Should Counselors Share Their Personal Stories?
Counseling is a deeply personal process. In order for therapy to be effective, you need to feel comfortable with your therapist and trust him or her. Ordinarily, we build comfort and trust in relationships by sharing increasingly more personal information with one another. But the therapeutic relationship is different. As a client or patient, therapy is focused on your experiences, feelings, and needs. Your counselor is there to provide a safe space for you to express and examine those things, and to help you to reach insights about them so you can grow and change.
That’s not to say that it is never appropriate for a therapist to disclose personal information to a client in a session. But, like everything else in the therapeutic process, those personal disclosures should be calculated to help the client—not benefit the therapist. In therapy, some behaviors by the counselor are never okay, like having sexual contact with a client. With personal disclosures, it is often harder for vulnerable clients to tell if the counselor’s conduct is appropriate or if it may even be abusive behavior.
A counselor sharing personal information could help a client discover insights into their own situation in the best case scenario. In the worst, it could be a form of medical malpractice. Let’s talk about when and how it makes sense for a counselor to share personal stories, and when therapist self-disclosure should raise red flags.
How Therapist Self-Disclosure Can Help Clients
The question to ask about any personal disclosure a therapist makes is, “Whom does this help?” If the answer is honestly that it helps the client, then a disclosure might be okay. Let’s say a client comes to counseling for postpartum depression and is deeply ashamed of the fact that she does not feel as attached to her baby as she thinks she should. In fact, she thinks that she is the only mother who feels this way, that she is a terrible mother because of it, and that her relationship with her child is doomed forever. She is so ashamed of these feelings that she has not been able to verbalize them even after several sessions of therapy.
An attentive counselor who suspects the client is holding back might briefly disclose that after the birth of her child many years before, she did not feel the immediate bond she expected with her baby. In an appropriate disclosure situation, she might then gently ask the client if she has had a similar experience. In this scenario, the self-disclosure is brief, related to the client’s need, and designed to help the client make her own disclosure so she can make progress in therapy. This kind of personal story can help the client understand that she is not alone in her experience, and remove the stigma the client is feeling so that she can address her issues in counseling.
When Counselors Should Avoid Sharing Their Stories
A counselor’s self-disclosure can be a powerful tool in therapy. But like all powerful tools, it should be handled with care by someone who knows what they are doing and has the ability to control the tool. That typically means that if the therapist has been through a situation like the one their client is facing, they have processed and resolved their own issues and trauma around it. Otherwise, there is a significant risk of the personal story doing harm to the client.
Some red flags regarding counselor self-disclosure are:
- The situation the therapist is disclosing about is recent or ongoing. In that case, it’s likely that the therapist has not had time to get distance from the situation and gain objectivity that they could use to help their client. Instead, they may be processing their own emotions in their client’s sessions, and even leaning on the client emotionally.
- The therapist has dealt with a past experience that is similar to the client’s current experience, but is pressuring the client to resolve their feelings using whatever tools worked for the therapist. The therapist may be more invested in validating their own choices or process than in helping the client to develop their own insights.
- The therapist is talking about their own experiences at length, especially in early sessions. It’s a serious concern if the client feels that he or she cannot get a word in edgewise.
- The therapist’s stories are making the client feel uncomfortable, rather than helping the client to feel safe and understood.
There is a reason that self-disclosure is considered an advanced skill for therapists. Counselors can fall prey to the trap of telling their own stories for the wrong reasons or in an unhelpful way. Remember, the only time counselors should share their own stories with their clients is if they are certain doing so will be helpful to the client.
What to Do if Your Therapist is Sharing Inappropriately
If your counselor is sharing personal stories with you and you feel comfortable doing so, you could ask them why. If they are able to explain their motivations to your satisfaction, it could strengthen your therapeutic relationship. Having your therapist hear your concerns about their approach and modify their behavior based on your concerns can also be empowering to you.
However, you may not feel comfortable confronting your therapist, and you are under no obligation to do so. You can simply choose to find a new therapist whose methods you are more comfortable with. Remember, your therapist is not your friend. They owe you a duty of care and to prioritize your well-being. You should not have to continue with therapy that is not helping you.
If you feel like your therapist or psychiatrist’s behavior actually made your situation worse, you may be able to hold them accountable through a lawsuit. We invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation to discuss your story.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.