Have you ever told a therapist about a problem and gotten replies like these? "That's a lot like my divorce." "My kid went through the same thing." "My mother used to say that too." Then, they proceed to tell you about their experiences. In response to last week's article on therapist over-talking, someone asked about a therapist that talked a lot about her own achievements. If you ask a therapist about his or her training or credentials, you can certainly expect a reply. However, your therapist's achievements should not be a common topic. Psychotherapy is not supposed to be about the therapist.
Sessions with clients are not places for therapists to process their own life problems or get support for their own life choices. Yes, bad things happen to all of us, including therapists. Few people reach adulthood without experiencing a significant loss or the pain of being hurt. Therapists need and deserve places to process and gain social support, just like anyone else. Those are important and legitimate needs and it is good if your therapist is getting those needs met. However, that should happen outside of services they are providing clients.
What about the Alcoholics Anonymous model?
Readers who know a lot about therapy might wonder about programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other support groups. In some settings, it is common, or even a requirement, for leaders to have dealt with the same problem that other members have. Under the right circumstances, the insights from being "in recovery" (to use the AA lingo) can help others. This is not the same thing as the problem of therapists talking about themselves. What is the difference?
The main difference is the way that therapists (or sponsors or others in similar roles) make use of their experiences. Yes, therapists' own challenges can help them understand the pain and struggles of others. However, everyone's path is different. No one gets addicted or depressed in exactly the same way or for exactly the same reasons, and simply telling one's own story is not all that is needed to help others.
I once met a young man who had gone through an extremely difficult life trauma a couple of years earlier—a family member had been murdered—and as a consequence he wanted to become a therapist. I suggested that although it was an advantage to have the personal experience of surviving such a traumatic loss, it was a challenge too, because even something as horrific as murder unfolds differently for every family, every time. What helped him might not help someone else. I suggested, as gently as I could, that therapy would take more than just telling clients how he had coped and expecting them to do the same. He looked surprised and sat quietly for a few minutes. Then he said he didn't think he wanted to be a therapist after all.
This young man had some good instincts about his own healing path. It is healing to tell your story. That is the centerpiece of most psychotherapy, including most traditional, insight-oriented approaches and also newer therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (developed by Judith Cohen and colleagues). Learning how to tell your story in a way that helps you understand and manage your past is good, evidence-based therapy.
However, even though most people use their past struggles to learn how to empathize with others, there is more to therapy than that. Therapists have to be able to share the tragedies of other victims, learn their losses, and walk with them on the paths to recovery. It is tough work, when done well.
Can Therapists Ever Self-Disclose?
Yes. Therapist self-disclosure can be a powerful therapeutic tool, but self-disclosure is most definitely an advanced therapeutic skill. Good training programs teach therapists about the timing and the technique for self-disclosure. Pages and pages have been written about therapist self-disclosure, but a few basics can be briefly summarized.
What is therapist self-disclosure good for?
• Knowing that other people also struggle can help someone feel less alone.
• Sometimes it can be helpful to "de-pathologize" a problem—to show that clients are not the only ones with problems and that their experiences or thoughts or feelings are not bizarre. In public, many people try to put their best face forward regarding family, job, sense of self. There are a lot of good things about that but our public personas can make it seem like no one else has problems. However, everyone struggles in some way, even therapists, and sometimes letting a client know that can be helpful.
How and when can therapists use self-disclosure?
• The basic rule of thumb is that therapists should not be getting their own needs met by self-disclosing to clients. Even in peer counseling programs such as AA, the leaders are usually those who no longer need to talk about their own struggles in every meeting.
• Recent difficulties are best avoided. Why? Because recent problems are more likely to still carry too much emotional "oomph" for the therapist to control their use as a therapeutic tool. One exception to this is a family emergency that unexpectedly creates a need to reschedule a session.
• Beyond providing basic information about training or experience, it is rarely a good idea for a therapist to self-disclose early in treatment.
• Therapists also should not be seeking praise or gratitude from their clients. Therapists need to find other sources of self-esteem, which is another important and legitimate need but not one to seek directly from one's clients.
When it is clear that the information is being offered to support the client, not the therapist, careful and limited use of self-disclosure can enhance therapy. If your sessions seem to have as much to do with your therapist's life as with your own, in most cases the best response is to head for the exit and try a different therapist. There are therapists who can find that delicate balance. They can use their insights from the shared struggles we all face and still keep the focus of your shared work on you.
© 2014 Sherry Hamby
Dr. Hamby 's most recent book is Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). To learn more about a strengths-based approach to domestic violence, visit http://thevigor.org. For other strengths-based approaches to resilience and overcoming violence and other adversity, visit http://lifepathsresearch.org.