What We Self-Disclose

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.

4 comments on “What We Self-Disclose

  1. Beth Rontal, LICSW October 30, 2011 6:06 pm

    Very interesting. I switched careers from costume designer to psychotherapist in 1995 and found similarities between the two just as you found between being an actor and therapist. I wrote about it on my blog and mentioned you as the inspiration.

  2. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem October 31, 2011 12:42 pm

    I started my practice in a small town where many people knew my family and my children went to the only high school. Being an unknown to most clients was impossible. Many clients knew something about me and called because they liked my reputation.
    I moved to a larger urban area to protect my children and my privacy. Some clients who came by referral already had heard information that I wasn’t aware of them knowing. Things like; “I know you have two daughters just like I do.”
    After over 30 years of practice my self help memoirs attract clients who know me from my books and come because they identify with me.
    As a relationship therapist I feel my relationship with my clients is part of the process of their growth. It is also a great learning for me. Careful sharing is still a vital part of a professional relationship and knowing my clients are not my friends even though I meet them in the community is important.

  3. isabella mori (@moritherapy) November 10, 2011 9:30 pm

    fascinating topic. i agree with virginia satir who said (and i paraphrase) that self disclosure that helps the client grow is helpful.

    sometimes we find outselves in situations where we need to initiate self disclosure. i had that a few weeks ago when a client wanted to see me for an issue that i felt necessitated me disclosing my personal experience with that issue, otherwise we could have easily set the stage for a difficult transference situation. i neeeded to check that out right from the beginning so that i could refer that person on if necessary.

  4. Noah Clyman December 4, 2011 5:42 pm

    Great post, Basia! From a CBT perspective, self-disclosure can be helpful (even transformative!) to the client when used judiciously. For example, I work with many clients who struggle with social anxiety. Their anxiety stems from negative, self-critical thoughts which are often distorted, E.g., “Other people at the party will think I’m a loser; I don’t have what it takes to make friends; I’m weird and people won’t like me.” They often feel ashamed of their anxiety, presume that they are alone in these feelings, and believe that people would look down on them if ‘word got out.’ They are, therefore, often surprised when I tell them that everyone feels anxious in social situations from time to time, and I too have had these thoughts and feelings. This disclosure helps to normalize their feelings and imparts a sense of understanding – that I get their internal reality. We are then even more successful at cognitive restructuring and behavioral exposure work, to help them overcome the anxiety.
    Regarding the old-school psychoanalytic approach of being a ‘blank screen’ – I find this style ineffective and alienating for clients. Many clients have come to me stating that previous therapies failed b/c the therapist was insufficiently warm, engaged, and transparent.

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