To self-disclose or not to self-disclose? To share or not to share?
Well, long story short, the answer is… it depends!
I know, I know, that’s not the answer you’re looking for. But self-disclosure is a slippery slope, so there is no “blanket” answer to give.
Buuuuut… if you are comfortable with sharing personal information, most therapists seem to agree that it should only be done if it benefits the client (and doesn’t shift the focus away from them).
Let’s look at some of the potential pros & cons of self-disclosure:
- It can normalize the client’s experience (makes them feel validated, which can decrease feelings of shame!)
- It can improve the client-therapist relationship (by building rapport & trust)
- It can give the client hope (that their situation can get better) and make them feel less isolated, more understood
- It can make the client feel more comfortable, less intimidated by a therapist (especially true for teens & kids!)
- It can “blur lines”, causing the client to look at you as more of a friend, not a therapist (boundaries are key!)
- The client might react negatively to your self-disclosure or feel that you are focusing too much on yourself
- It can invite more questions (which takes the focus off of the client)
- The client may feel he/she should hold back (example: a client may not want to bring up the loss of their father if you talked about how you struggled when your parent died several years ago)
If you find that self-disclosure serves as a positive tool & benefits your client, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Ask yourself, “Am I disclosing this to help my client or is it more to satisfy my own needs (of validation, support, etc)?” You may also want to ask, “What is the purpose of disclosing this?”
- Consider the client’s culture/values, developmental stage, diagnosis/symptoms, reasons for seeking treatment, whether or not they tend to respect boundaries, etc.
- Maintain boundaries & professionalism
- Consider attributing your story to someone else (i.e. “I know someone who…” or “I know of a situation when…”) In a way, you’re self-disclosing without self-disclosing! That allows you to get your message across without making it super personal
- Use caution. You don’t need to give specifics/a lot of details
- You might want to steer clear of the issues you’re still working through (i.e. issues that are not yet resolved, too “touchy” for you right now)
- You might also want to steer clear of certain topics… (*cough* *cough* politics)
Remember, you will use your own discretion. Every population is different, every client is different… and every therapist is different!
I also recommend that you regularly discuss self-disclosure with your supervisor (if you have one).
When clients ask questions about you…
I also want to note that you will likely encounter situations in which you are directly asked personal questions. For example, if you’re working at a rehab, you’ll likely get asked if you’ve ever done drugs, if you’re in recovery, etc.
You can decide whether or not you want to answer the questions, but you can bring the focus back to the client by saying something like, “This seems important to you… I’m wondering why…. [fill in the blanks]…”
A client in recovery might respond by saying they don’t think you can help them (if you, the therapist, have never suffered from addiction)… you can gently respond by saying something like therapists who treat schizophrenia don’t necessarily have schizophrenia… that’s simple & straight-forward.
You can then remind them what your role is and that the hour (or however long you are meeting) is for and about them.
You can further explore why finding out this type of information is so important to them. Maybe it’s because they have trust issues or you remind them of someone from their past… or they fear you won’t understand them?
Again, you’re just shifting the focus & redirecting the conversation back to them. You’re also setting boundaries!
But there is no need to be afraid of a little self-disclosure. As mentioned above, it can be beneficial… if done under the right circumstances, for the right reasons! And, as always, be yourself- be authentic.
What are your thoughts on self-disclosure? Be sure to leave a comment below to let me know what you think and whether or not you tend to self-disclose with your clients!
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