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Understanding therapist self-disclosure and why it can be good practice

Ask questions to ascertain whether your therapist’s core values, social frameworks, and basic lived experiences match your own, but there are benefits as well as risks to therapist self-disclosure

The practice of therapist self-disclosure helps build trust and humanises the 
The practice of therapist self-disclosure helps build trust and humanises the therapist. (Pexels/Shvets Production)

Before I take on a client, I always do an ‘introductory’ phone call with them in order to gauge why they are seeking therapy, and to provide them an opportunity to ask me questions about my therapy practice, approach and qualifications. 

During such calls, clients almost always ask me about myself and often, my values. For instance, I have been asked, “Do you consider yourself a queer affirmative therapist?” (the answer is most definitely ‘yes’). Another question I enjoyed answering was, “Do you believe in a feminist approach to therapy?” (again, absolutely ‘yes’). These questions are important and begin to explore the essence of who I am as a human being, inside and outside of the therapy space. Evidently, the potential client is not only assessing whether I have the academic and experiential qualifications to conduct therapy, but also ascertain whether my core values, my social frameworks, and my basic lived experiences match their own. Ultimately, these questions demand that I, the therapist, engage in what is called therapist self-disclosure.

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Therapist self-disclosure occurs when the therapist intentionally shares or expresses information about themselves with the client during a therapy session, or during an interaction in which the roles of the individuals, as therapist and client, are implicit (such as my introductory calls). Therapist self-disclosure is a purposeful therapeutic intervention that was developed through a humanistic approach to therapy. Therapists who follow this approach, one that is more client-centered, believe that a therapist can model openness, honesty and vulnerability for their clients by occasionally and carefully disclosing certain aspects of themselves to the clients.

The aim of such therapist self-disclosure is to help the client build trust in the therapist, humanise the therapist, and help the client witness what it is like to share thoughts, emotions and experiences in the therapeutic space. The therapist’s disclosure should ultimately drive the therapeutic relationship forward without shifting the focus entirely to them. This balancing act of talking about oneself while keeping another person in mind is a nuanced and challenging therapeutic intervention. As such, therapist self-disclosure is considered a more advanced therapeutic intervention, and one that therapists learn to do well over time. 

As a client, it is important to understand that a therapist might use self-disclosure to help them view or understand an issue they are facing in a different way. When used thoughtfully, this disclosure is a demonstration of empathy from therapist to client. There are, however, risks of therapist self-disclosure that a client should understand. For instance, if a client finds their therapist spending a significant amount of time talking about themselves in a session, or if the therapist reveals information that seems inappropriate (TMI?), it is important that the client recognises these red flags and calls them out to the therapist if they feel comfortable doing so. 

As a client, gauge whether the information the therapist is revealing is moving the conversation forward, and helping you think about your concerns in a new way. Assess whether you learned something about your therapist that seems meaningful, and made you trust them in a deeper manner. Think about whether your respect for them has increased or decreased after they disclosed information about themselves. These are the basic gut-checks that could help you, as a client, ascertain whether your therapist’s self-disclosure was purposeful. 

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While self-disclosure is a powerful therapeutic intervention, not every client enjoys it. If you are the kind of person who would rather know less about your therapist, you may be more interested in the psychoanalytic approach to therapy. This approach generally calls for therapists to be more of a blank slate. 

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, conceived of the therapist as being “opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to (the therapist himself).” Freud believed that the therapist should be neutral, and almost anonymous to the client. The purpose of this approach is to allow the client to project onto the therapist’s blank slate the cognitions and emotions that they are experiencing outside the therapy space. These projections then allow the therapist to interpret and analyse the client’s conscious and subconscious thoughts and emotions. Freud did not leave room for the therapist’s self to take up space in the therapeutic relationship. As such, self-disclosure is not generally a psychoanalytic intervention. 

I believe in the humanistic approach to therapy. As such, I use self-disclosure in a purposeful and thoughtful manner in my practice. I understand that self-disclosure is both verbal and non-verbal. For instance, in writing this column, I am disclosing a significant amount about my thoughts regarding therapy to the public, and perhaps to my clients too. While studying psychological counselling at Columbia University, my professors often asked us to check who we are in the world, particularly through “googling” ourselves. They would note that self-disclosure occurs unintentionally, and sometimes, unwillingly because of our technologically-focused world, and that it is critical for us, as therapists, to know what our clients could find out about us.

Furthermore, my professors also noted that another form of (often unintentional) self-disclosure happens through physical appearance and presentation. For instance, it is relatively easy to ascertain someone’s socioeconomic status from their clothing: Are they wearing jewellery? Do their clothes come from well-known brands? It is also possible to ascertain other aspects about their lives such as their general age, their religious identity, and even their marital status simply from analysing their physical appearance. While this information is harmless when revealed purposefully, it could distance a client from a therapist or destabilise the therapeutic alliance if the therapist is unaware of the revelations. 

Recently, on my professional Instagram, I posted a story in response to the critical humanitarian crisis in Gaza, stating that I am offering pro bono, online, therapy sessions to individuals in Gaza and the West Bank (if the internet will allow for it). Before sharing, I considered what this post implicitly reveals much about my political leanings and opinions. I contemplated the impact it could have on my current clients—the comfort or discomfort they may feel—and whether it would change our relationship. Ultimately, I decided that more than anything else, this self-disclosure demonstrates my core values of humanity and empathy, and I feel proud to show that side of myself to my clients.

 Malika Noor Mehta is a psychotherapist and mental health advocate who runs her own private practice in Mumbai.

Therapy Deconstructed is a monthly column that aims to demystify all aspects of therapy. 

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