Should therapists allow clients to get to know them personally, beyond a professional level? If so, how much of their personal lives should they reveal? When is therapist self-disclosure appropriate and when is it a detriment to therapy? **see note below
There is a long answer and a short answer, but the short answer is this: Therapists should only share personal information with clients to the extent that it benefits the client. I realize the issue of therapist self-disclosure is subjective and may vary from client to client. Let’s discuss some beneficial reasons a therapist might mention some of their own experiences or feelings in therapy.
In the early stages of therapy, we are trying to build a relationship and establish trust. This necessitates some give and take between the therapist and the client. Nobody wants to talk to a robot, someone who is simply staring at us while offering an occasional head nod.
Therapist self-disclosure is beneficial when it:
- Shows us they are actively listening and engaged in our story.
- Reminds us that we are not alone in the way we feel.
- Reassures us that they can relate to our experiences.
- Provides commonalities that aid in the bonding process.
- Helps us to open up.
These are just a few reasons why it might be helpful for therapists to reveal some parts of themselves to clients. According to a 2011 study by Gibson, “‘self-involving’ disclosures that focused on the therapists’ thoughts and feelings about the client tended to be received more positively than disclosures of information about the therapist’s life outside of the therapeutic relationship. Disclosures of intimacy, which emphasize the therapist’s emotional reactions and thoughts within the present moment of the session, are most valuable to the client.”
There are other factors that need to be considered as well—the frequency of the self-disclosure, the level of intimacy, and at what stage of the relationship this information is revealed. In general, clients in the study preferred that the therapist self-disclosure be “infrequent, low to moderately intimate, similar to their experiences or responsive to their needs and the emerging therapeutic relationship. Conversely, disclosures that led to negative experiences were described as ‘too frequent, repetitive, lengthy with superfluous detail, incongruent with their issue or personal values, or poorly attuned to their needs or the therapeutic context’.” (Audet, 2011)
So what makes therapist self-disclosure harmful or detrimental to therapy?
Again, there is a long and a short answer. Essentially, therapists should never share anything about their personal lives that would burden clients or otherwise interfere with the therapeutic process.
Therapist self-disclosure is detrimental if:
1. The therapist shares too much detail or shares too frequently.
- This is the one relationship where we (the clients) get to be entirely selfish. Clients are paying for the time, and they deserve the therapist’s full attention, not the other way around. Therapists can obtain their own therapist for that.
2. The therapist burdens a client in any way by admitting their personal struggles, pain or issues.
- When this occurs, the client is no longer free to burden the therapist. Now the client must modify his or her therapy to accommodate the therapist’s fragile emotional state. Therapists need to be human enough to be emotionally present but strong enough to be the rock in the relationship. The therapists must be the unmoving, steady anchor if clients are to feel safe venturing into tumultuous and unchartered waters. Someone needs to steer the ship!
3. The therapist shares their personal feelings toward the clients beyond the positive regard they would show any client.
- A therapist should never single out a client as being special or a favorite. This is dangerous territory! Clients are already longing for more. They are hoping the therapist loves them, cares for them, and sees them as more than a paying client. Maybe they long for their therapist to become a surrogate mom or dad or partner or friend.
- Years ago, in therapy with an abusive therapist, I was so excited when he announced that he had adopted me. I became the daughter he never had. It seemed like a dream come true, at first. What I didn’t see at the time was that it also instantly ended therapy. Now, I was preoccupied with maintaining my special status. I became jealous, neurotic, and obsessed. Who else had he “adopted”? Did he love me more than them? What if I was extra emotional or depressed during a session…would I still be one of his favorites? I tried not to be annoying or burdensome. Instead of being whoever I needed to be each week I became preoccupied with being who I thought he wanted me to be.
4. They share about their relationships with their own children.
I added this to the list because it can be innocuous, and it can also cause harm. So many clients in therapy never received the loving parents they needed, and so to listen to their therapists talk lovingly about their own children could stir feelings of intense jealousy and anguish. It would’ve been hard for me to hear, and so it was always best I didn’t know.
Again, these are only a few examples of how personal knowledge of the therapists’ lives can be hurtful and unfair to clients.
Therapist Self-Disclosure is an Ethical Grey Area
Therapists walk a fine line, and they must tweak this line for each individual they work with. Ethical therapists will do this to the best of their abilities. They will share enough of themselves to assist the client along the way but not enough to be a detriment to the process.
We want to know our therapists care about us. We want to know that we are more than just a talking head or a means to a paycheck. When therapists are human with us, we understand that we are forming an actual bond and that is needed for successful therapy. However, they should also remain a therapist—a consistent, steady source of care and concern. Not a friend. Not a parent. Not a partner. And not a savior. A blank slate that we are free to write all over without worrying one iota.
**Note: This article refers to therapists in general, not the predatory therapists I typically focus on. Predatory, abusive therapists use self-disclosure as a means to seduce, control, and manipulate. With this type of predator, there is no grey area. It is 100% abuse, and the client is 100% a victim.
For more on the necessity of ethical boundaries in therapy, see: https://amynordhues.com/boundaries-in-therapy-are-an-essential-component-of-successful-therapy/