Today a new client invited me to disclose my views to him on a very specific political issue that connected to his cultural identity. It was a surprising request, but the message was clear: where I stood on this subject could be an obstacle to us working together. He needed to feel comfortable exploring this central issue to life with someone whom he felt shared his world view.
In some ways it was a provocative opening (there was something more complicated at play here than merely my politics), but the direct invitation to reveal something of myself brought up the double-edged nature of therapist self-disclosure.
When to disclose is one of the livelier conversations to be had amongst therapists. Judged right, disclosure can be an empathic way of establishing a rapport with a client, or even as a way of modeling or facilitating client disclosure. Get it wrong, however, and the therapist risks shifting the focus away from the client or even altering the power balance by making themselves vulnerable through their disclosure.
I say “when” to disclose and not “if’ because, of course, we are disclosing things about ourselves from the moment we make contact with our clients. Our grammar in emails; the presence or absence of wedding rings, how we dress and speak and so on, all pave the way for interpretation or potential projections.
The therapist’s modality might also inform decisions on disclosure. Despite my own relational humanistic training, as students we were cautioned against disclosure unless it was in service of the client, and not based on the narcissistic needs of the therapist.
I can recall, in my training, hearing an extraordinary tape of a therapist sharing a rather traumatic story from his own childhood with his client. The supposed motive was to let the client know that he was not alone with his feelings, but the effect was a total role reversal, with the client audibly offering support and solace to the distressed therapist!
As in this example, disclosure has the power to change the dynamic in the relationship and so, ethically, it is incumbent on the therapist to stay curious as to why a client might invite you to disclose, or why, as a therapist, you would volunteer information about yourself.
Ultimately, we work in service of the client, and so the sense-check has to be, how might this disclosure benefit them?
As for my client, after a bit more probing as to his motivation, I decided to disclose something of my position on the issue he brought. Setting aside my own philosophical concerns about colluding with clients, given his skepticism around the process of therapy, I understood that what he needed in that moment was to hear me be congruent, even if that meant the answer I gave him was not the one he was looking for…
Written by TAMARA ABOOD
Originally published JULY 2018
Artwork by KATE HOLFORD