The topic of self-disclosure in the mental health field is pretty taboo. It seems like there’s a lot of anxiety around the idea of sharing a part of yourself with your clients. It makes sense that we’re cautious, though. We don’t want to be self-serving in session. We don’t want our self-disclosure to become about us. Boundaries are incredibly important. I can’t stress that enough.
My opinion regarding self-disclosure has changed throughout my time as a student and as a professional. In school, I was basically taught that under no circumstances do you disclose. That stayed pretty consistent throughout my time in the world of academia. When I started volunteering and interning, that changed a bit. I noticed that the subject was mentioned more frequently and people had a variety of unanswered questions and unexpressed opinions. People talked about their experiences with self-disclosure both as a therapist and as a client. I felt inclined to share my own thoughts on the subject and for once, it felt safe to do so.
What I’ve learned is that self-disclosure doesn’t have to be blatant. As a helping professional, there’s no need to go into detail about a specific experience in order to relate to your client or build rapport. In fact, I’ve found the most effective self-disclosure to be the kind that is subtle and often times, silent. For me, self-disclosure has been as simple as expressing solidarity in a nonverbal way. Sometimes I nod, sometimes I soften my eyes. Other times, it’s as simple as a vibe or a feeling that gets put out into the room. That may sound silly, but people are intuitive and they can feel when you just get it. Not just as a therapist, but also as a human.
I’ll give you an example of a time I self-disclosed when I didn’t intend to at all. I have a tattoo of serotonin on my forearm. I don’t go out of my way to try and cover up my tattoos at work because luckily, I work for an organization that doesn’t make me feel like I have to. I usually end up wearing sweaters because my office can get cold, but on this particular day I didn’t. One of my past clients who struggles with depression saw it and said something along the lines of, “What is that symbol on your arm?” I hadn’t been asked about it yet, so I was a bit taken back. I told him that it was serotonin and he said, “That’s what I thought”.
For a second after that interaction, we just looked at each other and I could feel my eyes soften. I could literally feel a slight shift in the room. During the session, just before this interaction, we were talking about his tendency to isolate because he doesn’t feel like the people around him understand what it’s like to be depressed. He talked a lot about how alone he felt and how often times, it’s just easier for him to stay in his room and play video games.
After a couple semi-panicky seconds filled with a million and one thoughts, I said, “People experience depression differently, but just remember that you’re not alone. Depression doesn’t discriminate.” In a subtle way, I self-disclosed. He had already come to some sort of conclusion, but I felt the need to address what just happened. I didn’t feel comfortable saying, “Oh, I have depression too”, but I felt like I could utilize the moment to wrap up our session while simultaneously building rapport.
If you really think about it, we all self-disclose in one way or another. If you’re a therapist, you do it through the art on your wall, the pictures on your desk, and the books on your bookshelf. You express a part of yourself through the way that you dress and through the jewelry that you wear. All of that allows your clients to see a small piece of who you are. This just goes to show that there are so many different types of disclosure.
Every situation is different and every client is different. What’s appropriate with one person may not be appropriate for the next. That’s where clinical judgement and your gut come into play.
When I think about how I want to utilize self-disclosure during session, I keep these things in mind:
The topic of self-disclosure was brought up during group supervision at work and to be honest, without that conversation, I probably wouldn’t be writing about this. I’d be too ashamed and anxious. Luckily, it was normalized during group. We were having an open discussion filled with different experiences and tips. I found that a lot of people have some sort of opinion about the topic and more often than not, they feel just as anxious about it as I do. It really helps to have a safe space to be transparent and inquire about what to do during these very real moments.
At the end of every day, I take some time to think about why I do what I do. I check myself and try as hard as I can to learn from my experiences. I firmly believe that in order to reach fulfilment, we need to learn from our mistakes and continue to grow and transform. That being said, I’m always open to feedback. That’s why I recommend talking to someone in your profession that you feel comfortable with about this topic. There’s so much to learn from the people around you.
Also, I have my own time and place where I process my personal experiences as a human. My time isn’t during a client’s session. That’s their time. I’m standing with them wherever they are. I’m just doing what I can to walk the line between human and therapist. Sometimes I stumble, but I’m willing to get back up, admit I messed up and try again.
As always, thanks for reading.
With love and light,
Self-disclosure. It’s not something I’m “for” doing. I was taught that it’s unethical and makes it about us, not the client. But I’m also a huge advocate for sharing power, sharing space, and breaking the divide between the “I vs. Thou” myth. So, then, how does walking this line work?
Is there a line?
And if there is, is it subjective? Is it relative? I guess all of the above can be true depending on your role. For instance, a peer advocate has the word “peer” in their title, unlike the ever-fancier term psychotherapist. I think there are definitely considerations to be had in order to really determine what is best for our clients. Because that’s what matters in the end: our clients. These people we’ve been entrusted to care for. And sometimes trudge with. But let me get to that later.
No matter what, I 100% feel that getting regular supervision from a qualified professional is of the utmost importance. I don’t care if you’re an overnight shift shelter worker or an MD. YOU NEED SUPERVISION. If you think you don’t, then either you’ve never had the opportunity to or you’re awfully pompous and need to take yourself down a few notches. Just saying. No one knows everything.
First off, I understand that sometimes self-disclosure is unavoidable. I’m thinking of small communities, particularly rural, where dual relationships are just a part of life, and you deal with it. I also understand that some professions encourage it. For instance, substance abuse counselors often incorporate self-disclosure regarding their own recovery, if this is something they have experienced. But even then, I know I have an opinion on that. Regardless, su-per-vi-sion.
My theory is the outer-inner model. Yup, just made that up. What I mean is that our outer traits that are visible outside of clothing are exposed, and our inner selves and mental health are not; and we must take responsibility for how we own this. Scars, burns, tattoos, injuries, hair dye, you name it. Some things just show. And sometimes we just don’t want to hide them because we’re proud of them and what they represent. Sometimes we’re also ashamed of them, or they bring us pain. There are so many emotional relationships we have with these traits, and as helping professionals, we must consider how we represent them around our clients.
The inner stuff, not necessarily as visible. Losses, deaths, break-ups, traumas, our own mental health. Struggles. Joys. Beliefs. I’ve already talked about countertransference, so I’m not going over that this time. When it comes to sharing experiences of struggle and pain, my opinion is don't do it. At least not in the obvious way.
I acknowledge that there are so many considerations to look at. For instance, if you’re field-based, inpatient-based, street/outreach-based, project/apartment-based, office-based, shelter-based, etc. It really just depends, and I’ll be the first to say that I can’t know what that’s like unless I’m actually there doing it.
For me, when it comes to these experiences, I put myself in the client’s shoes. If I were them, what would I think? When I’ve BEEN in their shoes, what have I really been trying to get at? And the answers are usually one of three things:
The thing is- what if “what we would do”, doesn’t work for our clients? Same experiences are not same experiences. And we are not supposed to be everything to our clients. We’re supposed to guide them to these things, these figures, these experiences. We’re supposed to outwardly ponder the dynamics and the themes, not tunnel-vision on the specifics. We should be grounded, insightful, and humble enough to validate and strengthen, not comfort and rescue. And lastly, we should recognize when our own stuff comes up that needs more TLC, specifically when we want to answer personal questions because we want them to know.
I’m not saying any of this is wrong or shameful. When I say “we should”, I mean we should be working toward this headspace. And honestly, it just takes a lot of practice, experience, invested supervision, and always therapy. This way, we can empower our clients, instead of filling in the spaces for them. That’s not sustainable, and it’s not helping them learn their own strengths. For example, if I have a client who feels alone, I’ll help them find a support group, community, or way to take their interests and do them with others.
I’ve had a client ask how my large tattoo is any different than the infected scars on their arm that they had carved in the day before. I’ve had clients who’ve asked me if I’m married, in a relationship, or have kids (but, really, who hasn’t been asked this?). I’ve had clients ask if I believe in God when they see my college diploma, what my religion is, where I live, what my sexual orientation is. And in the big scheme of things, these are totally normal questions for people to ask. Especially in relationships where one person knows almost everything about the other, and the other becomes curious about us.
So please, don’t treat this as unnatural and respond in an uncomfortable way. It just makes it worse. We’ve all been there. I know I have. Instead, normalize it, and acknowledge the bizarreness of our clients not really knowing anything about us. And then ask what that’s like for them.
Because, really, sometimes these questions aren’t really about the question you hear. Sometimes they’re about the question/s you don’t hear:
Can I trust you?
Can I look up to you?
Am I alone?
What I said to my clients who’ve asked about my religion, I’ll normally smile and answer with, Hm, that’s a good question. I wonder, what would it mean for you to know that? When it’s about non-mental health or non-value-related questions, I’ll normally give a simple generalization-type of answer. I’ll answer if I’m from here or not, that my large tattoo is to honor my heritage, that I don’t have kids, but I do have a four-legged fur child. And that’s the thing- I’ll add humor!
The rare exceptions for me are usually when it has to do with culture, and I will usually INSINUATE it with how I choose what language I use. If I have a client who talks about being queer or bicultural, I’ll say certain things that only someone with lived experience might say (or at least someone with insane empathy). Otherwise, if it’s someone who has the same mental health diagnosis/es as me, or the same trauma/s, I’ll tap into that same language of knowing, without saying it. Does that make sense?
I ask myself: is this about me or them?
If it’s them, I’ll lean toward this and pull. If it’s me, I’ll acknowledge it, file it back for later, and re-focus on what my client is telling me- or insinuating to me- what they need.
Ultimately, I pay attention to what comes up. If I’m finding my response is to share my experience, then I tell myself that maybe I need to connect with people (not clients) and do something that will let me share and connect, whether that’s writing, joining a club, starting a blog...you get the picture. If we don’t do this, we leak. And it just gets everywhere. Including on our clients.
Recognize when you’re leaking. When you’re wanting. When you’re fighting back the urge. Because those are nudges that are coming up to tell you that you need more support and more opportunities outside of work to explore them. Otherwise, it can develop into an unintended abuse of power and control. Because like it or not, we are in positions of power and privilege when we have clients. Period. Live to deserve it, not take advantage of it. And I know if you’re reading this, you obviously care and want to do right by the inspiring, resilient people whom we serve.
This is a reminder that you are human, you are worthy of self-care, and slipping up is always a learning experience, not a failure.
Own what you have, both inner and outer stuff, and consider the impacts of them on your clients and how you want to approach these things when they come up for you. Even if you have some major experience under your belt, it’s better to consult and process first, before taking it upon yourself to wing it.
Here’s to our clients, whom we have the honor of moving through life with,
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