If you asked a dozen therapists their views about self-disclosure, you’ll likely get a dozen different answers. For most of us, our training and treatment modality informs whether or not you think this is a good or bad thing. But have you considered that there are 2 types of self-disclosure?
Let’s break it down…
1. Voluntary self-disclosure
This occurs when a therapist shares something personal with a client. Those who do this, hopefully, assess the benefit to the client for the sharing it, and recognize the shift in the relationship that can occur because of it.
Most therapists I know who have been in practice a while, will tell you their views on this has changed over time. And the view may be client specific; you will disclose with some but not others. And that’s ok.
Keeping the therapeutic value in mind seems to be the common denominator with those who do occasionally self-disclose.
2. Involuntary self-disclosure
This type often occurs when there is some type of visual or auditory clue that the client picks up on. For example, your growing belly is likely a good sign you are pregnant or having something going on with your body.
Some other examples include moving into a new office or changing practices, traveling while working, a change of hairstyle or other outward feature, going on medical leave or being in the media (in a good way or not so much).
So what do you do about the involuntary-types of self-disclosure that sometimes occur in our work?
First, it’s important to think ahead about these types of things so you can determine how you want to respond.
You may choose to share some or all of the details or you may choose not to. In either case, it’s helpful to come up with specific language around your decision so you don’t have to figure it out on the spot.
For example, early in my career I got a very different haircut than I had previously had and was wholly unprepared for the deluge of comments and opinions I received from clients.
Wardrobe choices at times have fallen into that same category. “What carpet did that dress get cut from?” (On the upside, no matter how you handle those situations, it might be an indicator that you have developed trust with the client and there can be lots of therapeutic value in how you respond.)
Next consider that you will likely benefit from discussing this with colleagues. Consider the type of involuntary self-disclosure you will be experiencing and how you plan to respond.
When you run it by your colleague, they may have input you find helpful which can either help you feel confident in your decision or help you decide you want to handle it in a different way.
It’s hard to do this work in a vacuum so if you don’t have colleagues to bounce things off of, you should consider ways to meet other therapists and/or join a clinical consultation group.
After a few encounters, assess how it is going. If you get unanticipated responses, you may need to rethink your position or how you are conveying the information.
Again, this can be a great time to reach out to a colleague.
Like it or not, we are in a field that relies heavily on our relationship with our clients. That can make our exchanges with them more personal than we anticipate or desire.
By having an awareness of these types of possibilities, you give yourself the advantage of planning ahead, considering both your needs and those of your clients, and hopefully, you won’t experience feeling shell shocked in a session by something you didn’t see coming.
If you have experienced involuntary self-disclosure, comment below. I'd love to hear about it and how you handled it.