Addiction therapy is often a personal and complex thing, which relies on interaction, bonding, and communication between counselors and their patients. This often happens because many of the people choosing to become addiction counselors were once addicted or dependent themselves, and chose to focus their energy on helping others to recover. In fact, it is very common for patients who are still in recovery to choose to become an addiction counselor, and to start helping others to recover in the same way that they themselves are being helped.
While this shift is natural, and undoubtedly contributes to the passion and the dedication of the counselor, should it be brought into therapy? Many counselors disclose their own past or current recovery to try to connect with their patients with words like, “I know what it’s like”, “I’ve been there too, you can trust me,” “My experience with addiction makes me a better therapist”, etc. However, while it can help with bonding, it is important that the therapist use disclosure with care.
Avoiding Using Personal Bias in Treatment
The largest risk for therapists using personal disclosure as a treatment method is bias, in which they begin to base their treatment on personal experience rather than on training. While many therapists use disclosure as a means of getting the patient to trust or like them, the opposite typically happens, and they develop a friendship bond with the patient. By associating the patient with self, therapists can and sometimes do take easier routes to avoid making the person they have bonded with uncomfortable, can make the wrong choices, and may make choices for themselves rather than for the patient.
While disclosure has been shown to improve bonding, this friendly bond can get in the way of therapy. In addition to transference development, it can create boundary related issues, and can cause the patient to discount the therapist and their work.
Many new therapists also tend to use disclosure as an introduction to attempt to quickly jump into a relationship with a client, when it would most likely have more impact later, when a relationship has already been established.
However, disclosure isn’t always the wrong choice.
When Self-Disclosure Works
Self-disclosure is reliably proven to get some patients, especially those with PTSD and many women, to open up and to begin to accept therapy. For example, a therapist disclosing their former addiction makes them much more relatable to addicts who are currently struggling to understand or to work with their addictions.
Building Trust – After a counselor has had time to build a relationship with a patient, they may still have trouble building trust. Self-disclosure of their own recovery can help with this, by making them more relatable, and by telling the patient that they know what they are talking about.
Intervention – Self-Disclosure can be an important intervention technique, used as a last-option method to get unwilling patients to open up. This requires a strong professional relationship, in which the patient respects the counselor and their sobriety or clean living. The fact that the person they look up to can be a shock, which can push patients into trying to work for their own recovery.
Group Therapy – Group Therapy is a therapy model based around self-disclosure, in that every participant in the group functions as both a therapist and a patient.
Self-Disclosure can be a valuable tool for building trust, relationships, and for connecting with patients. Many counselors use it to add to their therapy, to offer motivation, or to help a struggling patient reach their own motivation. However, many also attempt to use it as a shortcut, which can then undermine their future relationships, and undermine the quality of treatment that the patient receives.
In most cases, there is no strict yes or no answer. Rather, therapists must use their best judgement, which is subjective to the patient and their experiences. In some cases, self-disclosure can be extremely helpful and beneficial to the relationship. In others, it can prove to be the opposite. A good therapist should delay self-disclosure until determining how it will affect the patient to make the best decision for the patient. The scientific consensus is that self-disclosure designed to aid the patient is good for the relationship, but self-disclosure designed to aid the therapist (for example to create trust when there is none) is typically bad for the patient.
While there are dozens of books written about self-disclosure, most of them agree that it can be good for therapists to disclose they are in recovery, providing they do so in the right way.