How to decide when to use self-disclosure in therapy and counseling

Elizabeth Spencer

One of the most extraordinary changes I have seen during my 30-year career as a therapist has been the attitude shift about self-disclosure in therapy and counseling.  The development of SSRIs came right before the start of my career, and exposure therapy has been around for over 50 years.  While both medicine and therapy practices have been better studied and become more nuanced, both are fundamentally similar to what I originally learned.

However, when I started as a clinician, there was a clear “us – clinicians” and “them – people with anxiety” mentality in this field.  It was very rare for a clinician to openly talk about having anxiety or OCD, and there could be a stigma for those therapists who did share their stories.  What a wonderful change there has been in our society and among therapists!

These days, therapists sometimes include their lived experience with anxiety or OCD as part of their credentials on a website.  Many of us discuss our anxiety and OCD experiences with our clients or in public educational talks or podcasts.  If you are one of those who talk about your experiences, good for you!  All of this openness has helped destigmatize these common problems and improved people’s access to care which is all good.

Have you been wondering how that would be for you?  Remember, it’s not all or nothing.  You might consider trying some self-disclosure in therapy and counseling in a small way and seeing how that goes for you.  Tell a colleague you trust, or share a small part of your story with a particular client.  See how that feels, and then re-evaluate how you want to proceed. There is no reason to rush, and no reason to feel pressured to be public about any of this.

You can be a great therapist with or without anxiety or OCD yourself — it’s not an essential credential. Your mental health is your private information, and you get to decide what you want to share or not.  That’s the beauty of this change: we each get to choose how we want to present ourselves.

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