“Tabula Rasa” and The Art of Self Disclosure: It’s Not About Us…It’s About Them

As many of you know, I’m a counselor, coach, consultant and trainer; however my largest role in the past 8-10 years has been clinical supervisor.

Clinical Supervision

Supervision in counseling means something very different than it does in other fields. The clinical supervisor is:

  • an ally;
  • a mentor;
  • a teacher;
  • an evaluator;
  • a guide;
  • a coach;
  • a consultant;

and a general support as it relates to the therapist/supervisee’s professional development.

Clinical Supervisor’s Purpose

Our purpose as clinical supervisors is to:

  • advance our supervisees clinical skill set;
  • help them better serve their clients;
  • and develop the competencies to practice counseling as an independently licensed professional.

One way that I achieve my objectives is to engage in compelling dialogue with my supervisees. Some of my more interesting blog topics are born out of the questions and topics that my supervisees bring up in our supervision meetings.

Personal Questions from Clients

This week one of the questions that one of my supervisees brought up had to do with how to respond to personal questions from clients. Specifically questions asked of the therapist that have to do with personal details about the therapist’s life.

Sharing personal details about ourselves is what we therapists call “self disclosure.”  Typically, therapy is all about client self disclosure. They are sharing the details of their personal lives with us… and inevitably and naturally they are curious about who we are as people and not just as their therapist.

Tabula Rasa

So where does the phrase “tabula rasa” come from? Freud suggested that Psychoanalysts’ (that’s what therapists who practice his traditional method of Psychoanalysis call themselves) should be like a a “blank slate” also known as the Latin phrase tabula rasa.

The basic premise being to make the space we create in therapy a reservoir of content about the “client” or in his words “patient.”

While I don’t practice such strict reservedness as a counselor as the Psychoanalysts do, I think there is value in being very thoughtful about what I am disclosing about myself and why.

Counseling Rapport

Counseling rapport has to do with the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client. Some therapists believe it enhances rapport to answer their client’s questions about who you are personally.

It is natural and expected that clients will have questions, however the questions can often catch you off guard. It is important not to have a knee jerk reaction and blurt out the answer to the question. The list of clients’ questions is extensive but here are a few common ones:

  1. Are you married?
  2. Do you have any kids?
  3. Have you ever used drugs?
  4. How old are you?
  5. What’s your sexual preference?
  6. Are you religious?

and so on…

Exploring the Meaning Behind Clients’ Questions

My advice to my supervisees is to explore the question before answering it. A few of my supervisees were convinced that this is evasive and possibly “annoying” to the client.

But I say a therapist’s language and intent has to be clear. It is almost always how you respond and not what you say that can rub the client the wrong way.

I’m infinitely curious about my client’s internal world. This is how I can do long term therapy and still learn new things about a client’s experiences or feelings after many years of working with them.

You can respond to the client’s questions in a defensive way “Why do you ask that?”

…or in a curious way“That’s a great question… let’s discuss this further… perhaps I’ll be able to answer what you want to know.”

It’s About Them…Not About Us

It’s about the client… not about us. What the client wants to know is mostly about them and is loosely connected to you, the therapist.

  • Can I trust you?
  • Do you think you’re better than me?
  • I feel really connected to you and that makes me feel vulnerable…please let me know that I matter to you.
  • I feel badly that I relapsed and I don’t want to talk about that…I wonder if you are a recovering addict too…cause you’re just as bad as me…or perhaps because you won’t think poorly of me if you are or have been addicted to a substance.

and so on…

The Secret Identity of Therapists

There is no “secret” identity that therapists have. Over time clients get to know us in all of the most important ways…they get to know:

  • our personalities;
  • our humor;
  • our heart-fullness;
  • our values (via our approach to therapy and also our ways of being with them);
  • our capacity for emotional intimacy;
  • our respect and regard for differences or lack thereof;
  • our attentiveness or inattentiveness.

The list goes on…

The questions clients ask about who we are are a loss leader.” A loss leader is a deeply discounted price a retailer offers to get you in the door in order to sell you something more expensive or at least sell you more than you intended to buy.

In other words, if we just attend to the question (the content) and don’t attend to the information behind the question that reveals something about the client – which can be achieved by the way we interact with them around the question (the process) – we have missed a major opportunity to assist our clients in their goals.

We also miss an opportunity to truly deepen the counseling relationship (rapport).

We (therapists) just like anyone else are best known through our ways of being. I think it is our role as counselors to:

  • trust the process of psychotherapy – which on the therapist side involves a client “knowing you through your ways of “being”;
  • be intentional in our responses – if we are not intentional, what’s the difference between a therapeutic dialogue and any other dialogue?
  • Care about the question behind the question – don’t miss an opportunity to fully know your client.

On Being a Therapist

Being a therapist involves mental work… so don’t answer questions blindly.

Our clients’ questions in general, including the ones directed at us, are really about themselves. Their self disclosure in this sense matters.

And our questions for them and our self disclosures to them about us matter as well.

The truth iswe disclose our thoughts all of the time, for example:

  • I am concerned about you because….you seem more anxious today.”
  • “What happened just now? I thought we were getting close to something important and then the topic changed.”
  • I recently discovered a book or resource that you might find useful.”

All of those statements or questions involve disclosure of our inner world and thoughts. It demonstrates our observation, our caring, our interest in personal development etc…

Being a therapist means you are brave enough to sit with the discomfort, pain, joy, anxiety, fear, and depression of others.

If you are doing it right…which means caring about your clientit means risking elements of your well being for the well being of others.

Copyright © 2015 Ruby Blow. All rights reserved.

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