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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

The Art of Self Disclosure: An Ode To Dr. Yalom

One of the positives to come out of the past year of lockdowns has been an improved frequency of online professional development for therapists. Online webinars, conferences and training courses have helped therapists to build a range of therapeutic knowledge for much less cost and time. You can even attend online sessions with the BIG GUNS of the therapy world. Recently, I was able to watch two therapy heroes of mine speak; Dan Hughes on trauma (I rewrote EVERYTHING after this!) and, last week, the great Irvin Yalom.

Yalom, or Irv, was talking about his latest book, A Matter of Death and Life, which was co-authored with his late wife. The book’s cover fills me with sadness and inside, love and thoughtfulness are fully present. When he appeared on my TV, I, along with the 10,000 other viewers, rapidly joined the chatroom on Zoom to say, “Hi!”, to Irv. And he was just as I expected, and wanted, him to be: gentle, thoughtful, human. Human, keep that word in your mind.

At first, I scribbled notes as I would in any training, carefully notating what Yalom described. In a thoughtful pause, I realised that in my desperation to notate and keep all of Yalom’s wisdom, I was missing the point of the event. Yalom’s first line had been about the art of self disclosure and how the therapist ‘taking their own temperature’ and sharing their feelings, is the most effective way to encourage self awareness and insight in your client. Throughout Yalom’s’ oeuvre, this is a constant theme, returned to in many different guises – transference, Here and Now, apologising or encouraging the patient in sessions, sharing writing in public. I started to listen to Dr Yalom’s words differently, mediating on the meaning to me and searching for reflections within so that the learning wasn’t theoretical, but deep, personal and lasting.

I think here lies the power of Yalom’s work: his ability to make therapy human. To be a flawed human in front of another flawed human requires bravery and a sense of safety. Perhaps this is what I connect with most. The need to be human (real), flawed (vulnerable), brave (have hope), and safe (double hope!).

I first encountered Yalom in my training through his Group Psychotherapy text. It wasn’t until my (not then) husband gave me a copy of Love’s Executioner that I found my way. Yalom’s ability to bring his work to life felt like a revelation after the dry therapy texts I had been reading (in the not too distant past, I had a paper turned down partly because I quoted Yalom too much!!). He can challenge with sensitivity and kindness; compassion for all souls runs through his work. In my work with adoptive families and as a therapist supervisor and manager, compassion is my motto. How can we be therapists – or humans in the world – if we judge and assume?

Let’s think about what it is to be human as it is so present in my mind when I think of Yalom’s work. Being human is showing curiosity and empathy for our fellows, and it is also sharing our stories. Relationships are two-way streets where we have to give energy as well as receive. A small disclaimer here: I don’t believe that exchanges have to be exactly equal but they do have to be timely. This is truer in the therapy session. Harping on about your weekend or home improvements in every session in probably not going to help your client, but sharing that you too feel anxious before sessions or how you remember feeling lost when a loved one died may help your client feel heard and a little less alone. It also gives you a collective experience from which to build trusting foundations.

I suppose the next question is how much self disclosure is appropriate in therapy? This is up to you as the therapist and also the client. In these situations, I ask myself, “How do I feel right now?”, and, “How is my client responding?”. Firstly, do I feel too vulnerable or anxious, or does it feel ok? Secondly, is my client shocked or dismissive, or have they acknowledged my move?”. Also, “what does the silence or response feel like?”. For some clients, me sharing a similar experience might not have been helpful as it felt like they wanted to live the experience alone -as a sole voice. For others, knowing someone else has felt what they have felt (and survived) feels good and right.

Through my ability to be vulnerable and trusting as a therapist, co-worker or supervisor, I feel I have added nutrients to the relationships around me. I am always boundaried in my disclosures and I will only give what I feel is right. Some things are for me. This brings to mind two recent situations. With lockdown meaning that families are stuck at home, my children and I have been doing regular crafting sessions online with adoptive families. The families watching have seen me as an ‘in control’ therapist and parent, and also as a very normal parent managing temper tantrums and things not going quite right – all in my living room. The second situation was when a recent case triggered a difficult memory for me. After sitting on it for a few weeks, I decided to share with a trusted co-worker. During the exchange, I felt vulnerable but safe, able to explore my flawed humanness so that I could keep my curiosity and empathy available for my clients. Perhaps finding the right place for disclosure should also be mentioned here.

Being able to think and write in the way that I do is rooted in my reading of Dr Yalom. One day, I hope that someone will look upon my life’s works as thoughtful, kind and full of compassion – just like Irv’s.

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