Transparency and Counseling: Dual Relationship or Leading By Example?
Freud started it, with the concept of the Blank Slate. The very purpose of the couch with the analyst sitting out of sight of the patient was so the patient couldn’t project onto the therapist. Carl Rogers took it a different direction, by extending to all patients warm personal regard, which improved their self-esteem, and encouraged growth. A hallmark of that approach is to repeat in an affirming way what the patient says.
There is a joke about Rogers. A patient enters his office and says,”Doc, I’m feeling suicidal. Rogers repeats, “You’re feeling suicidal.” “Yeah, Doc, in fact I feel like jumping out your window.” Rogers says “You feel like jumping out my window.” The patient responds, “Yes! in fact, I’m going to!” and he runs to the window and jumps out. Rogers leans out the window and echos, “AAAAHHHHH.”
Most of us therapists are taught, whatever our theory of therapy or techniques, to not share personal experiences and feelings with our clients. Gestalt therapy, which I practice, is the rare exception, in that we might say to a patient, “I’m feeling sad, hearing that. Are you feeling sad?” Or scared, angry, or any other emotion. We are allowed and encouraged to tap into our own feelings as a technique in therapy, but not necessarily our own stories.
Milton Erickson, one of the founders of Neuro Linguistic Programming opened the doors to stories. His stories were more often parables, not his own experiences. But he would use whatever story at his command to lead the patient into insight and change, including his own life story. Crippled as a young man, he taught himself to crawl and then walk again by watching and painfully imitating a baby brother. If he could learn to walk again, patients hearing his story could make progress in their emotional and psychological growth.
Lately, more therapists are learning to share their own stories and experiences in certain situations and in ways that will help the client. The stories help in two ways. They reveal the therapist as human, and therefore as someone who can truly relate and understand, and they provide a road map for healing and change. When the therapist has grown and healed from an experience or trauma, they can more effectively lead the way for the patient to do the same. It is the same theory that AA groups and chemical dependency counselors ascribe to.
As trained therapists use self-disclosure though, we must always keep in mind that any story must be for the benefit of the client. It is very easy to fall into commiserating, and even into venting and sharing in ways designed to make us, the therapists, feel better. For that, we must see our own therapists. Our own stories, like any other technique, must help the client in some way. Stories can be used to build rapport. It is very healing to feel truly heard and understood. Common experiences make us feel closer to others and not so alone in the world. And knowing someone else, especially your therapist, has overcome or lived through and survived something you are going through can be motivating and encouraging.
I lost my mother suddenly in a one car accident when she was 72. She was an early victim of the opioid epidemic, before it was a common awareness for the public and even for therapists. She was a larger than life, Auntie Mame, beautiful and complicated woman, whose almost mythical edges were dulled by drugs that were over prescribed. This gives me a gravity toward the issue when dealing with addicts, and an empathy for those whose loved ones are addicted. Sometimes I share the story in that context. Sometimes I share it to let the client know that grief is not academic to me. Yes, I can explain the stages of grief to them, and let them know the stages aren’t linear. But it means more when I describe my own journey through grief, and the non-linear nature of the stages as I experienced and still experience them. On holidays, especially, I am still angry with doctors for my loss of her, and I am angry with her for my son’s loss of her. Clients often feel guilty for being angry with the person who died, and my experience helps them know anger is normal and natural in the grief process.
I also work with people in “Mid-Life Crisis” or the term I prefer, Spiritual Emergency. Since I have been a therapist for a long time, It would be easy to wear the mantel of the all knowing professional, but what fun is that? It’s much more fun and effective to share with them my own Gulliver’s Travels of careers, which seemingly have no connection. From teacher, to public relations and fundraising, to advertising and marketing exec, to business owner and seminar developer and producer, to therapist, school counselor, and back to therapist. My story illustrates that there is no one way to do life and career, that it is never too late to start over and do what you love, and that you can learn as you go. Hearing my story and how I changed careers stops a lot of the negativity and objections that mid-life issues can cause.
It takes self awareness to share life stories with patients. It also takes careful monitoring of the patient’s reaction. But transparency engenders trust, and a shared commitment to growth. I loved and revered my therapist, and she remains the single most important change agent in my world, even though she is gone. But I knew very little of her personal or past life. Because of that, I relied on her too much, in the sense that I thought she was infallible. Had I known more about her struggles and how she made her own life decisions, I believe there is at least one life decision I would have made differently.
Frustration with the traditional approach is one of the things John Kim, The Angry Therapist, says caused him to do more Life Coaching and change the way he does therapy. Like John, I believe in meeting the client where they live, and bringing my whole self to the process. Because person to person, soul to soul, is how connection and thus real growth is actually achieved. Our combined stories create the magic that is life.
You can find my Life Coaching website at Newchoicesguide.com