How can I expect my client to trust me, if I am unprepared to ever appear vulnerable? How can I expect my client to comfortably explain a missed session or extended absence from therapy, if I am unprepared to do the same?
In a clinical context self-disclosure refers to the act of revealing personal details about yourself to your client. I think self-disclosure in a therapeutic sense can be broken down into two different types;
- self-disclosure in order to aid the process of therapy
- self-disclosure when my personal life impacts on my work as a CBT therapist
For me, both types of self-disclosure are equally important as part of effective cognitive-behavioural therapy and are wonderful tools to build trust within the therapeutic relationship. In my experience many therapists are frightened of self-disclosure as in our training the importance of ‘boundaries’ is consistently drummed into us, from lecturers, clinical supervisors and academic literature.
However, I believe that whilst cognitive behavioural therapy is evidence based, (which I strongly believe in, and support) there are some aspects of any type of psychological therapy and many medical interventions that make it an art. It is well-known that it is very difficult to measure empathy and the strength of a therapeutic relationship. Measures of such things are highly subjective, and necessarily so, we do not have a better way of measuring (apart from extremely expensive neuro-imaging equipment) such intricacies other than self-report. Nevertheless, just because we cannot accurately measure something it does not mean it is not essential or unimportant. For example, try to describe and measure love…… very difficult.
As a scientist-practitioner and a social scientist the art of the therapeutic relationship is built upon trust. How can I expect my client to trust me, if I am unprepared to ever appear vulnerable? How can I expect my client to comfortably explain a missed session or extended absence from therapy, if I am unprepared to do the same? It’s all very well saying to a client “I’m ill” and not expanding on it, but I find clients then often ask questions. Turning round and saying ‘I cannot tell you what’s wrong with me because it may affect our therapeutic relationship and would break boundaries’ sounds reasonable enough. However, clients are then likely to feel rejected (after all they haven’t studied the science and research behind boundaries) and moreover, worried. They may think, ” does she have a life threatening illness?”, “has she got an illness that gives her pain so it means she can’t concentrate during out sessions?” etc… In instances such a these I find truth is very powerful. By telling my client about my illness, I am given the opportunity to reassure them that my competence is not affected (otherwise I would not practice) and it also says to them, “I am a vulnerable human being just like you and that’s ok.”. Clients are so grateful for my honesty and it invariably builds mutual understanding and trust.
The other type of self-disclosure works slightly differently. This is useful for therapeutic gain by demonstrating to your client that in some situations you can personally relate. This communicates that as a therapist you are also vulnerable and imperfect but also shows that you practice what you preach. For example I am happy to tell my clients that struggle with insomnia that I have struggled with this in the past and still do from time to time. Certain CBT techniques work better for me than others and I appreciate than sleep hygiene is not an overnight cure (pardon the pun) and that it can be tough and sometimes take perseverance before benefits are to be had.
I will not bore you with what are and are not appropriate self-disclosures, as this is very much down to personal discretion and a matter I have (and all therapists should) discussed in clinical supervision. I guess my message is this: Self-disclosure is a beautiful thing, therapists need not fear it as long as your intentions for self-disclosure are always in the best interests of your client and are not damaging to your own mental or physical health and well-being.