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…