“My offence is that I have not kept silent upon the lessons I have learned from life.”
– Plato, The Apology of Socrates
Much of early psychodynamic theory was founded upon the principle of the therapist acting as a tabula rasa or ‘blank slate’, allowing the client to project feelings and transfer early childhood relationships onto the analyst. Freud suggested that the physician should be “impenetrable to the client, and, like a mirror, reflect nothing but what is shown to him.” In psychoanalysis, this then allows the therapist to identify and interpret the client’s patterns of relating and unconscious feelings and motivations, bringing these into the client’s awareness without the process being interrupted by the therapist’s own self. But to what degree is such a removal of self desirable, or even possible, in the modern therapeutic relationship?
It is widely acknowledged that particular types of disclosure within the therapy session, such as revealing immediate ‘here and now’ feelings, are not only beneficial to the therapeutic relationship, but actually constitute a fundamental aspect of it (Yalom 2003, Mearns & Cooper 2005). By disclosing relevant thoughts, feelings and processes, the therapist becomes transparent to the client, and it is possible for the client to see the therapist as a real human being, experiencing the moment alongside them. This can be done, for example, by sharing hunches about material that the client may be minimizing, or by expressing deeper, empathetic feelings that the counsellor may be experiencing during the session.
However, the situation becomes less clear when the disclosure is of a personal nature extending beyond the ‘here and now’ moment of the therapeutic encounter. To what extent is it appropriate for a counsellor to share some of their personal experiences with the client? Should this be encouraged if the experiences are similar to those of the client for the purposes of helping the client feel understood, or discouraged so as not to blur the lines between the client’s processing, and that of the therapist? Does self-disclosure help to minimize the inherent power imbalance in a therapeutic relationship, where one member is expected to reveal all, whilst the other gives little beyond their immediate response? Is there something inherently avoidant – or even damaging – in talking about one’s own experiences at the moment a client is most vulnerable, or is failing to disclose a relevant experience, attitude or perspective the ultimate act of incongruence?
Arguably, self-disclosure takes place on many levels before the session even begins. Our choice of email address, the pictures we display of ourselves on counselling directories, the quality of our written communication about ourselves, our preferred method of contact with a client, all give away subtle clues about us before we’ve even started. Our choice of words during the initial phone call, our first greeting, our accent, the way we are dressed, the location of our practice, whether or not we wear a wedding ring or other jewellery, can all throw off clues about our identity outside the therapy room. And that is before our clients have typed our names or email addresses into Google.
Some claim that inappropriate self-disclosure shifts the focus of attention in a session away from the client, perhaps as a result of the therapist’s own unconscious desire to avoid particular topics, or as a result of an unspoken collusion between client and therapist to avoid certain difficult areas. As I was touching upon the topic of my omnipresent death anxiety with an old therapist, he stopped me and used the next few minutes to search for his favourite book, before reading me a passage on death that accorded entirely with his own views and had little relevance to anything I had been talking about. I used the time to move away from my own uncomfortable feelings, plastered an accommodating smile on my face, and resolved to be less compliant with my next therapist (and there are a few sessions’ worth of material on that!). When I started to explore my feelings around the impact of congruence and directness on others, he launched into a story about his relationship with his sister. Such interruptions jarred me from the layers of feeling I felt I was starting to explore, and did little to contribute to the relationship between us.
On the other hand, the tendency to avoid self-disclosure could attach implications of unprofessionalism and shame to areas of our lives that are somehow deemed inappropriate to share with other autonomous adults. If we are to encourage clients to become congruent self-actualizers, accepting themselves and living by their own internal conditions of worth, then we also have a responsibility as therapists to model this. If a gay male therapist feels that it is inappropriate to disclose his sexuality to his gay male client, or an abuse survivor feels he cannot disclose this fact to a client struggling to come to terms with their own history of abuse, then aren’t we on some level perpetuating the idea that certain facets of our identity or experience are too shameful or unacceptable to be revealed to the world? If a female therapist must avoid revealing to all via the medium of Facebook that she sometimes goes out wearing leather hot pants, are we not perpetuating the myth that women’s bodies or sexuality are shameful and should be hidden? If we are asking clients to prize their authenticity and inner truth in the face of a world that might be uncomfortable with some aspects of who they are, do we then need to consider the ways in which we can display our authentic selves to the outside world, standing strong in the face of judgement and convention?
The balance, it seems, is tricky. On the one hand, we as therapists want to build an open, trusting relationship with our clients, where they are able to fully explore themselves in the relationship with us. We do not want information about our lives, beliefs, feelings and politics to enter the therapy room, particularly when we have learnt to set these aside and phenomenologically enter into the client’s experience as much as possible. On the other hand, being comfortable with and accepting of ourselves – our bodies, our sexuality, our relationship choices, our lifestyles, our histories, the experiences we cannot change, the choices we have made – enables us to act as strong and congruent role models, embodying the very things we desire from our clients.
Perhaps, as with many aspects of the therapeutic relationship, we should avoid absolutes. Social media platforms can be a way for some therapists to stand proud, celebrating who they are even if their identity is in some way unconventional or controversial. They may then attract clients that benefit from the presence of an individual who lives authentically and who has overcome challenges in a similar vein to those the client themselves may face (e.g. homophobia, or shaming attitudes towards sex workers, or many other examples). On the other hand, some therapists may feel more able to psychologically ‘hold’ their clients within the boundaries of a relationship where therapist self-disclosure is minimal.
Some key points of enquiry could be these:
What are my motivations for disclosing a particular piece of information about myself to a client?
Is the disclosure likely to help, or to hinder them? (and by ‘help’, am I really just ‘rescuing’, or ‘helping myself to overcome my insecurities about my counselling skills by showing them I understand them through sharing my own experience’, or ‘helping me to avoid awkward silences, having to tell the client ‘no’, or having to sit in the uncomfortable unknown of someone else’s difficult feeling’?)
If I self-disclose something significant about myself, via social media, in person or other platforms (such as therapists on directories with experience in the areas they are working in, e.g. LGBTQI+, drug and alcohol services, etc.), how will I manage the impact of this on client relationships?
To what extent am I secure enough in my identities and experiences to deal with any potential confrontations, questions or fall outs in relation to my disclosure?
To what extent does disclosure change the boundaries of the relationship I have established at the beginning of my work with this client?
To what extent is self-disclosure just me satisfying my own needs?