Self-disclosure in clinical work is a matter of the practitioner’s personal choice and preference. Some believe any amount of self-disclosure is too much, while others find a certain level of clinical value in divulging about their personal lives in sessions.
Some of the arguments for self-disclosure include that it allows patients to view the therapist as a human being—not just a clinician. Disclosure of past challenges can also help build trust between the patient and clinician, instilling a sense that the therapist has “been there” and understands how hard it is. It can also serve to normalize the patient’s struggle, creating a dynamic of shared human experience that makes way for compassion and connection.
When it’s not used skillfully, however—if a therapist is oversharing, one-upping or de-centering the client—self-disclosure can quickly become problematic. It can detract from the therapeutic work, blur the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship and even cause the client to switch into the role of caregiver or helper.
It is possible to be both an authentic, dynamic, and real human being and a skillful clinician with both solid boundaries and wisdom to share.
The following questions may be helpful in determining whether or not to disclose something in a session, but like much of therapeutic work, relying on your intuitive sense of what feels useful and right in the moment can go a long way as well.
1.What’s the clinical usefulness or reason for the disclosure?
Be honest with yourself. It’s normal and healthy to feel connected with our clients and in fact, this connection helps form the foundation of the therapeutic relationship. And it makes sense that you might feel the urge to share something personal as it relates to a connected other’s experience, but remember that the client is not your friend, family member or co-worker.
Ask yourself whether the piece of information you’re feeling compelled to share is clinically useful. Will it help to validate the person’s experience? Will it help to make him feel less alone in his struggle? Will it help build trust in the healing process?
If you’re unable to answer yes to any of these questions, you might consider holding back.
2. Would you be comfortable disclosing this information in front of a supervisor or colleague?
If you wouldn’t want a colleague or supervisor to see or hear you disclosing a particular piece of information, it hopefully goes without saying that you should withhold it.
Ask yourself honestly why you might be embarrassed or ashamed to be sharing such information with a patient in front of a colleague. Perhaps it’s simply irrelevant to the case and serves no clinical purpose or maybe it’s more about your own need to be seen or heard.
If you find that you’ve shared or wanted to share something that meets the above criteria, remember that you’re human and be gentle with yourself. Noticing mistakes or moments of poor discretion is an important step toward being a better clinician.
3. If I were to ask a supervisor or colleague who I respect and trust whether this piece of information was necessary or not, what would they say?
If you have some time to think about whether or not to disclose a particular piece of information—such as that you, too are in recovery from substance abuse—spend a bit of time imagining what a trusted colleague or supervisor might say to the idea.
Perhaps you’ve discussed similar things with them in the past, or observed their own use of self-disclosure with clients. If you determine that someone you respect might not support this particular disclosure, but find that you’re having trouble letting go of the desire to share this piece of information, ask yourself why that might be.
Therapists are human beings too, with the same desires to connect with others as everyone else. Of course, the therapeutic relationship is a special and specific kind of relationship within which boundaries, safety, trust and respect are critical to the work. Mistakes will happen, but with willingness to look at the motivations for your in-session actions honestly, and to adjust them according to the client’s best interest, you’re on the right path.