In a therapy or coaching session, you might share more and feel more open and vulnerable than you do anywhere else in your life—and might feel a little weird to share so much about yourself and know nothing about the person you're talking to.
It’s perfectly normal to be curious about your therapist or coach and their lives. Here are some thoughts from our community of therapists and coaches about why they might share things about themselves—or not—in-session.
Historically the role of self-disclosure for therapists depended largely upon their theoretical orientation. For instance, in psychoanalytic schools of thought, self-disclosure was viewed as a mistake of an inexperienced therapist, and Freud considered self-disclosure to contradict his idea that a therapist act as an impenetrable mirror to clients, reflecting only what is shown to them by the client (although, in reality, Freud revealed many aspects of his personal life to his own patients!).
On the other end of the spectrum, humanists embraced a more liberal stance toward therapist self-disclosure and feminist theory went even further to say that self-disclosure was an important part of minimizing the power imbalance between client and therapist. Over time, psychodynamic literature became more relaxed on the topic and thoughtful sharing of personal thoughts, emotions, or experiences is now often believed to add authenticity to interpretation, making therapy feel more real for clients.
Due to the nature of the coaching relationship vs. the therapy relationship, some coaches might end up self-disclosing more than a therapist would. (There are a lot of differences between therapy and coaching, but also lots of similarities, and it can be hard to figure out which would be better for you. If you’re not sure, this quiz can help.)
“Some therapists insist on being blank slates, keeping the focus 100% on the client,” says Kevin Bergen, a MyWellbeing member who is both a coach and a therapist. “This is why I broadened my practice with a separate coaching entity where I can share whatever experience, insight, or interest of mine that might benefit you. My coaching is much less structured and restrictive than my license requires my therapy to be.”
Sharing information about themselves is one way a therapist or coach may decide to address their own limitations, such as a lack of cultural competency or cultural humility, or show their client that they have a certain background or identity in common and might understand them more fully.
“As a gay man who specializes in working with the LGBTQI+ community in New York, experience has taught me that self-disclosure is an important part of working with people with whom I share so much,” says Jason Durant, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member.
“While boundaries are an important part of any psychotherapeutic experience, when working with a marginalized community with specific needs and shared backgrounds, it is important that patients understand that not only can I sympathize with many of the stories that they are sharing with me, it is also helpful for them to know I have lived many of those stories myself and can relate on an unspoken level.”
It makes sense that people who are embarking upon therapy and coaching journeys would want to know more about the therapist or coach they’re working with and self-disclosure has been increasingly considered to have a positive effect in therapy. Just be respectful—therapists and coaches are people too!
“I am open to answering questions a client may have about my experience, training, orientation, etc.,” said Patty O'Leary, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “I also feel there is importance in being transparent when asked about parts of my identity that may make them feel more supported in our therapeutic relationship. That being said, I may not answer every question, but I will ask you what the answer to that question would provide you and have a discussion about it.”
"I will share whatever is asked of me if it will help instill a level of trust with my clients," says Dawnmarie Sumners, a coach and MyWellbeing community member. "Trust is important! I have walked down many paths in my life and if what I have seen or done can help shed light on an issue for someone else I will, with their permission, be forthcoming."
In one study, clients reported several significant impacts from their therapist’s helpful self-disclosures. They fostered client insight, made the therapist seem more real and human, improved the therapeutic relationship, helped clients feel reassured and normal, and served as a model for positive changes.
The most important thing is that what your therapist or coach shares is meant to help you—your therapy and coaching sessions are for your growth and support.
“Though I love forming a healthy rapport with my clients, it's important that you remember that your sessions are for you!” said Kaye-De-Ann Rattray, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Therefore, 99.99999% of what I share will have your wellbeing and best interest at the core.”
One of the most significant risks of self-disclosure is a shift away from the client’s needs and treatment goals. If a therapist or coach shares too much about their own personal struggles, their client might doubt their ability to provide support in a professional way.
"I share as much as I feel will be useful to you, including any anecdotes or stories that may help to offer you an alternative perspective about a situation you are going through," says Natasha Phillips, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. "Some therapists draw a firmer line, but I believe that it is only fair to be open and honest with you about any questions you may have for me, about me. If you are laying yourself bare, it is only fair that I do the same. Therapy is a partnership, but one that exists for your benefit—not for mine, or any other therapist's. My rule of thumb is: if you are worrying about your therapist, your therapist is not doing their job."
When trying to decide if your therapist or coach is a good match for you, going with your gut is important, but how are you even supposed to go with your gut when you’re not sure if what your therapist or coach is doing is “right”?
It’s only right if you feel that it’s right. If you think your coach or therapist is talking too much in your sessions or sharing too much about themselves and it’s not helpful, the best thing to do is let them know. You want to feel like your therapist or coach is really listening to you and that you feel seen, heard, and understood. If you share your thoughts and things don’t get better, it might be time to break up, and that’s okay too.
Opening up can be hard. What you share is up to you, and you shouldn’t feel any pressure to share or address a topic before you’re ready to do so.
Especially in the first therapy or coaching session, take time to communicate your needs and expectations to your therapist or coach so you’ll be on the same page. Your space and time at your sessions are for you, and your therapist or coach will be there to support you every step of the way, no matter what you care to share and when.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.