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I have a relatively public profile for a therapist. If a past, current or future client wants to know my thoughts on mental health issues, they can read my blog. If they want to hear my voice, they can download my podcast. If they want to know what online sessions might be like, there are videos of me explaining psychological theories on Youtube. They could find out about my work outside of clinical therapy via LinkedIn and if they worked hard enough, they could uncover one or two hobbies via twitter.
Due to this, every now and then my life outside the therapy room comes crashing in. “I saw that you run a Trans/Non-binary service for teenagers… could you talk to my daughter?” or “You work a lot with trauma, so I didn’t want to over burden you with an assault that happened to me.”
Most times clients bring external information about me to therapy, it can be used constructively. This is, in part, because I spend a long time thinking about my clients when broadcasting myself. Having an online presence as a therapist is a type of mass self-disclosure, where you potentially share something personal to every client and every future client with the click of a button. I am always careful with how personal I get.
The purest Freudian and Jungian therapists disclose very little of themselves, serving as a blank screen on which the client projects their own thoughts and emotions. This is a core aspect of psychoanalysis. This projection (or transference) is perhaps one of the most powerful processes to happen in the therapy room and many other modalities of therapy rely on it also. Self-disclosure can hamper and jeopardize this process and frustrate the therapy. Relational perspectives allow a few careful disclosures. Some Behaviourists have found that self-disclosure can strengthen the therapeutic alliance, reinforce the relationship and help modeling (GoldFried 2003.)
It can become binary. You either do or you don’t disclose. Professor Ernesto Spinelli at the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling at Regent's College, London says self-disclosure is more about when it should happen, rather than if it should (Spinelli 2002.) Spinelli acknowledges that some circumstances allow for self-disclosure, as long as it’s useful to the client.
It boils down to the question, is what you are telling this specific client enhancing their understanding of their world? If not, why are you self-disclosing? Sometimes we may get self-disclosure wrong of course, but by being specific to the client in front of us we are more likely to help them.
This is all, however, in the context of the therapy room. Self-disclosure on social media feels like an entirely different thing. On social media we cannot self-disclose to specific clients. I’ve seen some counsellors and trainee counsellors taking to twitter, sharing incredibly personal information. Reporting crying after their own therapy sessions, holiday snaps abroad, gym selfies and declarations of survived trauma.
I am not telling other clinicians what to do and how to do it. However, I’d encourage counsellors and trainees to consider their current, past and future clients. How does someone with disordered eating feel about a gym selfie? What might it be like for someone on universal credit to see their therapist on holiday abroad? How might someone who needs to believe their therapist is safe and contained feel about knowing their trauma or breakdowns?
Sharing on social media can force our personal lives into the centre of therapy and, depending on whether the client tells us, this can happen without us even knowing. When I do use self-disclosure, I centre it around the client’s experiences, not my own. It is crafted specifically for that client. I do this because I want my self-disclosures to be a tool by which the client can further make sense of their own experiences, not because I want them to know something about me for the sake of knowing.
Over self-disclosure on social media (or in the therapy room) runs the risk of us ceasing to be therapists. We become peer support workers who offer guidance through lived experience, rather than psychological training. We are also removing the opportunity for clients to experience transference (and for us to work with transference.) Perhaps worse of all, we risk taking up the same, if not more emotional space in the therapy room, side-lining our clients and robbing them of the chance to explore their experiences in an organic, personal way, untainted by our thoughts, feelings...and tweets.
Goldfried MR, Burckell LA, Eubanks-Carter C. Therapist self-disclosure in cognitive-behavior therapy. J Clin Psychol. 2003 May;59(5):555-68. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10159. PMID: 12696131.
Spinelli, E. (2002). On disclosure. In S. du Plock (Ed.) Further existential challenges to psychotherapeutic theory and practice (pp.52–67). London: Society for Existential Analysis.