by Patrick McCurry
It’s become a cliché – you ask your therapist a question and they reply with another question.
For many new clients the lack of self-disclosure by the therapist can be unsettling, as the relationship can feel very one way. The therapist gets to know the most personal details of the client’s life, while the client knows very little about the therapist’s.
While the lack of self-disclosure may feel frustrating, at times, for the client, there are several reasons for it.
- The therapist’s issues can dominate: the therapy is for the benefit of the client not the therapist, so a therapist talking a lot about their own lives could start to dominate the sessions and make it more about the therapist’s needs rather than the client’s.
- A client taking care of the therapist: the client may end up feeling they need to ‘take care of’ a therapist who talks about their own problems or issues in sessions.
- Therapist protection: While the client has confidentiality, the therapist does not. Whatever the therapist tells the client may be repeated to others, including future therapists the client sees.
- The transference: part of the way many counsellors and therapists work is in exploring the ‘transference’ , which means the unconscious projections that all clients bring to their therapist and to other relationships. Helping the client see how they are projecting certain expectations can help them improve their other relationships. Too much self-disclosure by the therapist can dilute this way of working.
Despite these factors, some therapists will choose to disclose more than others. They argue that developing a warm and genuine relationship with the client means disclosing, appropriately, some information about their personal lives and experiences.
How much a counsellor or therapist reveals about their personal life will partly depend on their personality and partly on the kind of counselling or therapy they practise.
It is a generalisation, but at the least revealing end of the spectrum tend to be psychoanalysts and those working in a psychodynamic way, where exploration of the transference is usually prioritised.
At the more disclosing end of the spectrum are many humanistic and existential therapists, who believe that being more open is good for the alliance between therapist and client and helps demystify the therapist’s role.
Irvin Yalom, an existential therapist and author, says that many therapists fear that if they disclose aspects of their personal lives the client will demand more. But he adds: “In my experience the overwhelming majority of patients accept what I offer, do not press for more or for uncomfortable disclosure, then go about the business of therapy.”
Integrative psychotherapist Michael Kahn takes a less self-disclosing approach and describes a client who continually wanted to know if he was gay. In this case Kahn decided not to answer the question and, at the end of the therapy, the client said he was glad about this as it had allowed him to explore his hopes and fears about the therapist and his own complex feelings about his own sexuality.
Of course, all therapists communicate information about themselves without explicitly stating it. Where they work, how they dress, how they respond to the client’s words will all say something about their lives and values.
What is important is that, if there is self-disclosure it needs to be in the client’s interests. And if the therapist chooses not to disclose something a client is asking about he or she needs to do this in a non-punishing way.
As Kahn says: “When I refuse to answer a question , I try hard not to look as though I were playing, ‘I’ve got a secret, so I’m one up on you’. I explain as fully as I can why I’m taking this stand.”