Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy: The Three-Second Rule and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Over the years, a number of the people who’ve entered psychotherapy with me have had a previous therapy experience. They usually have comments about their last therapist. Sometimes the comments are quite negative. Early in my career, I was aghast at the horrible stories I heard – how could such incompetent (if not malicious) people get into this line of work?

Such psychotherapists exist, I know, but I’ve tempered my views somewhat as I’ve reflected on the stories my former clients are probably telling about me – especially those who were unhappy with how the work turned out. Sometimes they would be unhappy because I didn’t do a good job, and their complaints would be ever so legitimate. Sometimes they’d be unhappy because I did do a good job – and they didn’t like the awarenesses our work exposed, the challenges these awarenesses created, the growth they could see they needed but weren’t open to. And I’ve had several experiences of clients who initially told me about former therapists who were horrible in a particular way – and then, over the course of the therapy, I could see the client heading us inexorably toward a point where s/he would experience me in exactly the same way.

Still, one common complaint I hear does seem highly legitimate to me: therapist over-disclosure. Clients consistently talk about their therapists’ gabbiness about themselves: their childhoods, their successes, their failures, how what they’ve gone through is “just like” what the client is going through, so the therapist “completely understands” what the client is feeling. Or “here’s how I did it” stories of therapist success with issues similar (at least in the therapist’s eyes) to the client’s difficulties.

I think particularly of clients who acknowledged using this therapist tendency as a way of managing sessions: when the conversation was getting uncomfortable (i.e., because the client’s issues were surfacing), the client would ask the therapist about him/herself, then settle back in comfort as the therapist gabbed about him/herself for the remainder of the hour.

Probably the most dangerous therapists with regard to inappropriate self-disclosure are those who don’t even realize they’re doing it, or don’t even consider whether there might be a danger in their “sharing.” Other therapists who self-disclose inappropriately may at least think about it, but then rationalize it as helpful to the relationship – bringing therapist and client “closer.” At its best, and in small doses, this may be true occasionally. Most of the time, though, self-disclosure may feel good in the moment, but have negative long-term consequences. It shifts the focus from client to therapist, for instance, and that easily becomes a slippery slope. Therapists who violate professional boundaries often start with “harmless” self-disclosures that slowly and inexorably shift the relationship toward a role reversal, where the client is taking care of the therapist.

Even when there are not such extreme problems, self-disclosure moves the relationship away from a professional conversation and into a friendship modality. This is tempting, because clients seem to respond positively, especially in the beginning. They feel honored to get to know you, and begin to see themselves as included in your circle of friends. This can work quite well right up to the moment when it doesn’t, when you realize your “friendship” has undermined your capacity to speak professionally. It can also be when a crisis emerges in which you need to act as the professional, but no longer have that “voice” with your client.

I’d suggest these guidelines for therapist self-disclosure:

  1. Ask yourself: what do you hope to accomplish by your self-disclosure? Then ask yourself: is there any other way to accomplish this goal? If there is, go with the alternate approach. Only self-disclose when you see no other way.
  2. Ask yourself: who is this self-disclosure for, really? Of course your immediate answer is, “It’s for my client.” But step back a moment. How will your client likely respond to your disclosure? (With admiration? Sympathy? Approval?) Will you be gratified by these responses?
  3. Ask yourself: what might the client do with the information you’re preparing to share? Keep in mind that the client might do something quite different with it than you intend. There is an appropriate boundary of privacy regarding your history and personal life; once you open a window (or a door, or a highway) in that boundary, you cannot control what else the client will see and where else the client will go. A simple example: mention a church or service club to which you belong, and at that organization’s next meeting, your client may be sitting next to you.
  4. Ask yourself: do you want to spent part of your precious “self-disclosure allowance” in this situation? This is a quantity issue. Consider that you have a limited “self-disclosure fund” for each client. Each time you self-disclose, you use some of that fund – that is, you hasten the day when your self-disclosures will no longer be effective because you’ve done so many of them. Is this the place you want to use this precious resource?
  5. Ask yourself: do you want to invest your most intense influence at this moment? This is a quality issue. Consider that self-disclosure operates according to a “law of diminishing returns” – the first time you self-disclose, your disclosure will have maximum impact. The next time, somewhat less impact. The time after that, even less impact, and so on. Is the current goal deserving of the use of this unrecoverable resource?
  6. If, after all these considerations, you still decide to self-disclose, ask yourself: what is the minimum I can say to accomplish my goal? Here the three-second rule from basketball can be a helpful image: a player who steps into the marked area closest to his/her basket can only stay there for three seconds at a time. Make your move in the shortest time possible, and get out. Get the focus back where it belongs: on the client (or at least on the relationship).

Having spoken at such length about not self-disclosing, I’ll give an example of a self-disclosure I make occasionally, and then look at it in terms of my six points.

My caseload regularly includes people who have had significant cross-cultural experiences. I’m not talking about eating in an ethnic restaurant on the other side of town, or even taking a two-week tour of a foreign country. I’m talking about people who have spent many months or years abroad, immersed in language and culture. Several of these clients are or were “third-culture kids” (3CKs), with all the richness, confusion, and conflict this creates.

In such a case, I might make a fairly simple statement at some point in the first few sessions: “I spent my grade school years in the Philippines.” This conveys that I have experienced cross-cultural reality in breadth and depth, that I am a 3CK, and that I bring that listening perspective to my work. I don’t really know any other way to accomplish that goal (#1) – saying, for instance, “I understand about cross-cultural reality”, without some self-disclosure, creates no credibility. Such a statement implies reading about culture, or going to workshops, or having ethnic friends, or traveling for a summer, and these experiences really don’t get it.

My self-disclosure is, I hope, for my clients (#2). They often relax at that point, and are able to move into a different level of sharing, based on the confidence my disclosure provides them that I can relate to them in a way that most people simply can’t.

By now, I have a sense of what clients may do with my self-disclosure. For some, nothing: that’s all they need to hear, and we move on. Others are quite curious, and ask a number of questions. For the most part, I respond to their questions along these lines: “I thought it would be helpful for you to know that I have had a significant experience in another culture, so that you might be able to trust that I would bring a multicultural perspective to what you are sharing about your own multicultural experience. Rather than exploring my life, I think it would be more helpful to return to yours.” In this way, I hope to keep the window from turning into a highway (#3). I am also trying to limit the disclosure in order to preserve the quantity (#4) and quality (#5) of my “self-disclosure allowance”, and this also helps me get out of the three-second zone (#6) as quickly as possible.

In sum, then, I hope to have provided a useful perspective on therapist self-disclosure. I realize that other perspectives are possible, and in some of those perspectives, the approach I’m suggesting would seem inadequate. Practitioners who self-disclose in ways that seem inappropriate to me may see themselves as eminently self-aware and effective. Some of their former clients – at least the ones I’ve come to know – would disagree.

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About Gregory A. Hinkle, Ph.D.

Executive Director of the Samaritan Center in Elkhart, IN Licensed Psychologist (HSPP), Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Certified Pastoral Counselor
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2 Responses to Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy: The Three-Second Rule and the Law of Diminishing Returns

  1. Pingback: Weekly Psych Rounds 04-05-12 « Shrink Things

  2. Stuart says:

    Just read your article on disclosure, enjoyed, I agree, slippery slope and slippery slope of changing relationship from professional to friendship! Thanks.

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