Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How NOT to Handle Self-Disclosure (As Seen on TV)

The TV show "Go On," one of this year's new sit-coms on NBC, centers around a therapy group addressing issues of grief and loss. Of course, as a comedy, it shows a lot of what shouldn't happen, inside and outside group sessions. This week's episode (episode 105, in case you want to find it) provides an excellent illustration of how NOT to handle self-disclosure. 

It seems the group therapist has another job as a parking valet. One of the group members discovers this fact by following her (yes, every therapist's horror scenario). The one group member tells other members, who go to spy on her. Then they confront her about it during group. 

What an awkward scenario! I can only imagine most of us would be caught off guard, and may not respond as skillfully as we'd like. But, we can learn a thing or two from this fictional therapist's mistakes.

1) She responds defensively. 

The first thing out of her mouth (besides the requisite objection to group members following her!) is to clarify that she is not a "valet" but a "parking services manager." What does that communicate? From my perspective, it seems like she is insecure and trying to seem more competent in her clients' eyes...but only coming across as being embarrassed or having something to hide. 

A better response would have been to (a) acknowledge the fact that she has a job in a parking facility, and (b) turn the attention back to clients by exploring what it means to them that she has this job, and how they discovered it. For example, the client who initially followed her introduces the topic in group by saying "no more secrets!" There seems to be a lot underneath that statement.

2) She goes overboard trying to explain

The sense that she may be embarrassed by her job as a valet seems even more likely after she launches into a lengthy justification of how this menial second job is really a step toward career advancement because it is helping her go back to school and get a master's degree, because she loves her work with the group so much. 

While that may very well be true, from a client's perspective, I would not find it very reassuring. Her attempt to circle back to the group being her primary professional focus falls flat because it seems self-serving - a way to dodge the uncomfortable confrontation happening right now. Similarly, her attempt to spin the parking job as a means to professional development runs the risk of making clients either doubt her competence (if she has to go back to school to do what she's doing in group), or worry that she will leave them once she is done with school (a reasonable guess). 

As with most cases of self-disclosure, she would probably have been better off stating the facts as neutrally as possible, with no more detail than was necessary, and returning to exploration of the clients' reactions and what meanings they associated with what they had learned.

3) She continues to over-share even after most of the group has moved on.

The therapist responds impulsively to goading from a client about "why she couldn't get a better job" (during a guided meditation, no less!), revealing that she is taking the test to get a real estate license...AND that she previously failed that test three times. 

While it's clear she wanted to prove that she is skilled and knowledgeable - that she can and will get a better job! - nothing good can come of what she shared there. She seems to regret it pretty quickly, but you can't unring the bell. Group members begin questioning her competence even more. In fact, they go so far as to directly ask her if she's stupid! 

If she had kept an eye on her own reactions and managed her feelings instead of allowing herself to be goaded, she could have kept the focus on the group and the activity. She could either have continue to explore their issues related to her competence and their own, or simply redirected the client who was goading her.

4) She lets it become about her issues

It goes downhill from there, as far as appropriate self-disclosure goes. To defend against the accusation that she is stupid, she goes into an emotional explanation of her test anxiety, down to the "inner voice telling her she's not good enough." While this may feel like a way of joining with and seeming relate-able to her clients, it instead puts them in a position of feeling like they have to take care of her. In fact, the first response from the group is "we can help!" 

Could this be empowering, for them to be able to help their therapist? Possibly. But it's also not really appropriate. The nature of the professional helping relationship is that it is all about the client's needs. We help them without asking for their help in return. It is a space for them to be vulnerable and needy, and they need to perceive us as strong enough to contain their affect. 

The end result? They come to her rescue (rather forcefully, in her defense), help her prepare, study, and go with her to the test, which she then passes, and gets a job as a real estate agent rather than a valet. Happy ending, in a total of 21 minutes of air time. 

What is the lesson in all that for handling self-disclosure?

1) The therapeutic relationship needs to stay therapeutic. Self-disclosure should only be done when it would serve the client in some way. The client should not feel the need to take care of us!

2) Self-awareness and monitoring of our own internal reactions is important, precisely so that we don't react defensively, over-share, or let something unhelpful slip inadvertently.

3) When clients do turn the attention onto us, the best response is to explore what is going on or coming up for them - what is the meaning they're ascribing to whatever it is they're bringing up?

4) When it's clear you can't keep something from coming out (say, if a client follows you to your second job...), it's best to state the facts as shortly and simply as possible. Handling things matter-of-factly puts people's minds at ease by communicating that it's not that big a deal. 

And finally, 5) like they say about commas: When in doubt, leave it out! (And use supervision or consultation to get clarity when there is uncertainty)

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