Think Before You Get Personal
By Janine Roberts
The ways we disclose, read cues from our clients, and dialogue about what’s been divulged are the keys to whether therapist self-disclosure helps clients’ therapeutic goals or gets in the way.
Robbie, a slight man in his fifties with receding hair and a warm, round face, makes a beeline for me before the workshop starts. He says, "I came to this because I got into real trouble disclosing something about myself to a couple. Even my wife is angry with me."
"Great," I reply, as Robbie lurches back a step, startled. "We'll discuss times when disclosures don't work, and if you're comfortable telling us what happened, we'll all learn from it."
Some 20 minutes into the workshop, Robbie recounts, "I was working with a couple last week. The husband, Bill, made an allusion early in the session to thoughts about other women. Things were tense between him and his wife, Anita. Finally, I said that I'd had a few fantasies over the 30-some years of my marriage, but I'd never acted on them. I wanted to indicate it was normal to sometimes have thoughts about other women. As I talked, Bill nodded. But suddenly, Anita screeched, 'What do you mean normal?! That's cheating!' The next day, I got a phone call from Anita's mother, accusing me of being a sex addict. And I practice and live in the same small town."
I sigh sympathetically, along with many other audience members, and say, "It's the old story: the message sent is often not the message received. What you disclosed was heard in one way by Bill and in another way by Anita."
Self-revelations are complicated when there's more than one client in the room because they're filtered through multiple dynamics. For instance, Anita may already have felt that since Bill and Robbie were both male, they were implicitly allied. Afterward, it seems she thought she could count on her mother, not her husband, to listen to her distress about what their therapist had said.
Without our being aware of it, our disclosures may provide a distorted picture of our personal relationships. Although Robbie was happily married, Anita's interpretation of what he said led her to believe his marriage was in trouble. Robbie's wife was hurt by this inference when she learned about it through the small-town grapevine.
Thus, despite our best intentions, self-disclosure can backfire. So why are we drawn to it so strongly as a therapeutic tool? Hundreds of therapists in workshops I've led in the United States, Europe, and Latin America have said they share personal information to strengthen the therapeutic alliance, demystify therapy, and reduce the power differential between themselves and their clients. Given that research has found that the quality and nature of the therapeutic relationship-not the specific model or method-account for up to 30 percent of the variability in therapy outcomes, they'd appear to be on to something. Research shows that clients consistently rate therapists' disclosures as useful-when they're done skillfully.
When I've asked people who've gone to therapy what was most helpful, again and again they've described times when their therapists shared something about their own personal struggles. Maria, a client who'd recently left her partner and family to move into her own place, said, "After I'd heard about Sara's ups and downs when she separated from her husband, I didn't feel crazy anymore. I was a person with understandable emotions and feelings, similar to what Sara had experienced." Numerous clients, from varied backgrounds and of different ages, consistently said things like: "My therapist's stories helped me see we're all human and I wasn't a bad person"; "I didn't feel put down coming to get help"; "I felt less alone"; and "I learned that we're all vulnerable, and that it's important to let others see it."
Therapists and clients are in an intimate, paid relationship, not a personal one; nevertheless, it's one with many personal aspects. Through many microinteractions, they negotiate and define what disclosures and connections are comfortable for them within their professional and client roles. In the past, strict rules for clinicians-like the old chestnut, "If a client asks you a personal question, turn it back by asking why he or she wants to know that information"-kept tight restraints on what therapists shared. In today's more collaborative, and with the informality of U.S. culture, both therapists and clients are likelier to step across previous professional guidelines.
Al, a gay therapist who leads therapy groups in HIV, gay, and substance-misuse communities, said: "Within stigmatized groups, it's usually the norm to have more diffused boundaries. My clients often know a lot about me before therapy even starts." When a therapist is from a dominant group and works with clients from oppressed populations, self-revelation can be crucial to breaking through the mistrust of authority and uneasiness about the therapeutic process.