Robbie, a slight man in his fifties with receding hair and a warm, round face, makes a beeline for me before the workshop starts. He says, “I came to this because I got into real trouble disclosing something about myself to a couple. Even my wife is angry with me.”

“Great,” I reply, as Robbie lurches back a step, startled. “We’ll discuss times when disclosures don’t work, and if you’re comfortable telling us what happened, we’ll all learn from it.”

Some 20 minutes into the workshop, Robbie recounts, “I was working with a couple last week. The husband, Bill, made an allusion early in the session to thoughts about other women. Things were tense between him and his wife, Anita. Finally, I said that I’d had a few fantasies over the 30-some years of my marriage, but I’d never acted on them. I wanted to indicate it was normal to sometimes have thoughts about other women. As I talked, Bill nodded. But suddenly, Anita screeched, ‘What do you mean normal?! That’s cheating!’ The next day, I got a phone call from Anita’s mother, accusing me of being a sex addict. And I practice and live in the same small town.”

Self-revelations are complicated when there’s more than one client in the room because they’re filtered through multiple dynamics. For instance, Anita may already have felt that since Bill and Robbie were both male, they were implicitly allied. Afterward, it seems she thought she could count on her mother, not her husband, to listen to her distress about what their therapist had said.

Without our being aware of it, our disclosures may provide a distorted picture of our personal relationships. Although Robbie was happily married, Anita’s interpretation of what he said led her to believe his marriage was in trouble. Robbie’s wife was hurt by this inference when she learned about it through the small-town grapevine.

Thus, despite our best intentions, self-disclosure can backfire. So why are we drawn to it so strongly as a therapeutic tool? Research shows that clients consistently rate therapists’ disclosures as useful-when they’re done skillfully.

When I’ve asked people who’ve gone to therapy what was most helpful, again and again they’ve described times when their therapists shared something about their own personal struggles. Maria, a client who’d recently left her partner and family to move into her own place, said, “After I’d heard about Sara’s ups and downs when she separated from her husband, I didn’t feel crazy anymore. I was a person with understandable emotions and feelings, similar to what Sara had experienced.” Numerous clients, from varied backgrounds and of different ages, consistently said things like: “My therapist’s stories helped me see we’re all human and I wasn’t a bad person”; “I didn’t feel put down coming to get help”; “I felt less alone”; and “I learned that we’re all vulnerable, and that it’s important to let others see it.”

Therapists and clients are in an intimate, paid relationship, not a personal one; nevertheless, it’s one with many personal aspects. Through many microinteractions, they negotiate and define what disclosures and connections are comfortable for them within their professional and client roles. In the past, strict rules for clinicians-like the old chestnut, “If a client asks you a personal question, turn it back by asking why he or she wants to know that information” kept tight restraints on what therapists shared. Today, with the informality of U.S. culture, both therapists and clients are likelier to step across previous professional guidelines.

Al, a gay therapist who leads therapy groups in HIV, gay, and substance-misuse communities, said: “Within stigmatized groups, it’s usually the norm to have more diffused boundaries. My clients often know a lot about me before therapy even starts.” When a therapist is from a dominant group and works with clients from oppressed populations, self-revelation can be crucial to breaking through the mistrust of authority and uneasiness about the therapeutic process.

What’s Good for the Goose…

It’s to everyone’s advantage not to have a bored therapist. Being aware of what our clients’ stories evoke for us about our own lives keeps us engaged, even if we choose not to self-disclose. An unsung benefit of being a therapist is that clients can challenge us to face and/or revisit central issues in our own histories.

Decades ago, a client named Lenore deliberately seemed to sit much closer to me than to her husband, Gus. It was our third couples session. I was a novice therapist, working with a cotherapist, Dick, who sat behind a one-way mirror and phoned in from time to time. Five minutes into the session, Lenore said to Gus, as she carefully scanned my face, “You’re never going to hit me again.” This was the first we’d heard of violence in the relationship. Gus and Lenore initially had come in asking for help with their differences over parenting their young son.

Gus said in a voice hard with anger, “It doesn’t happen that often.” I felt my face flush; it was what I’d said to myself about the punches and kicks my partner had inflicted upon me over the last six years. I quickly began to inquire about Lenore’s safety and when and where Gus lost control. Together with Dick, we developed a plan for a series of interventions into the violence.

Driving home that night, I was marked by shame, just as I’d been marked by the bruises that had blossomed on my skin three or four times a year. How could I call myself a therapist when I didn’t have the courage to take action as Lenore did?

Dick and I worked with Gus and Lenore for nine months. She decided to leave the marriage. I never disclosed to them anything about my situation. It wasn’t appropriate; I was embroiled in something that was out of control in my own life. Several years later, with an imprint of Lenore’s words on my tongue—You’re never going to hit me again—I finally entered therapy with my partner.

A few years ago, I was asked to provide training on family violence to a group of therapists in Ecuador. Their organization, Junto con los Niños y las Niñas, provides wraparound services for families for three to four years, so the children can get off the streets and back into school. I’d worked with them before and had deep respect for the in-home therapy they were providing for families with children who were working on the streets selling Chiclets, darting into traffic to wash windshields when cars had stopped at red lights, or eating fire. I began the training by talking about the years I’d lived in a violent relationship. I spoke about my shame and how I’d lied and covered up, shared steps that women often take before they can leave an abusive situation, and talked about couples dynamics. I invited questions. In 30 years of training other therapists, I’ve found that my capacity to reveal relevant personal information in an appropriate, controlled way can have a powerful impact on how much trainees are willing to engage, stretch their learning, and take risks.

The participants in Ecuador careened into the topic. One therapist talked about her failures to address violence with families she worked with. Another woman exposed patterns of violence in her extended family. We soon had a wealth of case material and examples to inform us as we delved into different intervention strategies.

Refusing to disclose can be detrimental to training and therapy. When I ask workshop participants who’ve been clients to reflect on how therapists’ refusal to reveal personal details affected treatment, they respond with comments like: “I thought my therapist was arrogant” and “I shut down myself.”

Much of what we reveal is inadvertent. The watches and jewelry we wear or don’t wear, how we dress, our hairstyles, how we talk, or how we decorate our offices all tell a story. Then there are unforeseen and undesired encounters outside of therapy, like the time in a grocery store when I was scolding my daughter and looked up to see a client watching me.

In therapy, the current or past events we reference and the themes and topics we pick up on (or don’t address) can be telling. As family therapist Charles Kramer noted, “It is impossible not to reveal ourselves. And when we try to be a blank screen, we reveal that we are concealing, which is a message in deception.”

Illustration © Curtis Parker

Janine Roberts

Janine Roberts, Ed.D., professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of Tales and Transformations and Rituals for Our Times.