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Who am I? Who are you?

There is often a nervousness from counsellors about disclosing personal information to clients, and to examine the reasons for doing so or wanting to, because the therapy should always be focussed on the client’s needs over that of the therapist. While I do feel this is important, the most effective aspect of therapy is the relationship between client and therapist so it’s also critical that I am actively present with clients rather than being a blank slate. There are some therapists who believe in a more ‘blank slate’ approach, but it’s not something that resonates with me. I attended a webinar with psychotherapist Irvin Yalom recently, who is much more open about himself with clients than a lot of therapists may be comfortable with, which got me thinking about self-disclosure and how much of myself I feel it’s appropriate to share with clients. Yalom has often claimed that such openness has always been therapeutically beneficial for his clients.

I agree with him to up to a point. I believe in trying to keep as open a mind as possible when seeing clients, although that doesn’t mean going as far as removing myself from the picture entirely (which I doubt is possible anyway) – otherwise what’s the point of the therapist? What makes me a good therapist is who I am, and that means being present, and showing my own vulnerability to some extent in order to build a relationship with them. However I do still believe it’s important for me to be mindful of what I disclose to clients, and if I do to always have the client’s best interest in mind. I’m in a very different stage of life and stage of my work as a therapist than Yalom (he’s 89 and coming to the end of his decades-long career in therapy, whereas I’m in my mid-30’s and relatively new to this career), so I imagine my openness may change over time as I gain more and more experience. So when it comes to sharing personal information with clients, when is it appropriate to do so and when isn’t it?

To me these things are not so easy to answer and depend on the therapist, the client, and the situation. For example, if a client asked me if I had read a certain book which meant a lot to them, it may be beneficial to share with them if I have or not. However if they mentioned they were reading a book but didn’t ask me if I’d read it, and I excitedly said that I had read that book and starting talking about what it meant to me, that might not be appropriate. Equally if there had been past trauma in the clients life, and I had experience of a similar kind of trauma it may or may not be appropriate for me to share that with them, depending on many factors – how open I am about it generally, how much I have worked on my relationship with that trauma, what the relationship is like between the client and myself, and so on. What’s important to me though, is that just because we may have read the same book or had a similar trauma, our experiences or relationship with those things may be worlds apart. I’d be very careful assuming I understood someone because they had a similar experience to me, and at the same time I could have a lot in common with someone who has had very different experiences.

One part of me that is often present in face-to-face or online-video therapy is my appearance: a mid-30s white man with ginger beard, long-ish hair (thanks to the lockdown) and glasses. How different people react to my appearance again will vary greatly. There are so many aspects to each of our identities, which will all mean something different (or mean nothing) to different people. Here are some aspects of me: white, cisgender, male, therapist, son, brother, boyfriend, homeowner, friend, musician, writer, British, Worthing resident, Manchester-born, Somerset-raised, business-owner, comic fan. None of these are as solid as they might seem, based as they are on relationships with others or the definitions of the world and society I live in. But recognising how numerous, and sometimes fluid, these aspects of myself are I am reminded to think of other people in the same way. Even people who I think I know really well still surprise me, and change over time. I always try to keep that in mind when meeting new people (clients or otherwise), but it’s not always easy. It’s only human to try and understand others, and to latch onto the shared (or differing) experiences as a way of defining people – to understand, perhaps to make things seem more predictable. As a therapist though, it’s partly my job to remember that I don’t ever fully understand who another person is, especially when I think I do.

What am I like as a therapist?

I always try to hold onto uncertainty when meeting someone, not just the first time we meet but perhaps even more so the more time we spend together when I start to fall into the trap of thinking I fully understand them. Uncertainty is a theme that resonates with me in therapy all the time. As I’ve said I am not in the business of diagnosis, and if a client comes to me having been given one (e.g. ‘depression’) I am more interested in the clients relationship to that diagnosis than the diagnosis itself. That can be the same with all language clients use beyond formal diagnoses, for example if someone tells me they are feeling sad I try to hold onto a lack of understanding of what they mean. I imagine times I have been sad and think I know what they mean, but do I really? So I always try to investigate and question my own assumptions, trying to get a deeper understanding.

Beyond that I will often tell clients what it is like being in a relationship with them. Clients may of course tell me about significant relationships in their life, and sometimes the relationship with the therapist can act as a useful ‘here and now’ reflection of what they are like in other relationships. Sometimes this means the therapy can be most effective at surprising times – for example, when discussing the boundaries of the session around payment or lateness, which on the surface may seem irrelevant (and sometimes is). Another surprisingly effective time can be when I make mistakes or get things wrong – which I will certainly do! Real life outside of therapy is full of misunderstandings, and it can be hurtful to be misunderstood or not be fully listened to. But how we act in times of misunderstanding have the potential to be profoundly healing. In that spirit I will ask clients to let me know when I have misunderstood them or said something that doesn’t feel right, and regularly ask them how our relationship is going from their perspective.

I focus on the client during sessions and follow where they lead. I also have particular areas of interest and experience which colour my view of people and the world. My interests include uncertainty, the power dynamic in therapy, the power of community, family systems, and self-critical thought.