International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Therapist Self-Disclosure Can Be a Balancing Act

Posted 1 January 1998 in StressPoints by Ingrid Carlier, PhD, AZVA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Berthold Gersons, MD, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

A trauma group I run recently participated in a ropes course. This was at the request of the group as a means of furthering their ability to connect with each other on a deeper level. Ropes courses are designed to foster team building and group problem solving, and provide for individual challenges and safe risk-taking. My task was to negotiate the balance between therapist and group participant. As I have a fear of heights, I knew that this would be particularly challenging. I felt however that the group was ready to see me as an individual and was ready to explore the dynamics such an experience would generate.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. From the beginning of the day there was a reversal in roles. In most activities, my group members became the leaders, with me experiencing the most difficulties and fear. I was real that day in a way that is not available in the usual therapeutic milieu. I shook with fear, took risks and also chose not to take others. I was able to share the very heart of myself, without needing to share any of the details of my life.

One of the many issues associated with doing trauma work is the question of therapist self-disclosure. I have chosen carefully over the years to disclose something when I think it will be therapeutically helpful. Usually I lean toward minimal disclosure. While I think that this has best served my clients' interests, it has in some situations created a barrier.

A door has opened for the group to explore intimacy on a deeper level. We have a new set of metaphors to describe experiences, and I am now part of them. This is a milestone in the group process, as it lets me into their circle in a way I could never be part of before.

While I expected there to be large shifts in the group after the course, I never imagined the impact on me. The therapist's chair provides a safe haven for choosing to be, or not be, intimate. I realize how protected I am as a therapist. I am embarking on a new journey with this group, one in which I am more intimate and therefore more empathic. Martha Manning (New York Times Book Review, p. 32, Nov. 2, 1997) describes empathy as "a dynamic process, involving two people's ability to express their thoughts and feelings to each other in ways that add, change and, most important continue the relationship." These are goals central to my work.

I believe that when we as therapists can be human, the greatest healing can happen. This can happen when you cry for a client who has never been able to cry for herself. Or it can happen when you walk across a beam forty feet in the air, with your legs shaking so badly that you are sure you can hardly stand.