by Rick Brown, Th.M.
Therapist self-disclosure. Should we or shouldn't we? A Freudian may say, "No! Never. We observe from a distance!" relying on the traditional teaching that "one is not suppose to answer client's questions." Conversely, a more recent approach found in feminist therapy may respond to the question of self-disclosure with, "Yes. We need a level of intimacy in the therapist-client relationship. If we remain idealized, authoritarian, and separated, we are doomed for therapeutic failure." I believe it is somewhere in between. Self-disclosure, like many things, is a gray area. There are no set of rules. Each individual, each couple, each therapist, and each situation call for different responses.
Self-disclosure can arise out of direct questions clients ask that pertain to outside of the office ("Did you ever contemplate divorce?" "Have you ever had an affair?" "What did you do last weekend?") or inside the office ("Are you angry with me that I called my ex again?") Self-disclosure can also occur when a therapist interjects personal anecdotes to the client in a genuine attempt to help him/her with a particular situation possibly rendering the client less defensive and enabling him/her greater insight. Here are some points to consider when contemplating "should I or shouldn't I?"
Why is s/he asking me this question? In a recent interview, Master Trainer Maya Kollman, MA states, "When people ask questions-and we use this process in the training-they usually already have an answer. I ask them outright, 'What do you know about your own question? What is coming up for you?' Generally I can unlock what's really going on and it's not at all about the question." Many therapists intuitively feel that the question may be an attempt to shift the attention onto the therapist in order to avoid something else. Kollman's way of handling the situation is sensitive to honoring the question while at the same time attempting to find out the conscious or unconscious chatter underneath. In his book Therapeutic Communication, Paul L. Wachtel recommends maintaining such a balance, i.e., a balance between reflection and engagement.
Building of rapport and creating safety. Of course, not every question a client asks is an attempt to deflect away from his/her own experience but is an attempt to build rapport with the therapist or, as Wachtel writes, a "groping toward intimacy that it is important for the therapist to nurture." Since in Imago Therapy we aim for creating safety, it seems congruent to build a rapport with the client through self-disclosure. I will often end my first session with a couple saying, "If I am going to have the privilege of getting to know the two of you in some personal ways, it just makes sense to me that if there is anything you'd like to know about me that would help you feel safer in being here, I would like to invite you to ask."
It is interesting to note that although I put no limits on what a couple might ask, by taking such a position from the very beginning, people's anxieties are immediately alleviated and they tend to ask me only two things. "How long have you been married?" and "Do you have children?" I am, however, prepared to answer any of their questions which might include, "Have you struggled in your marriage?" "Have you ever had an affair?" "How is your sex life?" By being honest with my own past and present struggles I am also providing my couples with hope: they too can travel along the path I teach and find themselves living in a passionate and happy marriage. I am, indeed, living testimony.
Determining your comfort zone. Additionally, Wachtel recommends therapists create a "comfortable safety zone." I am comfortable with answering questions because I feel that my answers will not hinder the therapeutic process. But if I was living in a horrible marriage or had an affair or had an inactive or unhealthy sex life, honestly answering those questions could very well cause therapeutic failure.
...one's revelations should not skate right up to the edge of what one dares to reveal but rather should leave one a margin, so that even relatively mild indications of increasing discomfort should be enough for the therapist to shift away from the mode of self-disclosure.1
Idealization of therapist. When a client comes to us, there often is an idealization of the therapist. But in Imago Therapy, we aim for a gradual de-idealization of the therapist in the service of keeping the energy and commitment within the couple. Self-disclosure can play an important role in this by showing how too human we all are, offering glimpses of our own similar struggles. As Tammie Byram Fowles, Ph.D. writes in her article The Contributions of Feminist Therapy:
While intellectually our client's realize that we, too, are imperfect and possess our own difficulties and short-comings, they very often manage somehow to perceive us as somewhat "larger than life." They often look to us to provide the "right" answers, point the way, or tell them how to "fix it." Our responsibility is not to oblige them (even if we could), but to assist them in recognizing and learning to trust their own power and wisdom.
Self-disclosure can be useful to the client. It can level the playing field allowing clients to see that we also are human with real struggles, offering comfort in identification. By never answering any of our client's questions, the therapist-client collaboration fails to develop and a power struggle is likely to ensue. Of course, responses to self-disclosures are important to note. If our office becomes immersed with our own experiences, we can be re-wounding our clients with feelings of neglect and abandonment. There are also times when it is important to remain in the present moment, allowing the energy to flow freely. Additionally, inappropriate self-disclosure can burden the client and encourage a transference especially with individual clients. Ultimately, however, self-disclosure should be judiciously employed as long as the safety (for the client and therapist) is enhanced or undisturbed.
1 Wachtel, Paul L. Therapeutic Communication. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993, p. 221.