Self-disclosure is a controversial topic among mental health professionals. Many orthodox analysts frown on sharing ourselves and our life experiences with our patients and instead embrace the notion of the “blank screen”. While total non-self disclosure – the blank screen – is not even possible, the theory behind the position is certainly valid and worthy of exploration.
As analysts, we to some degree self-disclose when we first make contact with a prospective patient to set up an appointment. Even before meeting the patient we inevitably convey some of who we are with our telephone or email manner. Whether we are a man or woman, warm or formal, brief or engaging – each will give a hint as to who we are and how we may be to work with. Although our slightest comment or tone can elicit projection and have enormous significance, some impressions are likely to have truth to them.
We need to ask ourselves to what degree the prospective patient’s inquiry into the therapist’s personal life deserves a direct reply? It is widely accepted when a woman seeking therapy wants to see a female therapist, when a gay person a gay therapist, or when a person wants to see a therapist of his/her own race or culture. There is some validity to the patient’s need to work with a therapist who, the patient feels, shares in their experience.
But how do we consider other more specific or potentially indiscrete questions? Because facts about the therapist may not be readily apparent or expressed (being a woman, being gay), questions about the therapist’s identity enters into the realm of self-disclosure. What if a person wants to see a therapist who is a parent, or of a certain age, or married? Such questions may be unanswered because they are deemed invalid requests. Yet, why is wanting a female therapist or African-American therapist acceptable but not a therapist who is a parent or older or partnered?
Probing questions or attempts at elucidating details of the therapist’s personal life may become more frequent once treatment starts. At that point, the questions have a different meaning; self-disclosure becomes delicate and the patient’s need for the information needs to be explored in treatment. Furthermore, the therapist must examine him/herself to distinguish what is best for the patient and what may only satisfy the needs of the therapist. As treatment continues, addressing the patient’s inquiries becomes a lot more complex.
Even if the analyst share very little, the person in therapy inevitably picks up many non-verbal cues as to the therapist’s identity. How the analyst dresses, moves about, sits, greets, ends sessions, and decorates their offices all inevitably hint at his/her personal life and influence the therapeutic process and affect the people in our care.