As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, I have noticed that some of my patients show no interest in me. They don’t look for me online, ask personal questions, or seem to know (or don’t want to) know anything about my life. I am free to share with you any details about my lived experiences that I think might be valuable during our sessions, but my policy is not to tell you about my own experiences. Here’s why.
The majority of my patients have at least googled me and found my website or seen my Psychology Today listing. Your search for information is purely professional and you will find content about me that I would like to show you: my therapy philosophy, my publications and presentations and of course the articles that I have written for various media.
Then there are patients whose curiosity goes far beyond the ordinary. You search the internet for information about me. You’ll find photos I didn’t even know existed: details of my life 50 years ago. A few patients seem to know more about me than I do! In their transference, they have often developed ideas about me that confirm (or nullify) their expectations of me. Their projections lead to false hopes about who I can be to them – or unfounded fears about who I might be.
Analytical Abstinence: Don’t Say It (Even If Asked)
Freud’s notion of “analytic abstinence” and “analytic neutrality” – intentional secrecy from your patients – has been widely misunderstood. Abstinence has for many years been interpreted as meaning that the therapist should not speak much, sometimes hardly at all.
That’s not what it is about.
It’s also not about being a completely blank screen; it’s about being more or less “anonymous”. “Analytical neutrality” is about not taking sides, not steering patients to a certain place, and not imposing oneself on the patient. Because of these areas of misunderstanding, there is ongoing controversy in psychotherapy about the virtues and vices of self-disclosure during therapy.
Some therapists enjoy sharing details about their lives with their clients and may even feel unimpressed when a client discovers something private about them. They believe that a therapist should intentionally disclose some things about themselves, and even take the position that this is an essential element of the therapeutic process. Therapy is an interpersonal event, they argue, and sharing personal aspects of their lives is the best way to level the playing field.
Most analytic practitioners follow a different school of thought. Like me, these therapists are more cautious about what they tell clients about themselves and are uncomfortable with a client knowing about their personal lives.
Freud’s patients knew a lot about him. Many studied psychoanalysis. His office was in his home and he entertained many of them socially. But these days things are more reticent, and it’s unethical to force social interactions on patients. And while the ethics surrounding self-disclosure of personal details and experiences are less clear, I think self-disclosure is a bad idea.
4 reasons why therapists shouldn’t share personal information with their clients
1. It shifts your patient’s focus away from themselves. Therapy is a special and limited relationship. Yes, we and our customers are human beings alike and deserve unconditional positive regard…but customers come to us for help in their lives, not to know about our lives or to help us. And philanthropic customers can even use a diversion about our problems to draw attention away from their own.
2. It invites comparison between you and them. Our focus as therapists is on our clients and their best interest. Telling them that we’ve had a similar experience — say, a difficulty or even trauma — always carries the risk of either suggesting to them that we too are trapped by those experiences, or the opposite risk of suggesting they are have overcome while they cannot. Then they would both envy and idealize us while feeling disempowered themselves.
3. It anchors your customer in your values and actions. It is far better to work from a position of unbiased scrutiny than to use ourselves as an idealized example of how our clients should improve their lives. When we use ourselves as role models, they often feel inferior to us. This sense of inferiority is often unconscious, and all the harder to get when we’re the ones flaunting our own lives as role models from whom we can learn.
4. It puts us on a pedestal. When we tell a customer something good about us and they later discover something not so good, it shakes the trust or idealization we wanted from them. It is better to leave your own good and less good aspects out of the discussion altogether, not in order to promote idealization and identification with our lives.
At best, self-disclosure muddy the waters; in the worst case, it interferes with the transmission. Transference works best in an environment where clients have little actual knowledge of the therapist, allowing the therapist figure to become who they need in the process. Patients can find out details about us themselves, but sharing personal information automatically exposes our customers to the negative effects and pitfalls I listed above. If patients are looking for external information, that’s up to them. If we impose it, that’s on us.
How therapists can use their personal experience responsibly
Does analytical abstinence mean that we have to forget our own experiences during the sessions? Of course not – but therapists should be prepared when such problems arise. Every therapist and client should redirect every impulse towards self-disclosure and replace it with self-awareness.
This is where our own therapy work and continuous self-reflection come into play. These processes give us the capacity for self-awareness that is critical to our work. Working within ourselves, and perhaps relating to shared human experiences, can provide an anchor point for our leadership without becoming a distraction for our clients. I don’t share things from my life; I point to common human challenges.
Don’t talk about your experiences; speak from your experiences.
Harnessing our lived experience with our clients requires analysis, self-reflection and abstraction: to arrive at a state of mind that analyst Wilfred Bion called our “reverie”. This gives us an inner approximation of what the patient’s dilemma might mean for him. As we work to understand our patients, our best guide is our countertransference: seeing how our patients treat us and project things onto us—and observing how their story resonates with our own inner emotional world.
What might that look like in practice? For example, instead of a one-sided statement such as, “I had such an experience, and here is what I felt or did,” we might offer an invitation to build on our shared experiences: “This is what I understand about you. “
The alignment of these two elements – what the patient imposes on us and the conclusions we draw from our own experiences – creates an understanding of both our patients and the importance of our patients’ interactions with us. Only then can we speak of this understanding gained through inner self-reflection and self-knowledge, and the messages we can convey – the full fruit of our self-knowledge – will far exceed the value of simply sharing our own experiences.