Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Moshe was in therapy for OCD, and the therapist disclosed that he also had OCD and that is why he became a therapist. Sarah was in therapy for depression, and the therapist disclosed that for a year after she had a baby she was on anti-depressants. Shimon told his therapist that he went to Alaska on vacation, and the therapist then spent five minutes discussing his vacation that he had in Alaska some years earlier. Leah, who is struggling with parenting issues, asked her therapist if she ever dealt with similar issues. The therapist briefly disclosed her personal struggles in this area. These are all examples of therapists engaging in self-disclosure.
The therapeutic relationship is a unique experience that does not resemble other “normal” relationships. As such, the question is often asked if it is appropriate for a therapist to disclose personal information to the client. How does a therapist respond if a client asks the therapist a personal question? What are the risks and benefits of self-disclosure? In this article, we will present some food for thought about this thorny issue.
The first point that we must bear in mind is that the relationship between the therapist and the client is not reciprocal. Rather, it is a one-way relationship. The therapist is there to help the client, and not vice versa. The ability of the therapist to help the client requires that the therapy room be a place where the client feels safe to disclose without fear or judgement. This is only possible in a one-way relationship. Therefore, the entire discussion around therapists engaging in self-disclosure is if this is beneficial for the client or not. It would be extremely inappropriate for a therapist to disclose for personal reasons.
This short and simple point is not so simple at all! We are all human beings and are prone to fooling ourselves and being in denial. The therapist might think that the disclosure is for the benefit of the client, but in reality, the therapist might just enjoy talking about himself and is going on an ego trip. Perhaps, the therapist wanted to get something off of his chest, and now the roles of the client and therapist are being flipped. For this reason, top-notch therapists invest in ongoing supervision in order to have a professional and objective person scrutinize their practice and guide them through issues such as these.
With this introduction, here are some of the positives and negatives of self-disclosure:
The Therapeutic Relationship – The bedrock of successful psychotherapy is a positive rapport between the therapist and the client. When the therapist does not disclose at all, he or she might come across as standoffish and impersonal. This is especially true if the client asks the therapist a benign question. If the client asks, “What did you do this weekend?” it might be a bad idea to say, “It is inappropriate for a therapist to share anything personal in therapy.”
Feeling Understood – Many people feel that only someone who shares their unique experiences can really understand them. Therefore, if your therapist never had personal experiences that resemble yours, you might wonder if the therapist really gets you. In such a case, it can be transformative for the therapist to briefly share that they also had a similar experience. This way the client feels truly understood.
Modeling Authenticity – A client cannot tap into the full benefit of therapy unless the client is authentic and is willing to share and be vulnerable with the therapist. A therapist engaging in small doses of self-disclosure can be a model for the client.
Risk of Backfiring – Self-disclosure may backfire. Any amount of self-disclosure, even when done with the noblest motives, carries a certain amount of risk. The client might perceive it as inappropriate and might judge the therapist for his or her own moral shortcomings.
No Confidentiality – Therapists are bound by codes of confidentiality. Clients are not. Anything the therapist tells the client may end up spreading if they share this with others.
Burdening the Client – Some types of self-disclosure can shift the focus from the client onto the therapist. For example, if a therapist discloses that he or she is not sleeping well at night because his or her parent has been hospitalized with a severe illness, the client will come to therapy feeling a need to sooth and comfort the therapist. This shift of focus can potentially curtail the effects of therapy.
What is the bottom line? Self-disclosure can be incredibly helpful for the therapeutic process, but only when done skillfully in the right way and in the right amount. It is similar to medication. Taking the wrong drug or the wrong dose is extremely dangerous. But when it is delivered in the right way with the right dose, it can be lifesaving.