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Wait so... Therapists are Humans?Therapist Self Disclosure: What, Where, When, and How?

Depending on your experience with therapy, you might have heard that therapists are supposed to be “blank slates.” They are supposed to simply sit, nod, and, if they are feeling wild, reflect back. They are not to “contaminate” the "purity" of the therapeutic space with their own personality, life experiences, or quirks.

I am here to THANKFULLY share with you that this archaic, stoic, Freudian style of therapy is NOT the only way… and it is CERTAINLY not my way.

I am a relational therapist who believes that therapy is so much about the genuine, deep, authentic connection between client and therapist. How are we supposed to build this type of relationship if I am a poker-faced robot?

“Therapist self-disclosure” is a fancy way of describing the act of therapists sharing parts of themselves with a client. This can look like sharing their identities, orientations, and/or political beliefs. It can look like disclosing something that they experienced as a means to model openness and vulnerability to a client. This can look like bringing their personality into the space, illustrating the complexity of a therapist as another human being.

Yep, you read that right: therapists are human beings.

We are full of own experiences that inform the way we navigate this world. To leave this “part” out of the equation, in my mind, is to leave the humanity out of therapy. To assume that a client is going to be the sole contributor of the relationship feels oppositional of the way that I conceptualize the therapeutic process.

Let me ask you this…

  • How is a client supposed to feel like they can be vulnerable, when a therapist shields themselves from that very client?

  • How is a client supposed to feel connected with their uncertain whether therapist holds harmful beliefs, or votes for officials who question their very existence?

  • How is a client supposed to engage in deep, profound healing work in front of a … stranger (i.e., their “blank slate” therapist)?

To be clear, the line of self-disclosure can be tricky to navigate as a therapist. Sometimes, we experience a “flooding” of our own parts – like, “OMG… LITERALLY THE SAME THING HAPPENED TO ME. I WANNA SHARE. MY TURN!

During these moments, we, as therapists, must question: “why am I wanting to share this with the client? Is this for my personal gain and benefit, or is this because it might benefit the client/our relationship?” So long as self-disclosure is being used with the intention of supporting the client and/or therapeutic alliance, I believe that it can be one of the most powerful tools as a helper.

We build such profound, beautiful, vulnerable relationships with our clients. Oftentimes, clients want to know more about us! As a therapist who goes to therapy, I certainly resonate with the feeling of wanting to know more about my therapist in order to feel a deeper sense of connection.

I believe that therapy is a two-way street. I typically say to my clients, “if there is something that you feel that you need to know about me in order to feel comfortable, please never hesitate to ask. I am an open book.” I don’t expect my clients to open up without knowing a damn thing about me! Many clients take me up on my offer to ensure that I am a person that they can even consider trusting in the future (because trust in therapy is not something that we automatically receive… it takes a demonstration of true care and consistency).

Because of the more relational framework that I go about my therapeutic work in, I also like to check in with clients after I use self-disclosure to see how it lands with them. For some, it might feel like a warm blanket that promotes comfort and ease, and for others, it might feel more supportive to keep the life of their therapist more distant and contained.

Bringing my full self into session is paramount. As humans, we are intuitive. Clients can sense when we are disingenuous, disconnected, or inauthentic. Giving myself, and all of my complex parts (IFS) permission to exist in the therapeutic space has been a liberating and empowering experience for both me and my clients.

If you are a client, and you are feeling disconnected from your therapist, you are allowed and encouraged to ask more about them!

Your therapist is NOT a blank slate. We care and feel and experience deeply and wholeheartedly. Therapy is therapy because of the meaningful connection and witnessing that ensues within the co-created space that is shared between you and your human therapist.


Want to learn more about working with me?

Emily Powell, Philly Mental Health Therapist
Emily Powell, Philly Mental Health Therapist

For more on self disclosure:

My colleague, Johanna, discusses self disclosure in this podcast epsiode.

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