Why Are You Telling Me This?

By Jeff Levy

I am a therapist. I am white. I am a man. I am a little beyond middle aged. I am in a relationship. I am organized. I like the color blue. I like plants. I like dogs. I like turning flea market finds into useful furniture. I have a bad back. I am Jewish. I am busy.

Knowing Without Telling

Why am I telling you all of these things about me?  Why would I begin with these statements about myself?

I share these before you know anything else about this blog because these are self-disclosures—and  my clients know many, if not all, of these things about me while making a first appointment and/or within a few minutes of sitting with me.  In looking at me, my office, and through the process of scheduling a first appointment, I have “disclosed” an incredible amount of information about myself.

We spend inordinate amounts of time in our graduate training programs, in professional workshops, in supervision, and in consultation, talking about if and when we should consider self-disclosure in psychotherapy.  Books and articles are written on the topic.   And while some therapists may advocate for as little self-disclosure as possible, there is typically consensus that any self-disclosure we make should have, at its core, some type of benefit to our client.  What isn’t often discussed however, are self-disclosures similar to those with which I have started this blog; disclosures that are made whether we like it or not.  They “live” in the relational space that is being created between client and therapist, and it’s important to find a way to acknowledge they exist.

It’s possible to read what I have initially shared about me and question how a client might know some of this information.  I’d invite us to think about how we dress, how we talk, what we have in our office, what jewelry we have on our hands, and even how we scheduled a first appointment (i.e. How quickly do we call back?  How easily is a client scheduled?  Are we rushed as we speak?)  All of this conveys information about who we are, how we are, and in some instances, why we are.  It’s almost silly to think that we have control over all that we disclose.  While there is an enormous amount of personal information we can choose to share or not share, there is also an enormous amount that becomes known, just through being in the presence of another.

What Our Faces and Bodies Disclose

And I haven’t even begun to talk about subtleties in self-disclosure:  when our eyebrows lift in a way that suggests surprise, when our face flushes because we are embarrassed, or when our foot jiggles because we are nervous.  We’re not saying anything with words, but our bodies are conveying an incredible amount of information to our clients.  We are disclosing in ways that influence our relationship, and these disclosures can both enhance and detract from an atmosphere of safety and trust.

In one session with a 12 year old boy and his mother, his mother was expressing her anger toward me for not doing more to help her son.  When she was done talking, it was her son who looked at me with empathy, and said “Jeff, why are you sitting on your hands?”  Literally, I was sitting on my hands.  Thinking I was conveying a sense of calm and support, I was actually feeling helpless, and my hands expressed this best.

In the first session with Joe, he began by telling me that he chose me because I was the same age, grew up in the same northern suburb he did, was gay, and was Jewish.  I don’t usually receive such a detailed response when I ask how someone came to choose me, but clearly Joe had done his research, and obtained all of this information before I said anything about myself in the session.  In fact, Joe was telling me explicitly that he had chosen me based on information he had obtained about me without me having said a word.

And when John told me he had another weekend where he drank to the point of blacking out, and was found unconscious, in the alley outside his home by his 6 year old daughter, I was sure I had summoned the most fiercely non-judgmental stance I could muster.  John, however, saw otherwise as he watched my head shake slightly from right to left.  “I can tell you disapprove and are frustrated with me,” he shared.  Clearly, I was conveying my disappointment in his behavior, though I never said so with words.

I could give many other examples of self-disclosure that were carefully considered and weren’t shared because I thought it was not in the best interest of my client.  And while no decision to self-disclose is easy, I think the kind where we have time to make the choice to share or not share are the easier ones.  The disclosures we make because we are fallible human beings who can’t control every minute movement or facial expression, information that is disclosed about us through a visual once-over by our clients, or the information that is disclosed by searching our names on the internet—those are the disclosures that are more difficult to navigate.

Disclosure and Technology

And while this merits another full discussion itself, it is important to acknowledge the kind of access to information our clients have about us because of technology.  Simply using a web browser to search our name can yield a plethora of current and historical information about who we are.  Facebook, unless we are wizards with privacy settings, can also be a source of information—especially if a friend of our friend is also our client.  Linked In also provides a fair amount of historical information about our work histories, education, professional memberships, and indirectly, cities in which we have lived.  And, should we be listed on a dating site, our clients who are dating, or simply perusing these sites, can have more information about us than we would ever share in a session.

We May Not Mean To Share What We’re Sharing

All of this these disclosures provide information about us upon which our clients base our relationship.  Often we have shared them unknowingly.  In these situations, we may never have the opportunity to explore a disclosure because a client may never bring it up.  Or, a client may bring up a disclosure we have made, in the moment, in the room, as a result of our facial expression or movements of our body.  In these moments, we must think quickly, because the decision isn’t about to disclose or not, it is how to deal with the impact of the disclosure.

This is a complex subject—this self-disclosure.  And it is made even more complex when we consider what we are disclosing about ourselves before we even say a word, or when we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve not disclosed anything.  We can read article after article on the appropriate use of self-disclosure, but truth be told, no article can prepare us for information we have disclosed unintentionally.  We can, however, become more open to our humanity and to our vulnerability.

We may think we are blank slates, that it’s possible to convey a completely nonjudgmental stance, or that we can demonstrate no reaction when we hear something surprising, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  We are disclosing constantly, and the importance of remembering this can’t be overemphasized.

Tomorrow, before you go to work, take a good look at yourself in the mirror.  Look at your face and whether it reflects a lack of sleep.  Look at your clothes.  Notice any rings you have on your fingers.  Think about what your office looks like and the pictures you have hanging on the walls or on your desk.  Consider what you’ve posted on Facebook the day before and what privacy settings you have accessed.  And think about those first words you say when you return a call from a prospective client.

While we can’t control all that we disclose, we can try to be as aware and mindful of the myriad ways our clients know us, and that who we are in the relationship is not only about what we choose to say.

“Knowing me, knowing you
There is nothing we can do
Knowing me, knowing you”
—Bjoern K. Ulvaeus, Stif Anderson, Benny Goran, Bror Andersson  (ABBA)

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 20, 2017