I had a good night’s sleep last night, and this morning things seem clearer…well, some things anyway. But should I be telling you this kind of thing? I’m doing it to explain how my views on self disclosure by therapists have changed since yesterday*.
In Self-Disclosure in Therapy, Elizabeth Cordes writes that self disclosure by a therapist can be a good thing, but only if it’s:
for the therapeutic benefit of the patient
And right at the end she mentions:
I have also found that it goes a long way in strengthening the therapeutic relationship when patients recognize that I am a human being who is willing to share something of myself to help them.
So I agreed with her on both points.
Looked at one way, self disclosure is a kind of storytelling. And storytelling is a powerful way to illustrate models of behaviour and logic that patients can experiment with or adopt. If the story happens to be autobiographical, that may make it more effective.
I agree with you that some self disclosure also strengthens the therapeutic alliance, as a natural extension of the genuineness you bring to the relationship.
But while I was writing my comment, I was uneasy. I had a feeling that I was missing something. I left my comment on the screen for a long time, but I could not identify the source of my unease. Eventually I just pressed the button and submitted the comment.
After a good night’s sleep, it was obvious what I had missed. The clue was in the strong Christian thread in Elizabeth’s blog.
When you are a therapist disclosing something of yourself to a patient, you are telling a story about yourself. The person telling the story is you-the-therapist, but the person in the story is another you, you-in-the-story. What has to happen is that you-the-therapist remains in control. You-in-the-story must never get control of your relationship with your patient.
The reason for this is that therapy is a special healing process for people who are ill. It is not a way of life. The way you live your life when you are not being a therapist might well include elements that are inappropriate in therapy. For example, you might have strong religious, political, or other views that would distort your relationship with your patients, shifting the focus away from their lives and on to yours. As you-the-therapist, part of your professionalism is that you become neutral.
To maintain professional neutrality, you-the-therapist must integrate storytelling into therapy in a consistent way, treating stories about other people and stories about yourself in just the same way. This means that you apply the same criteria when you decide whether or not to tell the story, and it means that you give stories about yourself no special emphasis compared to stories about other people.
* I originally wrote this on August 3. I can’t remember why I didn’t publish it then.