- When a client knows too many personal details about their therapist, this can negatively affect their therapeutic experience.
- Analytic abstinence, as described by Freud, has been widely misunderstood in modern-day mental health.
- Therapists should not speak of their experiences—but rather, from their experiences.
As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, I have noticed that some of my patients show no curiosity about me whatsoever. They don’t look me up online, ask personal questions, or seem to know or (or even want to know) about my life. I could be free to disclose to them any details about my lived experiences that I think could be valuable during our sessions, but my policy is not to tell them about my own experiences. Here’s why.
A majority of my patients have at least Googled me and found my website, or seen my Psychology Today listing. Their information-seeking is purely professional, and they find content about me that I want them to see: my philosophy of therapy, my publications, and presentations, and, of course, the posts I have written for various outlets.
Then there are patients whose curiosity goes way beyond the ordinary. They scour the internet for information about me. They find photos I didn't even know existed: details of my life from 50 years ago. A couple of patients seem to know more about me than I do! In their transference, they have often formed ideas about me that confirm (or shatter) expectations they had of me. Their projections lead to false hope about who I can be for them—or unfounded fears about who I might be.
Analytic Abstinence: Don’t Tell (Even When Asked)
Freud’s idea of “analytic abstinence” and “analytic neutrality”—intentional nondisclosure about yourself to your patients—has been widely misunderstood. For many years, abstinence was interpreted to mean the therapist should not speak much, sometimes hardly at all.
It’s not about that.
It’s also not about being a complete blank screen; it is about being more or less “anonymous.” “Analytic neutrality” is about not taking sides, not trying to steer patients to a particular place, and not imposing oneself on the patient. Because of these areas of misunderstanding, there is continuing controversy in psychotherapy about the virtues and vices of self-disclosure during therapy.
Some therapists are comfortable telling their clients details about their lives, and might even feel unfazed if a client discovered something private about them. They believe that a therapist should reveal some things about themselves on purpose, even taking the position that this is an essential element of the therapeutic process. Therapy is an interpersonal event, they reason, and sharing personal aspects of their lives is the best way to level the playing field.
Most analytic practitioners follow a different school of thought. Like me, these therapists are more circumspect about what they tell clients about themselves and experience discomfort if a client knows about their personal lives.
Freud’s patients knew a lot about him. Many were studying psychoanalysis. His office was located in his house, and he received many of them socially. But these days, there is a more restrained view of these things, and it is now unethical to impose social mingling on patients. And while the ethics may be less clear about self-disclosure of personal details and experiences, I think self-disclosure is a bad idea.
4 Reasons Why Therapists Should Not Tell Their Clients Personal Details
1. It shifts your patients’ focus off of themselves. Therapy is a special and bounded relationship. Yes, we and our clients are equally human and equally deserving of unconditional positive regard ... but clients seek us out for help with their lives, not to know about or help us with our life. And people-pleasing clients may even use a diversion about our issues as a means of diverting attention from their own.
2. It invites comparison between you and them. Our focus as therapists is on our clients and their best interest. Telling them that we had a similar experience—let’s say, a difficulty or even a trauma—always runs a risk either of suggesting to them that we are also trapped by those experiences, or of the opposite risk: that we have overcome it while they cannot. Then they would both envy and idealize us, while feeling disempowered themselves.
3. It anchors your client to your values and actions. It is much better to work from a position of disinterested examination than to use ourselves as an idealized example of how our clients should improve their lives. Using ourselves as examples often leaves them feeling inferior to us. That inferior feeling is often unconscious, and all the harder to get at when we are the ones flaunting our own lives as examples to be learned from.
4. It puts us on a pedestal. If we tell a client a good thing about ourself, and later they discover something not so good, it shatters the confidence or idealization we wished them to have. Better to leave our own good and less-good sides out of the discussion altogether, not to promote idealization and identification with our lives.
At best, self-disclosure muddies the waters; at worst, it interferes with transference. Transference works best in an environment where clients have little actual knowledge about the therapist, so the therapist figure can become whomever they need them to be in the process. Patients may find out details about us on their own, but sharing personal information automatically exposes our clients to the negative effects and pitfalls I listed above. If patients seek outside information, that’s on them. If we impose it, that’s on us.
How therapists can responsibly employ their personal experience
Does analytic abstinence mean we have to forget about our own experiences during sessions? Of course not—but therapists should be prepared when issues like this arise. Every therapist, with every client, should redirect any impulse to use self-disclosure and replace it with a use of self-awareness.
This is where the work we have done in our own therapy and continuing self-reflection will come into play. These processes give us the capacity for self-awareness that is crucial to our work. Working inside ourselves, and with reference perhaps to common human experiences, can form an anchor point for our guidance, without becoming a distraction for our clients. I don’t share things from my life; I point to common human challenges.
Don’t speak of your experiences; speak from your experiences.
Using our lived experience with our clients requires analysis, self-reflection, and abstraction: to arrive at a state of mind the analyst Wilfred Bion called our “reverie.” This gives us an internal approximation within ourselves of what the patient’s dilemma might mean to them. As we work to understand our patients, the best guide is our countertransference: seeing the way our patients treat us and project things onto us—and observing the way their story resonates with our own internal emotional world.
What might this look like in practice? Instead of a one-directional statement like “I had an experience like that and here is what I felt or did,” for instance, we could offer an invitation to build upon our shared experiences: “Here is what I am understanding about you."
Matching those two elements—what the patient puts onto us, and the conclusions we generate from our own experiences—generates an understanding, both of our patients and of the meaning of our patients’ interactions with us. Only then can we speak from that understanding we have gained by internal self-reflection and self-awareness, and the messages we can deliver—the full fruit of our self-awareness—will far exceed the value of a simple sharing of our own experiences.