The Skill of Self-Disclosure
As therapists, we’re taught not to share about our personal lives in an attempt to be a blank slate for clients. I’ve never really liked the term “blank slate.” The gift of therapy is that it’s the opposite of blank. It’s full …. full of insight, reflection, knowledge, and powerful connections.
I will never argue that maintaining boundaries between client and therapist is extremely important. However, self-disclosure in the right moments, with the right intention, can be very powerful. It can reduce power differentials, build trust, and enhance authentic therapeutic alliances. It’s also worth recognizing that therapists are human. Throughout the past few years in private practice I’ve found that sometimes sharing the big and human moments makes me a little more real & a little more relatable, in a healing way.
Self-disclosure is a broad term. It essentially refers to anything that gives away something about who the therapist is. Where I like to eat, what my political views are, what experiences I may be able to relate to, whether I’m married, have children, etc., are all disclosures. In today’s social media culture, it can be especially hard to hide these things from clients. I have recorded a number of videos for the nonprofits I volunteer with that are relevant to my practice and featured on my social media pages. My clients are able to view them. They might see that I’m drinking Starbucks in the video, talking about celebrating Christmas, or giving examples of healthy family boundaries. These are technically disclosures. Modeling vulnerability and remaining a “blank slate” can be opposing concepts in today’s culture. I think Brene Brown, the queen of shame research, would agree with me that modeling vulnerability to clients wins that battle.
There is definitely a difference between appropriate vs. inappropriate self-disclosure. In therapy, I follow the general rule of, “is this helpful to the client.” Through a TON of training, I have learned how to be a tool in the process of change for clients. I’ve developed an intuition and learned to trust how effective I am in that. So, if self-disclosure feels right, there is a reason. Rest assured, there are boundaries. I am totally horrified when I hear a client come in and tell me that their previous therapist spoke about his/herself to them regularly (what they had for breakfast, about their hard day, etc.). I almost feel a need to apologize to clients for having that experience because it is so NOT what therapy should look and feel like. In my opinion, there needs to be an element of professionalism and the focus should always remain on the client and his or her best interest. My avocado toast that morning has nothing to do with that!
Outside of the office, and on social media, I communicate who I am and allow potential clients to decide if I sound like a fit for them. Through disclosures, I give them the opportunity to connect with me, still in a professional way, through the books I am reading and the events I am attending. These things can make for powerful conversations in session.
I understand why counseling programs drill the “NEVER DISCLOSE” rhetoric to their students. It is better to err on the side of caution than not. Professors can’t know whether they are training their students to go on to work in a prison setting or a small-town private practice. Disclosure looks very different in each. My level of disclosure has undoubtedly changed based on professional setting. When I worked with domestic violence perpetrators, you can bet there was about zero disclosure. Period. This was for safety reasons and the fact that I had a personal escort when leaving the groups I ran. But now, in private practice, in a relatively small community, working primarily with teens, disclosure is important. It builds rapport and trust, provides validation, reduces the power differential, and provides a role model for appropriate social interaction. The sense of intimidation lessens, and it helps the client feel as though they are not “crazy” (a word I hate in reference to counseling), or alone.
So that’s my take on disclosures. When it happens in an organic, therapeutic, and client-focused manner, there is value. I can be genuine, and still professional. I can allow my human side to show and still be a great therapist to my clients. Arguably, an even better one.