Friday, December 14, 2012

It's Important for Psychotherapists and Counselors to Share Aspects of Our Personal Stories

   There are many situations in which our clients benefit from us sharing relevant aspects of our personal stories.Yet for some psychotherapists and counselors revealing any aspects of their lives feels unprofessional. As an elder with over 38 years experience in private practice I am advocating that - for the sake of our clients - we slog through those personal and professional issues that might prevent us from disclosing.
   Certainly there are good reasons why there are cautions or, in some schools of thought, prohibitions regarding talking about ourselves. There are instances where some psychotherapists/counselors are allowing their own personal neediness, narcissism or countertransference issues to intrude into the therapy. In those instances it would be very important for the psychotherapist/counselor to reflect,"Why am I doing so much sharing?" or "Why am I talking about myself so much with this client?" And to bring that question into their own therapy.
   There are traditions of psychotherapy theory that stipulate that the therapist should not share their personal narratives because that will interfere with the transference. In those theoretical perspectives the working through of the transference is the core wherein real change occurs and self-disclosure potentially could contaminate the work. As someone who was trained in the traditional psychoanalytic model my experience suggests otherwise - that transference remains a potent force that still occurs even after I share relevant aspects of my life.
         My Experiences 
   Early in my work I had quite a few adult patients who came from family backgrounds with an alcoholic parent. Often the therapy seemed to stagnate. I decided to take the risk and share that my father was an alcoholic. My patients were grateful for the heartfelt empathic connection. They opened up more and felt more hopeful. Their therapist not only knew what it felt like to be the child of an alcoholic, but also had recovered from the traumas of that experience. For those patients, the professionally distant,non-revealing therapeutic stance of the psychoanalytic method was too reminiscent of their depriving and often emotionally unavailable parents.
   Twice in my life - in my early thirties and at the age of fifty - I experienced periods of suicidal ideation. I never acted upon these thoughts, but I experienced the toxic mixture of despair and self-hatred that leads to the thoughts that death is the only way out. When I have patients who are suicidal, at some point I usually share with them that I too have experienced that state. This helps them to know that I am not judging them and I feel compassionate towards them. I am also offering myself as a beacon of hope in the darkness. I often say, "There is no pressure on you to be hopeful. I will carry the hope until it reawakens in you"
   Seven years ago I had a very aggressive form of lymphoma. A friend of mine, another psychologist in his early sixties, who was being treated for another form of lymphoma, died during the time I was receiving chemo. That sent me a very cogent message about what the disease could do. Although my recovery has gone very well, I live with the possibility that the cancer could return at any time and this time it may take me. As a result, death is my daily companion and informs my decisions every day. My sharing of this experience has deepened my empathic connection to patients who are struggling with serious illness and their own mortality. It makes them feel that their therapist is both a professional and a human being who has a genuine heartfelt sense of what they are going through.
   For those of us who do this healing work these difficult times in our lives expand our hearts and increase our capacity for compassionate caring. When we open our hearts and disclose these aspects of our journey that are relevant to their suffering our patients feel that compassion more palpably and more deeply. They feel us connecting to them as both professionals and fellow human beings.
   From my perspective there is one caveat to our talking about our own lives. I am initially quite cautious about talking about myself with clients who had narcissistic parents. because this can evoke such a strong transference reaction that might cause them to terminate the work, I usually share only after they have internalized a sense that I genuinely care about them