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


5 responses to “Self-Disclosure and the Therapist Writer

  1. I receive your posts automatically, because I have signed up with your blog. They are all nice. You bring up interesting issues. I love reading them.

  2. and no friending on facebook, in my humble opinion.

    • Hi Liz, I agree about that! Of course, my “facebook issue” is more along the lines of facebook-abandonment. Just can’t seem to get into it. Learning curve going on forever! Anyway, thanks for the comment. Enjoying your blog. Sylvia

  3. bridget harwell

    What a succinct, informative piece. I got a lot out of this, thanks

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