As therapists, we are trained to be blank slates. If a client asked us a question about our personal life, we were taught to turn it around and ask a question. A simple question, such as “are you married?” got a response of “what meaning is there for you to know about this?”. Early therapeutic theories are based on the concept that sharing personal experiences or views could negatively impact a client’s value system and threaten the client’s trust in the therapist as an appropriate source of support. Too much counselor self-disclosure has the potential to blur the boundaries and run the risk of eventually destroying the professional relationship.
Since 2020, at the start of the pandemic, most clinicians quickly shifted to online therapy. Many of us provided services with mullet-style attire–business blouse/shirt on top, cozy sweats, and even pajamas on the bottom—along with blurred backgrounds or actually cleaned up a spot in our home. We got a more intimate glimpse into our clients’ homes full of pet cameos and even potty-training youngsters who could care less that a therapy session was occurring. And our clients got a more intimate look into our lives. My clients these last few years have gotten a few visits from my furries.
There is Intimacy in Shared Trauma
We have all been in a collective trauma for the last few years. No one has escaped some sort of trauma. This is why many therapists were booked solid and had no referrals for clients needing guidance and support. Along with our clients, we suffered from overwhelming isolation and grief. We were also separated from loved ones, felt pulled in a million ways, lost loved ones, and were cut off from some of our self-care activities and support groups. Some of us decided to self-disclose—sharing with clients and colleagues our struggles and the responses to what we were experiencing.
For the first time in modern psychology, the therapist and the client lived through a shared experience. The concept of the Wounded Healer reminds us that most of us decided to pursue the healing arts because we survived and grew from a wound. We use our life experience and healed wounds to connect, guide, and help our clients heal. How does this happen when we are also amidst surviving and have not had the space to heal ourselves?
After two full years of the pandemic, insane politics, seeing women’s rights erode, opening my own therapy center, seeing clients, providing support to clinicians opening their own practices, supervising clinicians, and being the primary caretaker for my beloved mother, took a toll. Life stopped when she became very ill, ended up in the ER, and almost died. I found myself for the first time freezing in my life. So much so that I stopped seeing clients, and I found myself isolated even further.
When I finally emerged, I felt embarrassed and afraid to share openly about what had occurred. After all, therapists are the experts in emotional well-being. Therapists are supposed to know how to process emotions. All humans respond and are impacted by trauma and life experiences differently. I learned that being a mental health therapist with years of skills and practice did not make me immune. Healing for me meant being more vulnerable, and sharing my experience—not as me the “expert,” but as part of the collective hurting.
Self-Disclosure and Healing
More modern psychotherapeutic thoughts believe that a therapist’s self-disclosure is a powerful means of building rapport with clients—essential to The Therapeutic Relationship and support in developing trust. The use of clinical self-disclosure helps convey empathy and helps clients feel that they are not alone in their struggles and feel heard and validated.
The purpose of a therapeutic relationship is to assist the client in therapy in creating desired change in their lives. Such a relationship is vital because, often, therapy is the first setting in which someone openly shares intimate thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. The therapist provides a safe, open, and non-judgmental atmosphere where the client can be at ease. Therapists are encouraged to show empathy and genuineness. Yet what is often missing from this relationship is the therapist.
As a clinician and a supervisor, I have learned the importance of the person of the therapist—who the therapist is in all facets of life, not just in the therapeutic setting. Personal disclosure by a therapist serves to “humanize” the therapist.
The focus is not on being just the “expert’’ but on being human and living a shared experience with our clients, even if only at that moment. It also reminds us of the importance of self-care. Of pausing and breathing and feeling rather than running from session to session. It also allows us to make space for our happenings. How often have you paused a session because a pet or child chose to ignore a closed door these few years?
Acknowledging that therapists are going through challenging times can be scary because we are not taught to truly include ourselves in the therapeutic relationship. Understandably, this can be very scary for some. It forces us to learn about ourselves, explore our biases deeply, and create a relationship of equity with our clients.
Considerations for Self-Disclosure
Clinical self-disclosure can be detrimental if it is provided without consideration of the client’s presenting problem. Below are some self-disclosure considerations:
- Consider the benefits. Ask yourself before using self-disclosure just how the disclosure will help the client. Unless a clear benefit to the client can be identified, self-disclosure should not be used.
- Consider the risks. Consider the potential detriment that self-disclosure might have on the client. The use of self-disclosure should be reconsidered if any potential risks to the client can be identified, regardless of the prospect of potential benefits.
- Be brief. In self-disclosing, say what you need to say in the most concise manner possible, limiting the details of your disclosure to what is most likely to benefit the client. Self-disclosure is less likely to cause harm when it is thoughtfully planned in advance of the session in which it is used.
- Use “I” statements. Make it clear that you are giving your opinion based on your personal experiences only. Otherwise, it can be easy for clients to assume that you are conveying academic and professional expertise, and this can be misleading.
Make sure you have processed your feelings before sharing. Refrain from using self-disclosure until you have had time to process your emotions and thoughts regarding your experience. You do not want to put your client in the position of caring for you.
Sharing with others about what was happening in my life was part of my healing journey because I did not have to pretend nothing was happening. Instead, it was a process of being present despite everything happening. It allowed me the grace to care for myself, my clients, and my mother.
Remember that predicting how a client will respond to disclosure can be difficult. Since each client is different, as is each therapist, careful monitoring and frequent checking-in are essential.
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