There may be a personality conflict or an uncomfortable dynamic between the two of you. Parallel processing can make your therapist aware of this and resolve it to respond more healthily.
    • To encourage reflection. Therapy is an emotional process, and sometimes a little distance is necessary. Like anyone else, counselors and therapists sometimes need to take a step back and look at their work from a distance to gain perspective and determine what should be done
    • To help mental health practitioners manage their stress. Mental health counseling is consistently ranked as one of the most stressful occupations in the US, and no wonder. As much as it can be rewarding to help people resolve their deepest inner conflicts, it can be devastating to absorb that much pain daily. Parallel processing is one way that mental health practitioners can share the load with others and make it more manageable so that they can help you better.

    Potential Problems

    Parallel processing does not always work, and in some cases, it can even do more harm than good.


Here are some potential disadvantages to the parallel processing method.

  • Lack of awareness. The transference and countertransference processes can happen without the therapist or the supervisor being aware of them. Without this self-awareness, therapy can remain stuck in the same unproductive pattern. It requires specific reflection on issues as they arise to break these patterns and move forward.
  • The nature of the relationship between the therapist and supervisor can make the therapist feel anxious and defensive. Unlike the client-therapist relationship, which is safe and non-judgmental, a relationship with a supervisor has the power to influence a career for good or ill. Because of this imbalance of power, therapists may be uncomfortable simulating a counseling relationship with a supervisor.
  • Exhaustion if overused. Parallel processing is meaningful if it is used judiciously, within a context that makes sense. But using it excessively or using it at the wrong time can make it seem superfluous. Any insights gained will be completely offset by the sheer exhaustion of the strenuous process.

However, there are a few tried-and-true ways that counselors and supervisors can avoid some of these common pitfalls.

Strategies for Success


Here are some strategies that can be used to get the full benefits of parallel processing.

  • Provide a framework for understanding the process. Especially for beginning counselors, it's crucial to help them understand the process in terms that are simple and specific. It's important to guide counselors to self-awareness in ways that make the process seem manageable and can reduce anxiety.
  • Use parallel processing only with mature, confident counselors. Novice counselors often lack the confidence and self-awareness to get much out of parallel processing. But advanced counselors, who have been engaged in the process for some time, have usually developed enough awareness and confidence to open themselves up to the scrutiny that is required.
  • Exercise caution about when parallel processing is used. When the decision is made to use parallel processing, the supervisor must be clear about the reasons for using it and the goal that it will accomplish. It should be used with discernment and only when the situation calls for it.
  • Pause when necessary to reflect on what's happening. Because so much of what happens during parallel processing is subconscious, participants may be unaware of how they are mirroring the counseling situation. In this circumstance, change can't happen unless the therapist specifically reflects on the process to tease out what isn't working. Otherwise, he will continue to make the same mistakes that he is already making, because he will be unaware of them. A good supervisor will point out obstacles as they come up so that the therapist can observe alternative ways of dealing with them.
  • Keep the client's needs to the forefront. It can be hard to break out of that anxiety-producing perception of being judged in a supervisory setting. But if both supervisor and therapist put the client's needs ahead of their own, the process can work very well. That's because they are considering how best to help the client rather than how well they are performing.

Parallel processing psychology can be challenging and taxing and doesn't work in every situation. If a counselor undergoes this grueling process, you can be sure that she genuinely cares about her clients and wants the best for them.


If you feel you are not getting what you need in a counseling situation, our trained counselors at Better Help can get you on the road to healing. They have participated in all kinds of supervisory activities, including parallel processing, to serve you better, no matter what issue you are struggling with.

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