Therapy is all about self-disclosure – it’s all about the client disclosing their personal struggles and weaknesses to their therapist, right? Wrong! It’s not that simple anymore.
Ron Taffel, PhD, shares how the recent shift to the majority of therapy clients being millennials has led him to question, “Really, as a therapist, how open am I supposed to be?”
Millennials have changed the face of therapy. Most notably, their demand that therapists self-disclose has busted old myths and shifted the focus of therapy sessions. This demand is partly due to the more open parenting styles these 18 to 35-year-olds were raised with, and the up-close-and-personal relationships they’re used to engaging in. Thank you, social media.
On the other hand, Fay Brezel, LMHC believes that while modern day / social-media style relationships are often times the cause of clients seeking their therapist’s disclosure, it is for a slightly different reason. They are in fact seeking something they are not getting in these other relationships: authenticity, genuinity, and vulnerability.
She believes that millennials, of the instant gratification and social media generation, are engaged in (too) many superficial relationships. Therefore, in the therapeutic relationship they’ll first connect at a superficial level, as they’re accustomed to, but ultimately crave a deeper connection. The expectation clients now have of their therapists to share personal experiences can be quite difficult for professionals trained with the rules of neutrality and blank slate aspirations.
More and more evidence is emerging pointing to the benefits of therapists’ appropriate self disclosure. Often, a therapist’s self-disclosure can assist a client in their disclosure as they come to realize that therapists are human, too (gasp!) and can relate – on many levels – to their clients’ struggles.
We asked our pros to weigh in on times when they shared their failures, vulnerabilities, or personal struggles with a client to help dissolve unreal perceptions of perfection and create a bond of understanding and relatability.
We wanted to know how disclosure was effectively practiced in session – and also how it impacted the therapeutic relationship.
The Relatability Factor
Hudi Kowalsky, LMHC will unabashedly disclose that he only passed his driving test on the seventh try. In other words: he failed six times! When therapists choose to share their vulnerabilities or struggles it can spark an aha moment for the client: “They get me!” This dispels shame and helps them open up to their therapist, ultimately facilitating their healing.
Rachel Brezel, LMHC, an OCD specialist, sometimes shocks her clients by sharing that she, too, experiences OCD tendencies – especially when it comes to her spotless kitchen floor. Her family hears the frequently repeated “Don’t walk around eating! Use a plate and sit at the table,” very, very often! Joshua Tal, PhD makes sure his clients know that he’s human too. He’s argued with his wife over her faithful following of insta-celebs’ advice but not his, overcome his cigarette addiction and other human adversity. He makes sure to dispel the myth that his life is perfect. He firmly believes that “it is always favorable to share personal struggles with clients.”
In a time when many young New Yorkers struggle with doubting their career choices, Lisa Ogorek, LMSW finds that sharing her drastic shift in career paths to psychotherapist helps clients realize that “their struggle is not uniquely theirs.” This removes their embarrassment about not having it all figured out and they ultimately become more vulnerable in treatment.
I can do it, too!
Sometimes, therapists share their healing journey with their clients, providing a real-life example of the treatment they are trying to implement. Loren Aryeh Leib Ecker, LCSW helped a client challenge his black and white thinking by sharing a personal experience. He found himself engaged in distorted thinking when he doubted his capabilities as a therapist. This emerged when he compared himself to another therapist who he deemed to have a lot more clarity of thought. He struggled to ditch his “I need to be perfect to be valuable” approach and to shift to a shades-of-grey perspective. Sharing this with a client who was working towards challenging his own distorted thinking patterns truly enhanced the tone of their sessions.
Joanne Royer, LMFT does not typically share in session. On one occasion, however, she did self disclose. Her own story, a major fear of flying, had kept her stuck for years. She outlined for her client how she shifted her perspective and left her old thoughts behind. This enabled her to enjoy one of the greatest moments in her life, her mom’s recognition at a CNN awards show. Her client so appreciated this gesture as she was struggling to rewrite her story, too.
The Message: You’re not alone
Do you have to tell your story in order to cultivate connection and understanding? Joanne Royer thinks not. She rarely shares personal information at work, but uses the term “we” as opposed to “you,” delivering the message that “we think, we feel, we struggle.” It’s all of humanity; you’re not alone.
Therapists don’t always have to share personal narratives in order to create that “I’m human too and I get it” connection. Jack Heinemann, LCSW discusses with his clients how he may have disappointed them in the client/therapist relationship. He readily admits that he’s not perfect within the therapeutic relational experience alone. Clients don’t necessarily need to hear the whole story as Karen Carlucci, LCSW beautifully demonstrates. She speaks and writes about losing her fiance on September 11, so clients are aware of her experience. Even without discussing it in session, she finds that “it seems comforting to clients … to know I’ve endured my own struggle.”
The Bottom Line
Clients struggle to share their deepest vulnerabilities with their therapist. They fear that those who (they think) have it all figured out and lead close to perfect lives won’t understand their struggles. But Karen Carlucci affirms that “We are all human, after all.”
When therapists choose to share personal experiences in session it reminds clients of this truth. Rachel Brezel finds that “Sharing our vulnerabilities appropriately makes us more approachable, less intimidating, and significantly more impactful.”
So, do those letters after their name mean that professionals are equipped with tools to help others better their lives? Absolutely. That their lives are perfect? Absolutely not. Remember that therapists struggle too and can relate to the all-too-human vulnerabilities, failures, and weaknesses we all contend with.
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About the Author:
Chana Daskal enjoys writing pieces that will influence, inform and inspire. A book and a coffee are her happy place, and chocolate always helps. She spends most of her time either working or laughing a little too hard.