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Life As a Therapist: Self-Disclosure

We are starting a new blog series entitled “Life As a Therapist”. In the coming months we will dive into the experience of navigating being both a human and a therapist. Therapists live half of their week listening to other people’s stories and using their own knowledge and emotional experiences to empathize and encourage personal healing. Then they go home to lives where they are grieving loved ones, getting divorced, managing their own mental health disorders, experiencing challenges in parenting, experiencing self-revelation, and so much more. We cannot wait to tell these stories and introduce the therapists who live them. Before we do, let’s understand a little more about self-disclosure and why these are the kinds of stories we rarely hear in detail.


In the origins of psychotherapy, therapists were meant to be a “blank slate” to allow a client’s experiences to reflect back to them. For example, what a client sees in a therapist is what they see in others and what they see in themselves. While there can be a place for this type of dynamic in the therapeutic world, we also know that humans thrive in connection. Carl Rogers, the founder of Person Center Therapy, believed that the therapeutic relationship thrives on Genuineness, Empathy, and Unconditional Positive Regard. A therapist bringing their full authentic self to sessions allows us to help our clients grow in their understanding of themselves and their relationships. We can use our own learning as therapists to help our clients walk their own paths.



“Use of self” is a concept that includes drawing from your own identity and experiences to better empathize with clients (internal evaluation and empathy), relating personal stories to illustrate a point without disclosing they are your own (generalized self-disclosure), and/or using sharing personal identities or stories to help illustrate a point that would not be as impactful to the therapeutic process without the disclosure that it is your own (direct self-disclosure). Some therapists only use the first aspect, recollecting similar experiences and using their own emotional responses to validate how the client may be feeling. Many of us use more of a “Goldilocks” approach around self-disclosure – not too little, not too much, but just the right amount can be genuinely helpful to our clients.

So what what’s too little? What’s too much? And how do I know if it’s really going to help?!


First, I will give you the annoying therapist answer – it depends.


Second, we have to examine three main points: who the sharing will truly benefit, if sharing will negatively impact the power dynamic, and if you feel safe and comfortable enough sharing a piece of yourself.


Who will the sharing truly benefit?

Therapists are people too. That means we are also wired for connection. When I hear about my client’s woes with their 9-year-old son’s baseball coach, I want to say “Oof, I have been there” and go into the coaches I have loved and loathed over the years. An “Oof I have been there” can be validating and help the client feel like because you have also had a 9-year-old baseball player you understand their experience to a greater extent than someone who hasn’t. That is a genuine, natural point of self-disclosure which can benefit the client and the therapist. It is what happens next that determines if we are sowing connection through empathy or minimizing the client’s experience by making it about our own.


What to say: “Oof, I have been there – Tell me more.” [Listen] “It is so hard to want give your child a chance to learn how to manage difficult situations and want to protect them from getting their feelings hurt by adults who take kids’ baseball too seriously”.


What NOT to say: “Oof, I have been there – our coach would do [this] and [that] and can you believe he would […]?! Youth sports is just awful these days. You should really pull your kid out.”

 

How Will it Impact the Power Dynamic?

Therapists inherently have more power than clients in the therapeutic dynamic. Our job is to wield that power humbly and responsibly.  In some cases, self-disclosure can overly influence a client in their decision making or it can cause the client to question the therapist’s credibility.


For instance, it can be appropriate to share you are also a person living with anxiety. We know it’s not appropriate to sell your clients the essential oils you use to treat your anxiety or tell them that you KNOW medication will not work for them because it didn’t work for you and the two of you are soooo similar. But if your client has been diligently going to therapy and using their coping tools but is scared that taking medicine means they have failed – would it help them to know that gasp sometimes therapists take medicine for anxiety too?


For some clients it can be the bit self-disclosure that helps them breathe in relief; that makes them realize they are human rather than broken and we are all trying the best we can with what we have. However, giving your exact medication regimen brings us back to the questioning and over influence. Your client may think: “Well, I’m on a different medication than my therapist. I need to get it changed right away so it will work!” or “My therapist takes way too many meds – I don’t know if I should really listen to them”. Each time we must ask ourselves – what is the least amount I can share that will be the most helpful?

 

What is Your Own Personal Risk?

Therapists have to consider their own emotional and physical boundaries in regard to self-disclosure.


Sometimes when we give an inch, the client may want a yard. People are curious and our clients are not exempt. We must know how they handle boundaries so we can come prepared with how to handle the follow up questions or chose to avoid self-disclosure altogether. Many clients can take a small bit of information and know it’s not appropriate to press further. Some clients struggle with knowing when to stop asking personal questions. A select few clients may even struggle with not using that information against us when they hit resistance in the therapeutic process. The latter benefit from only internal use of self and so do we.


Sometimes we are amid our own emotional turmoil and cannot open that container without it overflowing in session. Life doesn’t stop for anyone, including therapists. It can help to use the same kinds of scales we use for our clients. What level of anxiety or sadness or anger does this topic bring me on a scale from 1 (lowest) – 10 (highest)? If it’s above a 3 – do not open that container while providing a therapy session. You will be fighting with your inner emotions while trying to be attentive to your client’s needs and both you and your client will be better off avoiding any form of self-disclosure.


Sometimes we are part of marginalized communities and our story makes us emotionally and/or physically unsafe with clients struggling with biases against those communities. While we can say we should never keep clients with biases against our personal identities, it’s not always that simple. If our marginalized identities are not completely obvious, we must take time to figure out how we want to navigate sharing (or not sharing) those identities with clients. The long and short of it is that we have to know our own comfort level, our own capacity, our clients, and use our therapeutic judgment to make the best and safest choices for ourselves and our clients.


Do we lead with these identities in our bios so clients can self-select themselves out of our care? Do all our clients have to know about these pieces of ourselves? When and why do we or would we tell them? What is appropriate to say? These are not easy questions to answer and we will dive into them in our next post in the series, “Coming Out As a Therapist”. 

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