Why can't I know where my therapist goes on holiday?
In everyday life when we share personal details about ourselves, we're most likely to do so within a symmetrical, mutually disclosing friendship. After all, this is how we build the bonds of friendship: taking turns, gradually, to disclose details of ourselves to another, who encourages us with expressions of sympathy and entrusts us with disclosures of their own.
Therapy, then, can come as a contradiction to everything we've learnt about how emotional intimacy works. As a client, our personal disclosures are generally not reciprocated with therapist disclosure. And what's more, our therapist may point blank refuse to answer what seems like the most unrevealing personal information. For some clients this unconventionality might be a source of frustration, whilst for others it can feel like a relief.
So, what might we reasonably expect in terms of therapist self-disclosure (TSD), and what effect does it have on our therapeutic process?
The image of the poker-faced therapist is perhaps an outdated cliché from early psychoanalysis, which proposed the therapist become a blank sheet onto which the client could transfer their other relationships for the therapist to analyse. Though even for therapists working this way, clients still have clues to their age, ethnicity, socio-economic group, IQ. Their room, website and clothes reveal their ethos; jewellery or tattoos their marital status, religion or sexual orientation. But, in addition to this incidental information, currently, across all modalities, 65-90% of practising therapists are using self-disclosure in their therapeutic approach. In fact, on average, 3.5% of therapist interventions are therapeutic TSD*.
What might TSD look like?
TSD often takes the form of either here and now disclosures, or biographical disclosures. here and now TSD draws on how the therapist is experiencing their interaction with us within the session, e.g. "I'm noticing I'm feeling quite protective of you right now." With biographical disclosures, the therapist is sharing information from outside the immediacy of the counselling room, perhaps relevant comments on their qualifications, beliefs, or experiences.
Whether a here and now or biographical disclosure, TSD is ideally used as a self-aware intervention whose purpose is to shed light on something in the client's process. But TSD is a complex intervention. At some points in therapy, it can effectively progress therapeutic work. Whilst at others it risks undermining it. This is due to our dual perspective of our therapist as both qualified expert and fallible human being. Sometimes, perhaps in a moment when we're struggling to hold things together, we may be needing to idealise our therapist's expertise to create a boundaried space. Other times, perhaps in a moment of shame, it might reassure us to hear about our therapist's own human experience. The very same TSD at one point might create the rapport to deepen work, and at another feel detracting from our unique experience.
Let's take a look at an example of a client presenting with relationship issues
In the 7th session, after the therapist has returned from 2 weeks' annual leave, the client asks where they went on holiday. The therapist has been somewhere they know the client feels fondly about. To disclose this might re-establish an affiliation, kick-starting the therapeutic bond again after the break. However, biographical TSD at this point may miss the opportunity to investigate possible reasons behind the client's relationship difficulties, such as low tolerance of frustration, or a fear of rejection, both of which could be explored through how it is for the therapist not to disclose.
Too little use of TSD, though, can also be unhelpful as clients feel disinclined to share personal details with someone who appears aloof*. So it might feel that sometimes our therapist reveals things to us, sometimes they won't give us the answer to a straight forward question! Proponents of inter-relational therapy offer some reassurance around this: whilst both the human-ness of therapists and the complexity of TSD mean that a therapist cannot guarantee consistency in their use of self-disclosure, they can work to be "real" with us, including the nature of that inconsistency?
Where does this leave us?
Should we just bite our tongue when we find ourselves wondering about our therapist? About their opinion of us? No! If it's on our mind, it's useful for our therapeutic process. Plus, it's not our role to protect the therapist from our curiosity. Indeed, by noticing our curiosity, we can explore with our therapist the motivations and patterns behind it. These may often relate to the context in which the interest has been peaked, e.g:
Client (after sharing they had confronted a colleague): "Would you have done the same in my place?"
Therapist: "This feels like a significant question. Can we spend a few minutes exploring where it's coming from?
...you've spoken with me before about how hard confrontation can be for you. I'm wondering if you're possibly wanting me to recognize your pride in engaging with this conflict?"
...how might you feel if I were to say I'd have done the same thing? Or if I would've done something different. I'm curious how far it's important to have my approval right now?"
Whilst we may not get the answer to the question we asked, the exploration for its motivation might lead us to understand more about recurring issues and patterns for us, such as our feelings around belonging, external judgement, approval, toleration of attention, or maybe our need to test the credentials or reliability of others. This kind of self-awareness will ultimately help us understand better relationships outside the therapy room. Also, our therapist may divulge the reply alongside the exploration of process if they judge it is more helpful than unhelpful*.
What does research tell us about how TSD can be most helpful for clients?
- During our initial assessment, when we're working out if the therapist's approach is a good fit for us.
- For mandated or teenage clients.
- When used in the here and now.
- If we have a history of strongly boundaried relationships lacking in closeness.
- When used to express here and now genuine positivity about us.
- When used purposefully and infrequently.
Therapists assess the efficacy of their interventions with us throughout sessions, but the impact of a TSD is rarely fully known to them. This is partially because of the finiteness of the relationship. Something that we as a client have experienced as not very helpful during therapy might, after therapy has finished, feel more relevant - or vice versa. This is particularly true around affiliation; feelings of similarity of experience might inspire hope and understanding at some points, but feel restrictive of our individuality at others. Another difficulty in assessing TSD is that clients have different 'parts-of-self', each of which may respond differently to a disclosure, some of which are easier to share. For the client whose therapist discloses they have been somewhere exotic for their holiday, the part-of-self who wants to celebrate the therapist's self-care is probably much more willing to speak up than the equally valid parts-of-self who feel "well, it's alright for some!", or "you weren't there when I needed you." Extend TSD to sexuality, religion, politics, parenting style .... and the potential for confluence or alienation across our parts-of-self increases.
So, the answer to the initial question...
Diversity of reaction is therapeutically helpful, but only if the diversity and quality of reactions can be revealed, explored, and reflected upon. If our therapist does select to self-disclose, we can expect this to be integrated into exploration about how that disclosure has affected our fantasies or thoughts about ourself, and our relationship with them. The uniqueness of the therapeutic relationship partially lies in its asymmetry, and as clients, although part of us may seek to redress that imbalance, it's that very asymmetry that offers us both the security of professional boundaries, and the chance to explore the spaces that open up in that unique dynamic.
*Danzer, G., (2019) Therapist Self-Disclosure; an evidence based guide for practitioners Routledge: London
Jacobs, M. (2010) The Presenting Past, OUP: London
Mearns, D & Throne B (1993) Person-centred Counselling in Action Sage: London
Rogers, C., (2004) On Becoming a Person Constable: London
Yalom, I., (2005) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy Basic Books: New York