To Self-Disclose or Not

Raise your hand if you are a therapist or a budding therapist and you know exactly when to use self-disclosure in the therapy space.  It seems to me that we get conflicting information in school and in conversations with other therapists. 

Self-disclosure, simply put, is the act of revealing personal information about oneself to others. This can range from sharing intimate thoughts and emotions to disclosing past experiences and struggles.  And in the therapist seat, we are often taught to never use self-disclosure and to be careful with self-disclosure. 

Can I take a moment to simply notice the odd dynamic that is often created where therapists keep things confidential and safe, where connection is the number one predictor of healing, growth, and change; then, in exchange, we are encouraged to keep our lives separate and then act like we don’t know each other if we happen to run into each other in public?  Now, do not misunderstand, there are good reasons for this, but I wanted to take a moment to just notice how almost backward this seems. 

In talking with a friend, who is also a therapist, she mentioned that she sometimes sees clients on her birthday and the client doesn’t know it’s her birthday.  We could have a discussion about the whys behind this, and some reading this may say it’s not a big deal and maybe it’s not a big deal, but I am just noting that this is a dynamic that happens. 

When working with student therapists or therapists under clinical supervision, this is an issue that is so hard to determine.  Do I self-disclose or not?  How much is too much if I disclose?  The litmus test has always been, ask yourself if what you’re sharing is helpful for the client.  Sometimes we unwittingly self-disclose when we, as the therapist, are trying to work out our own stuff.  That’s when the therapy session could take a wrong turn and become about the therapist’s healing process and away from the client’s healing process. 

Over the years, I think that this guideline to not self-disclose has erred on the side of caution.  The guideline or the recommendation has, at least.  That doesn’t mean the practice of self-disclosure in the therapy space always errs on the side of caution.  That depends on the therapist.  Some therapists share n-o-t-h-i-n-g with their clients.  They are not wrong if they choose this path.  I do wonder, however, what the client’s experience is like with that therapist.  It might be fine….it might be better than fine.  I wonder if it could be better with some self-disclosure.  What is the probability of harm if these therapists were to share just a bit of themselves? 

I don’t see this as having a black-and-white answer.  I also know some therapists or therapists-in-training self-disclose a lot!  This could become problematic if the client isn’t experiencing being seen and heard or given the space to sort out whatever they need to sort out while building self-trust and self-efficacy. 

The soft skill needed here is attunement with the client.  Maybe self-disclosure in small amounts can help with the attunement.  Maybe self-disclosure is getting in the way of attunement.  Developing your therapeutic style and how much you disclose, if at all, can be tricky.  I believe it is valuable to take the time to consider your own level of self-disclosure.  Check-in with yourself and see if you self-disclose more with some clients than others.  If you do, explore the reason(s) you might do this.  Are you experiencing anxiety that pushes you to self-disclose?  How attuned do you see yourself as being with your clients?  If you find that you self-disclose a great deal and this is potentially interfering with your client’s process, maybe take a step back and do some of your own work.  Whether you seek some therapy for yourself, or some supervision or consultation, it is important to be open to doing some work.  As a supervisor and consultant, and even a therapist who sometimes does therapy for other therapists, I appreciate the willingness to ask these questions of ourselves and be open to doing some of our own work.  It has been said so many times before, but if we are going to do this work with others, we have to do this work with ourselves.