Do You Want Your Therapist To Tell You About Their Life?
My name is Dr. Jamie Marich. I own a successful psychotherapy practice and a company that offers creative, cutting-edge trainings to other helping professionals. Four of my books on recovery and healing are published and I’m putting the finishing touches on a fifth.
I also have a dissociative disorder and struggle with bouts of persistent depression.
I’m in recovery from chemical dependency and self-injury.
And I’m wondering if disclosing these last few items about myself is killing my professional credibility in your eyes, or, if revealing these truths about myself makes me seem more real?
Self-disclosure of mental illness, addiction, and recovery status amongst helping professionals remains a hotly contested and often discussed topic in the helping professions.
In my experience, my willingness to share stories about my own recovery journey appeals to many of my clients, students, and readers. I’ve consistently received feedback from clients that my willingness to share my struggles—my humanness—has been helpful to their process.
I recall a particularly memorable interaction with a student at one of my trainings. She came up to me over a break, nearly in tears, expressing how helpful it was for her to hear me–an author, a teacher, talk so publicly about my personal struggles with dissociation.
On the other side of this coin, I’ve also received a good deal of criticism. One stinging memory is when my publisher informed me that a senior author in my area of expertise (someone who endorsed an earlier work of mine) would not endorse my work. Her reason? In her opinion, I talk about my personal life too much in my writing and she viewed this as affecting my academic credibility. Knowing that this author has a reputation for warmth and openness, I felt a visceral jab when I read her email that my publisher forwarded along.
In the few years since this incident, I’ve found myself constantly evaluating the balance of how much, what kind, and in what venue self-disclosure is appropriate. Although my position as a public figure in my field may be unusual compared to clinicians who are not authors or trainers, I’ve discovered that all of us grapple with the same questions. The fundamental questions remain: How much do I share of myself with my client? When is it appropriate to share personal elements of my own journey? Do clients actually benefit from self-disclosure?
My own graduate training, received in a pretty conservative institution well over a decade ago, imparted the message that self-disclosure can be an important part of the therapeutic relationship. We had to ensure that the use of self-disclosure was not any attempt to get our own ego needs met. Rather, there had to be a clear and justified reason in our decision making as to why the use of disclosure would benefit the client and help move them along in their goals. Sometimes, it is not clear whether or not the client is benefiting from any use of self-disclosure.
If you, as the therapist, are not sure, seek feedback from the client about whether they are finding your personal sharing helpful. Be prepared for clients to tell you that what you believe is helpful in the realm of self-disclosure may not be for them.
I’ve used these general guidelines obtained in my graduate training throughout my career as a therapist and into my more public career as a trainer and speaker. Added to this guidance is some candid advice received from Janet L., my first 12-step sponsor who was also a social worker. She once said, “Jamie, don’t share anything with a client or an audience that you wouldn’t mind having show up in the town paper.”
Although very direct and a bit tongue-and-cheek, Janet’s barometer serves as a great test. It helps me to check myself on whether I am sharing too much in an attempt to work out any of my own stuff through my clients. If my conscience tells me that what I’m about to share with the client is something I wouldn’t want out there, it generally means the wound is still fresh and I’d better do my own work on it first.
In talking with clients, students, and members of the public throughout the years, the sentiment around self-disclosure is generally positive. Opinion on what constitutes too much self-disclosure on the part of a therapist can be split. For instance, as a person in addiction recovery on a 12-step path (where sharing of ourselves and our journey is expected), it’s not unusual for me to be greeted by shocked reactions from my colleagues who primarily work in mental health settings.
“Jamie, aren’t you afraid that you won’t be taken as seriously?,” is a common question. Another observation is that what I consider self-disclosure as a person in long-term recovery drastically differs from what people not on this path consider appropriate. When I hear this kind of feedback, I’m often left perplexed—could this judgment of the helpers themselves be a reason there is such stigma around addiction and mental health in society at large?
The peer-reviewed literature generally shows inconclusive results on whether therapist self-disclosure is a helpful mechanism in therapeutic change. Recent studies on psychotherapy as a corrective experience for individuals suggests that an appropriate amount of self-disclosure can help with therapeutic rapport, an important ingredient in the overall change process. In my experience as a consumer of both mental health services and as a student in trainings, I adore it when my therapist or teacher is authentic and shares of themselves. Yet I can also sense the places where it seems that their sharing is making the process all about them and getting their ego needs met—and that can shut me off to hearing what they have to say.
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