By Veronica Vaiti, LCSW-R, CCATP
In our work as psychotherapists, it’s inevitable that we will encounter moments when a client either asks us a personal question about our lives that stirs discomfort within us regarding how to answer, or when a client is having a life experience similar to something we have endured, or are currently enduring, and we feel an uncertain urge to share and if so, why and how much?
These unsure and often awkward moments fall under that broad topic of how best to manage self-disclosure (which is the therapist sharing personal information about themselves with their clients) in our professional therapeutic relationship and such moments can be quite anxiety provoking for therapists, especially those newer to the field.
The Therapist’s Dilemma: The Tricky Nature of Self-Disclosure
What makes self-disclosure so tricky is the unique type of relational intimacy that we cultivate with our clients.
The agreed upon and professionally expected nature of our therapeutic relationship with our clients is a sacred, safe and one-sided arrangement focused purely on the client’s lived experience, with the therapist role being that as the careful, compassionate, observer, guide and interventionist.
As we invite our clients to share their deepest, most intimate, hurting and vulnerable parts of themselves with the goal of their finding healing and growth, we as therapists develop great care and concern for them. We bear witness to their journey, we empathize with them and we feel deeply with them all of which deepens the level of connection we can feel with our clients.
As human beings, our deeper connections thrive with the emotional and mental presence and sharing we offer to one another and so the inclination to share more about ourselves can feel at once both natural and instinctual yet professionally and ethically out of bounds due to the context of this therapeutic relationship we hold. We can feel mixed and unsure at certain moments which is the best path to follow – to share or not to share, and if so, what and how much?
The Impact of Self-Disclosure: Benefits and Risks for Clients
It’s important to note here that different therapeutic theories and modalities approach self-disclosure differently with some being more restrictive and others a little looser. So I should state here that my personal approach to practice is largely informed by the humanistic, experiential and somatic schools of thought, which may require the therapist to share more freely their felt experience during the therapeutic process.
Two questions I propose below are for clinicians to reflect upon as a basic starting point to clarify what their individual comfort levels are and how to think about moments when self-disclosure emerges and to do so with respect to whatever school of thought and model of practice a clinician feels most aligned with . In actuality, these tricky moments we encounter can be so chock-full and go a number of different directions, and so are often better served by deeper exploration in clinical supervision to further gauge what course is best to take. There is seldom a purely right or wrong or black and white path to take. Yet, here is a good place to start:
1. What is your comfort level with sharing about yourself with your clients? The natural jumping off point is assessing for yourself, as a therapist, how much personal information you are comfortable and willing to share either directly and also indirectly? Before even uttering a single word, we all “show” a bit about ourselves by how we dress and adorn our offices, which can serve as little windows into our personal lives.
For example, I had a supervisor once whose office was overflowing with pictures of their children and family and their world travels and another supervisor at another point in time who purposely didn’t wear their wedding ring in their client sessions. While one way or the other is not more right or wrong, it was completely dependent upon their individual styles and comfort levels with displaying information about their personal lives, I did feel so much more at ease being vulnerable as a newer clinician with the first supervisor than I did with the second.
2. How can what I might share be beneficial or detrimental to my client? Whether a client directly asks you something personal or whether the feeling arises within you to share something personal during a session, an important point to consider is how might this information be either helpful or potentially harmful to my client? I’ll share two examples with you.
Once when I was working with a young adult client who was working on the grief of losing a parent suddenly at a young age- an experience I have lived through myself. I eventually shared about the loss of my father with this client and when doing so, it was with the hope and intention of showing by example that living a fulfilling life beyond a devastating premature loss of a parent was possible. My disclosing about my loss, did provide that reassurance to my client and also deepened our therapeutic relationship from having such a painful shared experience.
Another example involves an intern I was supervising who shared aspects of their historical personal journey with disordered eating with a client they were working with on their current struggle with disordered eating, with the intention of also providing evidence it was possible to work through it and land in a healthier place. The result was the opposite in that the client felt an increase in shame about their struggles and doubt that they would ever be able to overcome their disordered eating in the way their therapist had done.
Approaching Self-Disclosure with Caution
This second example points to the power differential inherent in the therapeutic relationship. Even when we come to this work with the purest of intentions and most open human heart and desire and intention to be an impartial and nonjudgmental guide to our clients, because of the built-in one-sided dynamic, the therapist is often viewed by the client as being in a place somewhat “above” the client. Hence why it is absolutely essential to approach such instances of self-disclosure with the utmost sensitivity, insight, clarity and compassion because even when we have the best intentions, we just do not know how what we may share may land on someone who’s mental health may be in a very vulnerable state.
Even though there is no one hard and fast rule for all styles of therapy regarding managing self-disclosure, proceeding from a stance of caution and exploring together with your clients when such instances of possible self-disclosure arise, how they may feel and how they might find it helpful if they were to learn certain things about you is very important for the therapeutic relationship.
While I tend to tell my clients they are welcome to ask me anything, I also make it known that I might not share everything and that we will look at what comes up in light of how such personal information might be useful to them and can help to move the therapy forward. The therapeutic space is such a sacred and special space for our clients to soak up the attention and care, not everyone wants or needs to know much, or anything at all about their therapists.
To Dive Deeper into this topic, please join us Thurs 9/28/23 12-2pm ET for our 2 CE Class, Managing Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy
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