Too Much Information
At times, I've derailed sessions with an inappropriate disclosure. Stuart and Kiran originally came to see me for couples' therapy. In the fifth session, they wanted to sort out what to do after their teenage son had stolen liquor from them and taken it to a friend's house, where the parents had let the teens party and drink "because it was safer than if they were doing so off in the woods." Rather than asking them questions about their policy on keeping liquor in their home or what they thought about the parents' decision to let the teens drink illegally, I lectured them: "When my daughter was a teenager, I kept no alcohol in the house. And it's a terrible mixed message for adults to let teens in the community drink at their house when they know it's against the law." My strong feelings and opinions were on display. The couple reacted with surprise, and my tirade took us off track.
It would've been much better if I'd said something like, "When my daughter was a teen, I was unsure about whether to keep liquor in the house," and then turned the discussion back to their concerns. That would've minimally disrupted the session while gently introducing an idea to them about removing alcohol from the house. Overall with disclosures, it's better to emphasize challenges you've faced, not your own answers.
Therapist self-disclosures can come out unexpectedly and unplanned. One colleague worked with a family in which the daughter, Loung, was upset because she hadn't gotten into the college to which she'd applied for early admission. Without thinking much about it, Tom related that he'd gotten into his first-choice school, but, ultimately, didn't think it served him well, and that he should've gone to a less competitive college. Loung's mother responded to his story with her thoughts about life's varied options and how, when one door closes, it can mean that others are opening. While the mother seemed to welcome the substance of Tom's disclosure, it wasn't well received by Loung. She felt he hadn't understood how disappointed she was-and how could he, when he'd gotten into the college he wanted to get into?
We need to keep asking ourselves the same crucial questions: in what ways might this disclosure be helpful to my clients? How can I reveal something briefly and then turn the conversation back to their concerns? What viewpoints are embedded within this disclosure? How might different clients respond? Are multiple ideas available to them within what I'm sharing?
What's Good for the Goose . . .
It's to everyone's advantage not to have a bored therapist. Being aware of what our clients' stories evoke for us about our own lives keeps us engaged, even if we choose not to self-disclose. An unsung benefit of being a therapist is that clients can challenge us to face and/or revisit central issues in our own histories.
Decades ago, a client named Lenore deliberately seemed to sit much closer to me than to her husband, Gus. It was our third couples session. I was a novice therapist, working with a cotherapist, Dick, who sat behind a one-way mirror and phoned in from time to time. Five minutes into the session, Lenore said to Gus, as she carefully scanned my face, "You're never going to hit me again." This was the first we'd heard of violence in the relationship. Gus and Lenore initially had come in asking for help with their differences over parenting their young son.
Gus said in a voice hard with anger, "It doesn't happen that often." I felt my face flush; it was what I'd said to myself about the punches and kicks my partner had inflicted upon me over the last six years. I quickly began to inquire about Lenore's safety and when and where Gus lost control. Together with Dick, we developed a plan for a series of interventions into the violence.
Driving home that night, I was marked by shame, just as I'd been marked by the bruises that had blossomed on my skin three or four times a year. How could I call myself a therapist when I didn't have the courage to take action as Lenore did?
Dick and I worked with Gus and Lenore for nine months. She decided to leave the marriage. I never disclosed to them anything about my situation. It wasn't appropriate; I was embroiled in something that was out of control in my own life. Several years later, with an imprint of Lenore's words on my tongue-You're never going to hit me again-I finally entered therapy with my partner.
A few years ago, I was asked to provide training on family violence to a group of therapists in Ecuador. Their organization, Junto con los Niños y las Niñas, provides wraparound services for families for three to four years, so the children can get off the streets and back into school. I'd worked with them before and had deep respect for the in-home therapy they were providing for families with children who were working on the streets selling Chiclets, darting into traffic to wash windshields when cars had stopped at red lights, or eating fire. I began the training by talking about the years I'd lived in a violent relationship. I spoke about my shame and how I'd lied and covered up, shared steps that women often take before they can leave an abusive situation, and talked about couples dynamics. I invited questions. In 30 years of training other therapists, I've found that my capacity to reveal relevant personal information in an appropriate, controlled way can have a powerful impact on how much trainees are willing to engage, stretch their learning, and take risks.
The participants in Ecuador careened into the topic. One therapist talked about her failures to address violence with families she worked with. Another woman exposed patterns of violence in her extended family. We soon had a wealth of case material and examples to inform us as we delved into different intervention strategies.
Refusing to disclose can be detrimental to training and therapy. When I ask workshop participants who've been clients to reflect on how therapists' refusal to reveal personal details affected treatment, they respond with comments like: "I thought my therapist was arrogant" and "I shut down myself."
From her interviews, researcher Jean Hanson has found that clients working with therapists who don't self-disclose often describe the experience as problematic. For example, Rose said her therapist "neither offered information nor answered my questions. If I asked her things, I felt embarrassed, like I was making a social blunder. I stopped seeing her without telling her I was quitting; I had no sense of personal loyalty to her. I couldn't cleave to her as a person."