Monthly Archives: October 2011

Self-Disclosure and the Therapist Writer

My Cat, Diamond, Deciding If She's Ready to Self-Disclose

As a book doctor for therapist writers, one of the first questions I get asked is, “Can I write about my patients?” (I’ll be discussing this is a future blog). The second question I usually get is, “Can I write about myself?” What they’re asking is, is it okay for therapists to write memoirs, essays, personal narratives and opinion pieces in which their thoughts, feelings, views, likes, dislikes and even problems might be exposed?

In other words, self-disclosure.

In Therapy World, self-disclosure — loosely defined as sharing personal as well as professional information with patients or in print — has been a hot topic for about a hundred years. Back in Freud’s day, self-disclosure was a no-no. Therapists were advised to remain “blank screens” so that whatever a patient thought he or she knew about the therapist was really just a projection of the patient’s own stuff. Even today, there are traditionally trained therapists who cringe at the idea of revealing anything personal to patients — even the fact that they write. This keeps some therapists from writing at all and keeps others from writing the things they’d like to write if they weren’t therapists. One mental health professional I know told me she deliberately holds back from touching on anything personal in the monthly column she’s required to write for her job because her patients might read it. As a result, her column is generic and dry. She has thirty years of clinical experience to share — but she doesn’t. I find this sad.

But things have changed in Therapy World. Many influences have come along to loosen therapists up and make them a tad more human — the humanistic psychology movement, the feminist movement, cognitive behavioral therapy, new 12-Step groups for just about everything, and a general cultural shift from secretiveness about personal things to “letting it all hang out” — sometimes to a fault! Keeping a balance here is a constant challenge.

What Works Best?

While I’m all for self-disclosure, there are limits. In a clinical setting, it’s one thing for a therapist to show her humanness by disclosing that she, too, like her patient, has a learning disabled child. It’s quite another for the therapist to reveal the details of a fight she had last night with her husband. That’s a dreaded “boundary issue.” That’s just plain TMI.

In both therapy and in writing, some things work and some don’t. According to an article published by the American Psychiatric Association, the kinds of self-disclosures that work best in a clinical setting (and, I believe, also work best in writing) are those, as the article points out, that are about “specific behaviors or life experiences — addiction, bereavement, parenting, divorce, trauma or physical illness…The therapist may disclose past issues as part of the ethic of sharing. Such disclosures alleviate the patient’s shame and embarrassment, provide positive modeling, normalizing the patient’s experience and provide hope.”

I agree. For example, a therapist colleague of mine published his memoir about his personal experience of bipolar disorder and his recovery. He now specializes in helping bipolar patients and their families. He believes that the timely and appropriate disclosure of his own illness and how he recovered (medication plus therapy) is a great asset to the therapeutic process. Ditto his book. Many of his readers, as well as patients, find inspiration in his self-disclosures: “If he can beat the problem, then I can beat it, too.”

A few years ago I edited a memoir by a businessman who was successful enough to be able to retire comfortably at 45. His “self-disclosure” in his book was that he’d grown up in backwoods Tennessee poverty. The book details the choices he made and the actions he took to deliberately break himself out of the cycle of poverty that had had a stranglehold on his family for generations. The book is more than just his personal story. It’s an inspirational story for many others stuck in a similar situation. They, too, can vow: “If he can do it I can do it.”

Self-disclosure is a complex issue that I can only touch on here, but when it comes to therapists self-disclosing in their writing, I think the benefits far outweigh any possible problems. Here’s a little check-list to help you think things through.

Self-Disclosure Check-list for Therapist Writers

  • Know yourself and your motives for self-disclosing;
  • Remember you have a right to self-disclose — and a right not to;
  • Do no harm to yourself: Don’t self-disclose what can bite you;
  • Do no harm to others: Tell your own secrets, not those of anybody else;
  • If you think the above 4 items are too restrictive, consider writing a novel;

After you have written what you really want to write — and I say go for it! — then here’s one more item for your checklist:

  • Sleep on it.

Copyright – Sylvia Cary, LMFT, The Therapist Writer

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Shape-Shifting Small Bookstores

The X-Factors of Small Bookstore Survival

A Small Bookshop in Amsterdam - Photo Taken by MorBCN's Photostream via Flickr from Yahoo!

Not being a bookstore insider, I get my information about what’s going on with bookstores the way many of us do – by reading about them or taking myself on little “class trips.” A few weeks ago I went to witness the closing of my local Borders store, took a few photos and blogged about it. Since then I’ve been tracking online articles about small bookstore closings — one after another, I’m sad to say. According to one of my favorite news sources for such things (www.TheBookseller.com), there have been 2000 independent bookstore closings in Britain since 2005, including Notting Hill – The Travel Bookshop, made famous by the 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Efforts to save Notting Hill, led by celebs, have apparently failed. This story is being repeated globally as bookstores (many with a resident cat) are closing — in Canada, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and other places. Three famous independents here in Los Angeles that have met this fate are Dutton’s Bookstore, The Mystery Bookstore and the Bodhi Tree, closing this Christmas.

Predictions

If you love bookstores (and I do), then the predictions that accompany these store closings are depressing.  Dan Poynter, the self-publishing guru who travels around the world a number of times each year and has his finger on the pulse of publishing, predicts that within a few years, all publishing will be online. John Biggs, a blogger and gadget geek for TechCrunch, is quoted as saying, “I love books but they’re not going to make it past this decade…The time to pivot is now and it’s clearly already happening.” In a February 2011 article in USA Today called “Is There Hope for Small Bookstores in the Digital Age?” reporter Bob Minzesheimer forecasts that shelf space for print books will decline 50% in next 5 years and 90% in 10 years. Another article, “The End of Bookshops,” predicts that bookshops will be “wiped out in only five years.”  So it’s looking more and more as though somewhere between 2011 and 2021, your local Barnes & Noble may consist of nothing more than a café with an espresso coffee machine sitting next to an Espresso Book Machine (EBMs can print a book from a digital file in just minutes) with digital access to millions of books (if you still insist on paper), including the Encyclopedia Britannica which has also gone digital.

The Comfort of Community

Each bookstore closing triggers deep emotional reactions from staff and patrons, many describing themselves as “heartbroken,” “distraught,”  “crestfallen,” or “angry” over having their gathering places wrenched away from them. Earlier this year 200 upset customers picketed to protest the closing of a Barnes & Noble store in Encino, California. I ran a writers’ group there and we lost our home, then settled elsewhere, and now that’s up in the air.

It’s not that any of these people are being denied access to books. They’re being denied access to the human connection and the comfort of community they’ve become used to, and they’re also being denied access to potential dreams hidden away in all those books, yet to be discovered. Haven’t you ever bought a book just to have it? Maybe not even to read right away, but because you sense there’s something in it you might need to know someday? How will one stumble across such precious volumes if there are no more bookstores? The co-owner of one U.S. bookstore, which has no immediate plans to shut down, was quoted in one of the articles I read as saying, “There are customers who would start crying if we said we were closing. People are hungry for human contact, and so when we create a place where like-minded individuals can gather, it’s going to work.”

Surviving Bookstores Shape-Shifting

Before you get too discouraged, consider this: Yes, thousands of small bookstores have gone out of business, but thousands more have survived.  Not only that, but new ones are actually being opened. What’s going on? Don’t they read the papers?  Are they in massive denial? But I saw this with my own eyes when I went to the Flintridge/La Canada (California) Bookstore and Coffeehouse to see their Espresso Book Machine (see my July 31st blog about this great gizmo) and learned that the store had just been rebuild and expanded (after a truck had driven through it!). I remember thinking, “How refreshing! A new bookstore.”

My Own "Small Bookshop" of Writing Books

A booksellers meeting this year in Washington, D.C. (again, according to articles I’ve been reading) drew 500 people, 25 of them considering opening new bookstores, which is significant. The American Booksellers Association reports that after membership slid from 4000 down to 1750, it’s creeping up again and is now at 1800. Bookstore survivors are brainstorming like mad, trying to figure out the best things to do to stay in business.

Small Bookstore “To Do” List

Here’s part of an evolving “To Do” list for small bookstores looking to thrive:  take advantage of the mega bookstore closings * hook in to the growing “support local businesses” movement * make sure book-buying is a pleasant experience * hold events, groups, classes, talks * let the supermarkets use their floor space to stock the best-sellers and magazines * stick to unique books and niche topics * sell both used and new books * partner with local POD authors and carry some of their books * market locally * have a welcoming café * open up later and stay open late * put your entire inventory online * market via social media * offer services that customers can’t get elsewhere * sell some gifts and toys, but don’t become a gift store or toy store that sells books * sell personalized children’s books * do a radio pod cast with authors and an audience *  have volunteer “interns” to assist and learn about the book business * have free writing classes to help grow new authors * and, finally, smile and stock really great books!

The Mystery of Survival

I don’t know if the dire predictions about the death of bookstores will actually come to pass, but what I do know from being a psychotherapist for twenty-five years is that when it comes to “recovery,” there are mysterious x-factors in the mix that we can’t explain. So don’t count the bookstores out yet.

Copyright Sylvia Cary 2011