The Therapeutic Relationship
The relationship between client and therapist can sometimes feel strange. I’ve heard some clients and friends who go to therapy say - “I don’t want my therapist to judge me”, “If I know more about their life, I may judge myself or not feel good enough”, “I know nothing about you but I’m expected to share my whole life with you”, “It feels selfish not to ask you about your life”, and other varying thoughts.
The beauty of the client - therapist relationship is that when it has a strong foundation, it can foster great progress in therapy. Some may say that the therapuetic relationship is the most important factor for change to take place.
It may seem unnatural, at first, to tell all of your deepest thoughts to this person and potentially know nothing about them. But this is definitely something that you can process with your therapist.
I can only speak for myself, but, I know that the relationship can feel awkward and I want to ease that awkwardness and anxiety for my client. I may sometimes even ask my clients if they have any questions about me or what information they might need from me to make them feel more comfortable.
Personally, I’ve told my clients my age, my birthday, how many siblings I have, what my favorite music/book/tv show is, in order to make my clients feel more relaxed, comfortable and remind them that we’re both people.
This may vary from therapist to therapist, and sometimes the therapist's training and background can influence how much he or she self-discloses.
This may also vary from client to client - meaning, some clients may ask and others may not. Some clients may like the idea of not knowing anything about their therapist and others may want little details to make the therapeutic connection feel smoother.
Some therapists may find it fitting to share some of their own life experiences as a way to validate a client. Again, this may vary from therapist to therapist. Validating can help a therapist affirm the worth of what their client is experiencing and by sharing something that they’ve also struggled with, can let a client know they are not alone. I’ve have found this particularly helpful when working with clients who are struggling with an eating disorder - knowing that there are professionals who have recovered from an eating disorder can show clients that there is hope in the recovery process.
Personally, I have found this helpful when sharing bits and pieces of what helps with my anxiety to clients who also struggle with anxiety. Just to let my client know - they are not alone, and anxiety is a real, and we're all human.
What a therapist wants to divulge is up to them - however, we do have boundaries to keep up and standards of ethics to uphold.
Boundaries are extremely important in a therapeutic relationship. For some of our clients, their distress could be experiences from others in their life who had very poor boundaries. Bottom line, your safety, confidentiality and well-being, are our highest concerns. Boundaries are what help keep both the client and therapist safe during a process that can feel difficult and vulnerable at times.
We have to make sure that we are sharing things that are beneficial to YOU and YOUR PROCESS and not to ourselves (we have our own people for that!)
Something that I let my clients know - ask questions! There may be something that you ask that we are willing to answer and for the questions that we aren’t comfortable with, we will politely tell you that it’s something we won’t share. Again, this helps model healthy boundaries for a client.
So What Is Normal?
When it comes to “normal”, I guess I don’t really have a perfect answer. After all, there is no normal for anything, right? It’s dependent on the therapist, their comfortability and what they see fit to strengthen the therapeutic relationship.
At the end of the day, your sessions are for you and about you. Your therapist may share to help you feel validated, but if that sharing makes you feel uncomfortable, address it. And if you feel overly curious about their life, address that too! Just remember that all behavior serves a function, so by bringing a curious eye to it, you can continue to develop and strength your own self awareness.
About the Author
Stephanie Polizzi is a licensed psychotherapist (LMHC) in Scarsdale, NY at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling. Stephanie is an expert in treating children, teens and adults struggling with anxiety, eating disorders, behavioral challenges, life transitions and trauma. Stephanie uses a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness, and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) in her work with clients. Stephanie is available on both Friday & Saturday in our Scarsdale office or via Telehealth for video counseling sessions.