Depending on who you talk to, sharing personal information about yourself during sessions with clients may be considered somewhere on the spectrum between being a valuable tool and strictly forbidden. Most therapists probably walk the line of being somewhere in the middle; using self-disclosure sparingly but occasionally, when it’s clinically useful.
When it’s done properly, there can be great clinical value in sharing bits and pieces of your own story with your client. It can remind them that no one is perfect and that in fact, we all struggle at times—even (and maybe even especially) therapists—and it can strengthen the bond of the therapeutic relationship.
It certainly is a fine line and it must be done skillfully.
Whether you’re already divulging occasionally in sessions, or thinking about beginning to, the following tips may help.
1. Be genuine.
As tempting as it is to remind clients that we are, actually, all in this same boat of being human, be sure that if you take this route you really understand and mean it. Take time to think about what it really means to “be in the same boat” with the client. Put yourself in the client’s shoes with something you personally have struggled with, and remember how difficult it was.
Many times, clients will come to therapy with problems that you simply cannot claim to know or understand,and to reduce someone’s individual experience by saying that we are all in the same boat can be invalidating. These are not the times to drop in a personal anecdote or say, “I’ve been there.”
What being in the same boat with clients actually means is that we are all born with human brains that are subject to the same traps of language, cognition and feelings as well as the behavioral patterns that come from them. We all want to feel good and to avoid pain. This is being human and we can all relate–even therapists.
2. Drop the expert role.
Part of validating clients’ experiences is communicating that suffering is a normal part of the human experience and being willing to establish a genuine equal playing field with the client.
Dropping the expert role doesn’t mean that you throw your techniques to the wind, crack open a beer and start dropping F-bombs or otherwise carrying on in an unprofessional manner. It simply means that you be willing to be human, even in the context of therapy.
Sometimes being human means being willing to say you made a mistake or that you don’t know the answer to something. It might even mean admitting that something the client said has triggered something in you that you need a moment to process. Both of these things require vulnerability, and they are not easy—particularly if you have been trained to keep a tight lid on your inner experience during sessions.
But admitting to a client that you, too, have challenging emotional responses, blindspots and hot-buttons can go a long way in establishing lasting trust in the therapeutic relationship.
3. Be mindful about the reasons behind why you’re sharing.
If you’re the type of person who has trouble pausing and checking your intentions before you speak, this situation is a great opportunity to practice.
When bringing up personal disclosures in therapy sessions, you should always be aware of the intention and potential impact of what you’re planning to say before you say it.
Ask yourself if what you’re sharing is genuinely to help the client or simply to make yourself feel better or less uncomfortable. Ask whether it is aligned with the clinical goals and likely to move the client closer toward them or further away. If you’re not able to answer either of these questions with certainty, perhaps you should hold your tongue this time.
If you find that you slip and say something that you later wish you hadn’t, you have a valuable opportunity to practice dropping the expert role and being vulnerable. Admit to the client that you made a mistake. You may think this will diminish your credibility, but oftentimes it will do just the opposite.
4. Don’t make it all about the client.
Therapy truly is all about the client, so this statement may understandably sound absurd to some. But one of the best ways that you can give the client what they need is by helping them to be comfortable opening up to you. And you can do this by opening up to them.
Placing all of the focus on the client is a subtle way of communicating that you are unavailable in the room in any sort of human capacity. The act of coming to therapy itself has put the client in a vulnerable position. The least you can do is meet them with a small bit of vulnerability, as well. If 100 percent of what comes out of your mouth is about the client, you may be missing out on valuable opportunities for authentic connection with the client.
There is certainly a fine line between clinically useful self-disclosure and self-disclosure done in a way that it is at best distracting, and at worst self-absorbed. But done right, through practice (and yes, trial and error!) it can be a wonderful way to build trust and mutual respect in the therapeutic relationship.