When Should Therapists Disclose Their Personal Backgrounds?
You may or may not have seen the NY Times article on the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) revealing her own psychological dramas growing up. The article writes, “Marsha Linehan arrived at the Institute of Living on March 9, 1961, at age 17, and quickly became the sole occupant of the seclusion room on the unit known as Thompson Two, for the most severely ill patients. The staff saw no alternative: The girl attacked herself habitually, burning her wrists with cigarettes, slashing her arms, her legs, her midsection, using any sharp object she could get her hands on.” This leads us to a perennial and controversial question: Do clients really want to know the background of their therapist’s life?
When training as a therapist, more often than not the idea is to stay focused on the client and the therapist client relationships, but not to make it about the therapist. So even when a client asks about something personal in the therapist’s life, the classic default is to create an inquiry as to why the client wants to know that information, making it once again about the client.
However, therapists also learn that there is time for personal disclosure if it will somehow benefit the therapeutic process.
Marsha Linehan’s story offers a ray of hope, “Most remarkably, perhaps, Dr. Linehan has reached a place where she can stand up and tell her story, come what will. “I’m a very happy person now,” so it’s a wonderful story to tell. In the same vein, a story coming from a therapist offers that same hope if the projection is that the therapist is doing well after whatever personal trauma they share.
So one benefit of disclosure may be giving the client a sense of hope. Another benefit is opening up a trusting connection between the therapist and client and a feeling of acceptance. These are core foundations of mental health.
It’s interesting for me because as an author and a therapist, clients walk into my office already knowing some of my personal traumas before I even disclose them. One client told me, “I wish all therapists had a bio that disclosed their personal traumas and how they’ve worked with them throughout their lives. It would make it feel more like an open trusting relationship.”
But is this really what we want? I still think there’s a time and place for disclosure where it supports that sense of hope, connection and acceptance and there’s a time where it’s not as appropriate.
For example, I have a friend who is a therapist and after the client pressing her for more personal information, she revealed that she had been through a similar trauma as the client. The next week the client came in closed down and after a few weeks terminated therapy. At the end of the termination, the therapist asked what had happened and the client said, “After you told me what had happened to you, I didn’t want to burden you with my issues anymore.”
As a therapist you might say, “Well, that’s great grist for the mill to work with.” But the client left and so there was not work to be done. Had the therapist disclosed too early? She thinks so.
At the end of the day, I think disclosure comes down to a number of factors; the personality of the therapist and client, the value of the disclosure to the client and therapist relationship, and timing. But these are just my thoughts and this is worth an ongoing discussion.
What do you think either as a therapist or client? Please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below around disclosure, your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
How much to disclose & when... - Keri - Jun 29th 2011
I remember discussing self-disclosure with my supervisor while I was in training. He suggested when I was tempted to self-disclose, I ask myself "What therapeutic purpose would this disclosure serve?" Do I think the client will like me better, see me as more like them & make them more comfortable? Or is it my own "stuff" (countertransference)? We concluded, "When in doubt, don't." Over the past 15 years as a therapist, I observed I am more likely to self-disclose when my boundaries are compromised due to stress, illness, grief or too many really challenging clients in my caseload at once. I recently shared with a depressed client that I take an antidepressant, and had been on them in the past as well. She asked, "Well, how can you help me if you're depressed, too?" Then she laughed. It seemed to further the therapeutic process in that session, but could've just as easily gone the other way. Thank you for bringing up this continually challenging topic.