How much should you know about your therapist?

ImageIn the novel Lying on the Coach a therapist makes a dramatic decision – he will try a completely different approach with his next client and be as honest as possible.

Uncomfortable with the gap between his professional persona and personal life, the therapist, Ernest, decides to be much more open with clients.

“Is it so impossible for therapists to be genuine, to be authentic in all encounters?” he asks himself.

Ernest finds himself getting tangled up as he realises how difficult it is to be genuinely open while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.  The matter is made more complicated by the fact that his client turns out to be a woman he finds himself highly attracted to and who wants to seduce him for her own ends.

Nevertheless, Ernest’s struggle to be open does bring benefits to the therapeutic relationship, even with a duplicitous client!

Clients who have been frustrated by their therapist’s with-holding of personal information may applaud Ernest’s attempt to be more open.  After all, there is a grain of truth in the cliché of the therapist who replies to every question with another question.

Controversy over how much therapists should disclose about their personal lives goes back to the days of Freud, who argued that therapists should be a ‘blank screen’. But much depends on the theoretical approach of the individual therapist. Those from the ‘psychodynamic’ school, who work more with clients’ projections, are likely to be less self-disclosing than ‘humanistic’ therapists.

One of the main objections to self-disclosure has been that it can be used for the therapist’s gratification. For example, certain disclosures could lead to the client feeling they need to care for the therapist.

Whether there has been any increase in self-disclosure is unclear but the growth in therapists’ websites and social networking sites has clearly made it much easier for information to be made available and shared.

To what degree therapists should take advantage of these channels is debatable and will depend a lot on the individual personality.

Irvin Yalom, existential therapist and author of Lying on the Couch, is at the more open end of the spectrum, possibly because of his background in group therapy where there is more pressure on the therapist to self-disclose.

Yalom argues that therapist disclosure encourages client disclosure.  He is happy to say whether he is married, whether he liked a particular film, etc. Disclosing this kind of information does not mean the reason for the question – the process – cannot also be explored, says Yalom.

But there are caveats, he insists, such as being aware that any information given to a client may be passed on to their next therapist! So don’t disclose anything you genuinely want to remain private.

This suggests that there are three levels of information therapists work with – public, personal and private. A therapist may choose to disclose some personal information, in the interests of the client, but will not disclose private information.

Jungian analyst Jane Haynes says in her memoir that she is willing to share aspects of her personal life selectively with clients. She says there are some aspects of one’s personal life that are private, even secret, and other areas that it may be beneficial to share.

She says: ‘Any therapeutic disclosure requires careful thought and personal scrutiny. Possibly, it is in those creative tensions that distinguish spontaneity from impulsiveness that wisdom resides.’

It seems likely that the more experience a therapist has the more likely they are to self-disclose. In a study of leading therapists’’ approaches, author Michael Kahn says that most became more self-disclosing the course of their careers: ‘[They came] more and more to trust their spontaneity and express their human warmth.’

Nevertheless, Kahn believes that caution is the watchword when it comes to disclosure, as ‘it can reduce the opportunity for the client’s valuable exploration of fantasy.’


Between Therapist and Client, by Michael Kahn

The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom

Lying on the Couch, by Irvin Yalom

Who is it that can tell me who I am?, by Jane Haynes.