Do you think it’s okay for a therapist to self-disclose in therapy? In episode 289, I received a super interesting question from an individual asking my thoughts on self-disclosure. In this post, I dive deep into this topic and discuss whether I self-disclose, and the impact I feel self-disclosure has on both sides of the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist.
I’m not sure if this is appropriate for the podcast. I wanted to ask – What is your opinion on the use of self-disclosure with clients as a mental health professional? When do or don’t you self-disclose? How has it impacted you and how do you think it has impacted your clients?
This is a really good question! So self-disclosure is exactly what it sounds like. Disclosing something about yourself to your client in therapy. The reason this is an interesting topic is that it’s something that is isn’t always done very often in therapy. In fact, there are a lot of training programs that really discourage this. The thing about therapy is it’s inherently different from a friendship or a relationship with a loved one. A normal conversation between friends is much more reciprocal and two-sided. You expect a certain amount of disclosure and vulnerability from a friend that you are being vulnerable with. But the therapeutic relationship, while close, is not that way. The therapist is not there to get emotional support or to get feedback on their life. They are there to try their best to guide the client toward skills or insights that are going to help them in their life. The point isn’t to just get together and shoot the shit with your clients.
Now, every therapist is different and have different perspectives about what therapy should look like. If you go back to old school hardcore psychoanalysis – the therapist is basically supposed to be a blank slate. They may even discourage having pictures or personal effects around your office. That’s not the most common approach these days, but still – you are often discouraged from using a lot of self-disclosure in therapy. That said, I absolutely use self-disclosure in therapy at times. There are a variety of reasons you might do this, but there are some underlying things that you need to consider as a clinician.
Using self-disclosure in therapy
First off, you need to recognize that self-disclosure is a tool in therapy. It’s a technique that you can use much like working through a thought log with someone or using the miracle question. That means it needs to be used with intention. It is SUPER common to have the urge to self-disclose as a therapist. It’s natural. You hear something that you relate to and you want to chime in with your own experience. That’s just what we tend to do in conversation. But since it’s a tool in therapy, you need to ask yourself, “What is my intention here? Why do I want to self-disclose?” If there is a point to it, you absolutely can. You even can if it’s just to build the relationship between you and the client. Like in the early stages of therapy, you are focusing a lot on rapport building and working on the relationship to establish trust.
A lot of times what I will do is ask permission. Like if there’s something that I have the desire to share, I will ask if they feel like it would be interesting or helpful to hear about. I recently had a client talk about an arrest on their record and they were afraid of the way that it might impact them in their career. So, I asked them if they wanted to hear my experience with something similar. I was kind of arrested in graduate school for forgery and it came up during the internship process later on. So it was relevant and could help to alleviate some of their concern. Other times, I might self-disclose to help someone know that I really understand what they are going through. Topics that I might self-disclose about include my background of having a very young mother, having experienced poverty and abusive family members in the past, or my wife’s experiences in her mental illness (with her permission).
A positive outcome for clients
Self-disclosure should always have some goal to it. It’s not like a sneaky thing, but it need to be trying to facilitate something on the client’s end. I might disclose that I am a gamer or that I have fought MMA in the past, that I have a podcast and have built a brand etc. All of these make it so that the person I am working with knows they aren’t just starting from scratch and I actually know what they are talking about. For example, in the gaming scenario – I have some people that I work with in therapy that are gamers and since I self-disclosed about what I play, they can use vernacular that only someone who has played competitive online games would understand. For me, it’s a bit of a unique situation as well since I have a public presence. A lot of people that I work with found me through one of my public channels, so they already know some stuff about me. So in summary, when I do self-disclose is when there is a good reason for me to do so and when I think it will help build the relationship or move therapy forward in some way.
You also asked when I do NOT self-disclose. As I said at the start, it’s pretty normal to feel the urge to disclose something about your life when it may not be necessary. So the things that I need to look out for is when I just want to sound cool, when I’m trying to garner support or sympathy from them, or I’m just trying to make random conversation.
The impact of self-disclosure
You asked how it has impacted me in my work. Honestly, there is usually at least one self-disclosure that REALLY helps with each client that I have. There’s something that helps them know that I really get their experience or opens up a new avenue of conversation and reliability. It has made the difference between someone being guarded and open. It’s made the difference between someone holding back or being straightforward about their experience. I think self-disclosure is a massively powerful tool. You just need to be aware of the role it plays and why you are using it. In my clinical training, I was never advised to ask permission about self-disclosure, but to me it has been a very very helpful aspect. This might be informed by feminism and the importance of consent to me. I actually do this with a variety of techniques in therapy, not just self-disclosure. I will say, “Have we talked about xyz? Do you think that would be useful to hear?”
So, I hope that helps both clinicians and clients out there in the audience to understand a bit more about the role of self-disclosure in therapy. Thank you for the awesome question!
You can listen to this on Episode 289 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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