Is It OK to Ask a Therapist Personal Questions?
If it's important to you, they should want to explore it.
Posted January 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- It’s natural for clients to wonder about a therapist’s background, approach, or opinion.
- The most common questions therapists receive involve experiences that are pertinent to the client’s reason for seeking therapy.
- Many therapists will answer personal questions directly; some will not, but they will explore your reason for asking the question.
The therapeutic relationship is inherently imbalanced. Over time the client shares their thoughts, feelings, joys, and fears—without hearing the same from the person sitting across from them. It’s natural to wonder about your therapist, whether you’re curious about their background, approach, opinion, or simply how they’re doing that day.
“We are relational creatures,” says F. Diane Barth, LCSW, a therapist based in New York City. “It totally makes sense for a person to be asking questions of someone with whom they’re going to be sharing their intimate self.”
The short answer to the question is: Yes. If you have a question, you should ask. Your questions are valid and likely relevant to the therapeutic process. (Blatantly inappropriate questions are of course a different story.) The therapist may or may not answer the question, but they will explore its significance with you.
In the past, a therapist’s response may have mapped onto their modality. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic approaches historically involved minimal therapist disclosure—a blank slate—so the client projected their thoughts and emotions without interference. The development of newer approaches, such as humanistic therapy, encouraged more of a dynamic relationship between therapist and patient. So a therapist’s approach to self-disclosure may differ based on modality and their individual personality and philosophy.
“Will You Be Able to Understand Me?”
The most common questions therapists receive involve experiences that are pertinent to the client’s reason for seeking therapy. For example, a parent struggling with their kids may ask if a therapist has children. A client with an eating disorder or an addiction may ask if the therapist has faced the same condition. These questions cover relationships, families, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and physical and mental illness.
The common theme running through these questions is: Will you be able to understand me? Will you be able to help me? These are valid, important questions. You deserve to understand how the therapy—that you’re paying for—will work.
Therapists respond to these questions in different ways. Many will answer directly; they will share, for example, if they have children or if they have been married or divorced. Some will not answer directly, but they will explore your reason for asking the question. They may say, “Why do you ask?” or “Are you worried that I won’t understand what you’re struggling with? Talk to me about that.”
“These questions have a valid motivation,” Barth says. “Sometimes just recognizing that it’s a valid motivation is all the person wants.”
What follows will depend on the client and therapist, says Virginia-based psychologist Jen Henretty, Ph.D. They will likely discuss the question and answer and then move forward. Or, they may conclude that a different therapist would be a better fit. A therapist will sometimes refer the client to another professional with relevant experience.
Other personal questions involve the desire to understand the therapist and maintain a human connection. For example, a patient might ask “What has your experience of the pandemic been like?” or simply, “How are you doing today?” These questions are also valid and completely fine to ask (although patients should not feel obligated to do so). In response, many therapists will answer directly, have a moment of connection, and then turn the conversation back to the client. However, if the client continually asks about the therapist in session, the therapist may want to explore that tendency—is the patient accustomed to being a caretaker? Do they have trouble expressing their own needs?
Another type of question involves deflecting discomfort, Barth says. A patient may interject a question for the therapist during an uncomfortable point in the conversation. Perhaps self-examination frightens them, or maybe they feel vulnerable and want the therapist to feel the same, Barth says. The therapist may explore the client’s motivation and address their underlying concerns.
The final category is miscellaneous queries unrelated to treatment. A client may ask where a therapist is going on vacation if they will be out of the office. A well-intentioned patient asked Henretty if she was single because they wanted to set her up with someone.
A good therapist will be careful with self-disclosure; they will only share what they think is important to help the client. “All therapist self-disclosure should be deliberate,” Henretty says. “Some research shows that therapist self-disclosure is something patients remember best.” On the other hand, if the therapist answers the question and remains focused on themselves for a substantial period of time, that would be a red flag.
The takeaway is to ask—if the question is important to you, the therapist wants to know. And if you’re nervous, your therapist is there to help. “It’s not on the client to figure out what is appropriate. The therapist should help figure out what those boundaries are,” Henretty says.
These questions may even spark your progress. Henretty remembers a client early on in her career, a young man she saw at a college counseling center. Henretty recalls that he looked at her and said, “I’m sure you have no time management issues and can’t relate, right?” At the time, there was more of an unspoken rule that therapists don’t disclose, period. But she said, “Yeah, time management is an issue for me too.” He recognized that she understood, and he began to open up.
“If I had said, ‘Why do you ask?’ I might have missed an opportunity to connect with him,” Henretty says. “It cleared the way for him to talk about more uncomfortable things. It’s like, ‘OK, she’s human.’”
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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