3 Times Self-disclosure Went Horribly Wrong in Therapy

Jeff Guenther on May 26, 2019

In this week’s episode of “Say More About That,” I talk to my therapist friend, Rochelle, about using self-disclosure in therapy. Rochelle and I are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to how much personal information we’ll reveal about ourselves in session. She’s more boundried while I’m more open. We have a really interesting and fun conversation about when we feel it’s appropriate to self-disclose, the pros and cons, what to consider before disclosing, personal experiences of when it’s gone well and not so well and a lot more. Listen below or find the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

All the talk about self-disclosure got me thinking about three times it went horribly wrong for me in session. I thought I’d share these unfortunate experiences so that you might learn from my mistakes. I’ve certainly learned a lot from the flubs I’ve made.

Disclaimer: Identifiable personal info has been changed in these stories in order to keep everything confidential.

The time I told my client they were racist

The client came in to talk about feeling lonely. The loneliness was turning into depression and helplessness and they were feeling very confused about why they couldn’t keep friends or girlfriends for longer than a couple months. We explored these issues for many weeks together. At the same time, the client was going on job interviews and kept losing out to other candidates. He’d do some poking around after not getting the job in order to see who the successful candidate turned out to be. In a handful of situations, the person who got hired turned out to be a woman of color. He’d comment on how unfair and difficult it is to be a white man in society today and that he was more qualified than these women. That raised a flag for me. During our talks, he also casually mentioned some alt right message boards that he’d visit. He said he didn’t interact with anyone on the message boards, but he would read the threads and feel like there were other people who could understand what he was going through. These things, along with a few more slightly alarming things, started to make me feel uncomfortable around him. I used to look forward to seeing him but now I didn’t. I felt upset and sometimes angry when he’d talk about certain subjects. I could feel his pain but it felt like he was saying things to provoke me. I consulted a supervisor and I decided I wanted to say something.

The type of self-disclosure I was considering was telling him how I personally felt when sitting in a room with him. I couched it in a way that I thought he would be most receptive to. I told him that I think I have an idea of why he has a hard time keeping friends and romantic partners. I told him that some of the things he was talking about in session came off as racist and sexist. I felt uncomfortable and angry. I felt the urge to want to correct him and get into an argument. I felt anxious when he’d come in and I started to not look forward to our talks anymore. I told him that I imagine other people in his life felt this way and that could be the reason relationships weren’t working out for him.

The client was trying to hear me and take in what I was saying. But he had never been told that the things he is saying are coming off as racist. I had created a rupture in our relationship. I tried repairing it over the next three sessions. But he decided to end therapy with me after that and I never saw him again. I still think about him and replay how I could have handled that differently.

The time I told my client about my fainting spells

I mention in the podcast episode that there is one thing I never personally disclose to my clients. However, before making that rule, there was one time I disclosed this thing and it really got in the way of therapy.

In my 20’s, I went with my girlfriend to get her lip pierced. She hopped up on the table, the body piercer took out a large needle, stuck it in her lip and then slipped a ring through the hole. I held her hand to help her manage the pain. But once the needle went through her lip I passed out and fell to the floor. I have a very difficult time experiencing people in physical pain. Including myself. If someone gets badly hurt, has to get a surgery or starts to bleed pretty bad and I witness it, then chances are I’ll pass out. I just can’t take it. It used to be a real problem when I was kid and I kept on passing out and fainting on the playground when a kid got hurt. I told this story to a client that came in one day with their lip pierced. It was meant to be funny. We laughed together at the start of the session and that was that. I thought it was pretty low on the risk meter when it came to self-disclosure.

Fast forward about a year and the client I told this story to comes in a couple days after getting an abortion. It was a difficult decision that she felt really torn about. We were processing it for a few weeks before the procedure and she talked about the emotional turmoil she was experiencing. To my surprise, after she got the abortion she didn’t want to process how she felt about it. I tried all sorts of things to encourage her to process it with me but she put up a lot of walls and she promised me that she was okay. I would revisit the abortion every now and then but she kept insisting everything was fine. It wasn’t until over a year later that she got up enough courage to tell me about the painful experience she had in the hospital and how traumatizing it was for her. She kept the details from me because she was scared that if she told me about her pain then I’d have a panic attack and faint in session.

I felt horrible that she didn’t feel safe enough to tell me about what she went through. I felt guilty for not thinking about the message the personal story I told could send to a client. I have never told another client that I have a hard time hearing about physical pain.

The time I told a client that I was on a dating app

If you’re a therapist these days you’re going talk about online dating a ton. Meeting people through apps is the modern way of finding a relationship. There’s no fighting against it. I’ve been married and off the apps for years now. But before I left the dating scene, I had a profile on OkCupid and would occasionally meet people for dates. I thought it was a pretty fun way to meet new women. And it was still novel enough at that point where not everyone in the world was using it. So if you knew someone had a profile, then there was a good chance you could find it. And that’s exactly what a client did when I decided to empathize with their online dating struggles and reveal that I too have run into some of the same issues they have been facing.

The client was female, straight and around the same age as me. She was venting about how the men she met up with didn’t look like their pictures and she felt led on and lied to. She didn’t understand why anyone would post a picture that didn’t currently represent what they really looked like. I sympathized and processed how bad of an idea it is to mislead people online but I felt like she didn’t feel like I really got it. I intentionally decided to reveal that I have had those same experiences. And that I have felt upset, untrusting and frustrated about the waste of time. I would get mad about feeling like I had a real connection with them only to feel duped when we met up in person. My self-disclosure seemed to go well. She felt heard and understood. Mission accomplished. A good use of self-disclosure.

A little later that week I received a message from my client. She found me online. Her message read, “Love your profile ;)”

Ugh. I instantly regretted my decision to reveal my online dating profile. Next time she came in, I started the session with the message she sent. I told her that I couldn’t respond to her message and that I was sorry if she was expecting a response. She said she didn’t know what the big deal about responding would have been. I tried to explain why it wouldn’t be appropriate. That didn’t seem to go very well. I asked why she sent me the message and if the winky emoticon was meant to be a little flirty. She denied any flirtation and kept focusing on why I was bringing this up. She thought I was harping on it too much. It seemed to me like there was a chance she felt a little rejected by me. There’s also a chance that I was projecting that on to her. Needless to say, the situation got weird. The rest of the session was off. And when I mentioned how it felt off the next time we met, it only made everything feel even more off. I tried to use the awkwardness and talk about how sometimes relationships feel weird. And there are ways to work through it and maybe even become more connected. She wasn’t having it. She ended therapy with me after a few more sessions. I wasn’t able to reconnect after the rupture.

One more self-disclosure for the therapist reading this

Even with these not so great self-disclosure stories, I still probably disclose more then the average therapist. I could write a blog that’s ten times longer about all the positive experiences I’ve had while self-disclosing. But in the podcast episode with Rochelle, she and I discuss why I decided to use self-disclosure and why she has decided to be a lot more selective about it. And as an opportunity to be honest with my feelings, I’d really appreciate it if you listened, subscribed and reviewed the podcast, Say More About That. I work really hard on producing, what I think, is interesting and novel content for therapists and non-therapists. Which is sorta tricky to do. One of my goals with the podcast is to make therapy more approachable and less stigmatized. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job at it. But I need you to keep spreading the word. So please listen and share the podcast with your colleagues and friends. It would really mean a lot to me.

Also, me and my team have worked so insanely hard for the last three years on creating a modern and inclusive therapist directory that is an alternative to what’s out there today. TherapyDen launched a year ago and it has been growing ever since. I am super happy with it’s growth. But if it’s going to compete with the big monopoly therapist directories we need more therapists to sign up. If you sign up today you’ll get six months free. If you think I could make it better and more progressive, please tell me. I’ve already made a ton of changes based on therapist and client suggestions. So even if you don’t want to sign up for it now, I’d still love to hear your feedback.

Thanks for reading my blog. I appreciate your time. And I hope I gave you something to think about. Or have a chuckle about.

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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