Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

self

“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.

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One Lonely Rainbow

rainbow

Well, your friends know what’s right, and your friends know what’s wrong

and your friends all know sometimes it’s hard to choose

I stood in front of my high school Seminary class, my knees involuntarily knocking together as I sang. I was looking down at the floor instead of into their faces directly. Why was I so nervous?

But the friend who helps you see where the choices will lead

is the kind of friend you never want to lose.

My voice was a high baritone. I had been singing in church functions for years, in sacrament meetings and Relief Society lessons, but doing this here, in front of my peers, this was a new experience.

I was 16 and this was my second year in the Seminary program. One hour of school each day was reserved for Seminary in my predominantly Mormon high school. There was a church-dedicated building right across the street from the school where each faithful Mormon student took one hour away from regular classes to come over here and learn about the scriptures. I had chemistry just before this, and band just after. Seminary felt like a regular school class, except we started with a prayer and a hymn, and our text books were the Mormon scriptures: the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. We studied the words of God and the prophets, and then would head back across the street to high school when the bell rang.

It’s the friend that leads with love, doesn’t push, doesn’t shove

Just reminds you of the truth you’ve always known

Then does more than just talk, takes your hand and starts to walk

by your side along the road that leads back home. 

I put my full intent into Seminary classes each day. I read my scriptures nightly and offered heartfelt prayers. I played Mormon Tabernacle Choir music to fall asleep to every night and kept paintings of Jesus on my walls. I paid ten per cent of my earnings to the Church. I attended three hour services every Sunday, and went to youth activities every Tuesday night. I reached out to people who were struggling, offering them support and love. I offered to teach my friends who weren’t Mormon all about the Church. I was all in, one hundred per cent Mormon, true blue through and through.

And this friend seems to see all the great things you’ll be

Even when some things you do would prove him wrong.

Despite my efforts, though, I felt hidden. Shy. Quiet. I was afraid of letting anyone get to know me because I was afraid they would learn my terrible secret, that I was attracted to other boys. Same-sex attracted, I was told to call it, not gay. That word was dangerous. It was only a few months ago I went to my Mormon leader, our Mormon bishop, a close family friend, and I told him that I had sinned. I had stayed up late at night and watched a television show that had shirtless men in it, and I had had impure thoughts. I had never told anyone before. He had reacted with kindness and compassion, and he had reminded me that Heavenly Father loves me very. He had given me a Priesthood blessing, his hands on my head, reminding me what a stalwart son of God I was, and then he had given me a book to help me have a greater understanding of things. A book written by a prophet just a few decades ago, called the Miracle of Forgiveness.

But he always believes that the real you he sees

Is a champion he’s simply cheering on.

I had read the book front to back multiple times now, especially focusing on the parts on homosexuality. It let me know how dangerous associating with other people was, how it could destroy my spirit and lead me to the devil. It taught me that masturbation can cause homosexuality, and most importantly, that homosexuality, even though it was abominable and evil, could be cured with enough effort. I just had to try harder, be more faithful, press onward ever onward.

And the love that you feel from a friend that’s this real

Is as powerful as anything on Earth.

At this point, I finally looked up at my peers and saw them looking back. I could tell my voice sounded good, even though my leg was shaking. I was doing this, singing for my peers, in an effort to challenge myself spiritually, to show God that I loved him. I paid careful attention to not looking at any of the boys in the room, especially not the handsome ones. They could never know I found some of them attractive.

For it lifts and it grows and it strengthens and it flows

It’s what allows a soul to feel just what they’re worth.

Even as I sang about true friendship, I realized the irony. I didn’t have any friends. I was doing in my life just what the song requested, just what it asked. I was surrounding myself with peers who were good Mormons, who made good choices. But I didn’t let anyone of them know me, because if they knew me, they would know my secret, and that would be not only embarrassing, it would be sinning. No one could know, not even my family. They would be so ashamed.

So many lonely souls are calling, and our brightest stars would not be falling

if only they had a friend, a real friend.

I was singing the song “Be That Friend” by Michael McLean, a church singer who put out CDs for youth, catchy lyrics and tunes that brought the spirit, reminding Mormon youth that they weren’t alone, that their friendships would last into the eternities, that Christ understood and loved them, that they were special. I listened to McLean’s music all the time. I wouldn’t learn until many years later that around this time, he had a son coming out of the closet, coming forward as gay, and that his own family was being pushed to the limits as they tried to figure out this unsolvable problem in their own home.

Everyone hopes to find one true friend who’s the kind

They can count on for forever and a day.

I firmly believed that with enough effort, I could conquer this, I could will myself to be straight if I could prove myself to God. I knew it. And I knew my options for the future, even if I couldn’t find the cure: marry a girl and trust in God, or just be celibate my entire life and then I could get married to a girl in the next life, in Heaven. Those were my choices.

Be that friend, be that kind, that you prayed you might find

And you’ll always have a best friend, come what may.

I finished the song and sat down in the silent room. It was considered irreverent to clap in church functions, but many of my peers gave me nods and silent congratulations. After class, one of the popular girls in school told me I had a nice voice and invited me to audition for Show Choir next year, which I did. It felt good to be seen. I was so used to hiding in plain sight, I guessed it was okay to be seen, just a little, just so long as no one looked too closely.

 

**lyrics to Be That Friend by Michael McLean