Therapist disclosure: why all the secrecy?

Happy Chinese New Year (Gung Hay Fat Choy!).  As you can see from the photo, I attended the New Year’s parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown this year.  This disclosure introduces my topic for today, directed toward patients and would-be patients: Why do therapists disclose so little about ourselves?  Why all the secrecy?

The standard answer goes as follows.  Traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy, the kind that evolved from Freudian psychoanalysis, derives much of its healing power from observing and analyzing the transference.  Transference is a complex concept, but for our purpose it can be understood as interpersonal attitudes and expectations learned early in life, that the patient unconsciously applies (“transfers”) to the therapist.  These unconscious expectations can be positive, as in assuming the therapist will be loving, selfless, and perhaps superhuman, and/or negative, as in assuming the therapist will be withholding, competitive, or shaming.  The nature of a patient’s transference reveals a great deal about how he or she sees others.  “Interpreting the transference” — making these unconscious assumptions conscious — frees the patient to treat self and other more realistically.

For this reason, anything in dynamic psychotherapy that promotes transference, and leaves it in its unperturbed natural state for observation, helps move the process along.  This is where Freud’s “tabula rasa” or blank slate idea originates.  The less known about the therapist, the more the patient fills in the blanks with transference.  According to this view, it is more helpful to learn what the patient imagines about the therapist, than to correct the patient’s misperceptions or to share private details reciprocally.

However, there are several caveats that go with this idea.  One is that not every patient in psychodynamic therapy handles frustration and delayed (or thwarted) gratification the same way.  Some easily tolerate asking a question and not getting an answer, and enjoy exploring what their own minds come up with.  At the other extreme are those who find the process insufferably insulting or humiliating, and cannot do this kind of work.  In between are the majority who find therapist non-disclosure frustrating, but who can tolerate and work with it. In addition, patients (i.e., all of us) can shift day by day, or moment by moment, in our frustration tolerance and our willingness to “play” with our ideas and feelings in order to learn more about ourselves. A sensitive therapist recognizes this and responds accordingly.

An even more obvious caveat is that no therapist is truly a blank slate.  If nothing else, patients know our race, gender, approximate age, and how we like to decorate the office.  And let’s not kid ourselves, perceptive patients can soon guess or estimate details like socioeconomic status, regional dialects and accents, formality, conventionality, frustration tolerance, warmth, and a host of other therapist attributes.  Moreover, we often reveal just by our look of recognition, or the lack of it, whether we are familiar with the book, movie, restaurant, cultural happening, or bit of street slang the patient just mentioned.  And all this before the patient really gets curious and googles us.

The slate is far from blank.  Still, therapists play what must seem like a sadistic guessing game to many patients: “You asked if I’m married [or gay, or have children, or watch ‘The Sopranos’].  What do you imagine about my home life?”  I believe many times this exchange feels awkward and stilted for both parties, first, because the therapist does not explain the transference-based rationale behind the socially odd rejoinder, and second, because not answering also serves a boundary-setting function for the therapist, which is also not discussed.  Often therapists themselves fail to distinguish these two aims.

I have supervised many beginning therapists who treat non-disclosure as a blindly followed rule about maintaining boundaries.  Transference and even their own privacy are poorly articulated afterthoughts.  (Conversely, I’ve met a few trainees who disclose freely in defiance of orthodoxy, and to make the therapist and patient “equal,” which they are not.  Free and open disclosure by the therapist is compatible with perfectly good therapy — just not the psychodynamic variety that examines transference.  It’s also not compatible with one’s own privacy, as discussed below.)  With more experience, therapists pick and choose what to disclose, and the whole endeavor becomes less stilted and defensive on the part of the therapist, and more comprehensible to the patient.  However, even very experienced therapists sometimes fail to explain to patients why they don’t answer personal questions directly.  I see no harm, and much to gain, in offering a brief rationale.

The most important point about therapist self-disclosure is that the therapy is for the patient, not the therapist.  Therapists who self-disclose because they like to tell stories or talk about themselves detract from the therapy they provide.  They need another outlet (friends and family? a blog?).  More subtle is disclosure aimed to make the patient like or respect the therapist.  As a general guideline I disclose what I judge will benefit my patient, and not what I judge will not.

But there is a final point to be made about privacy.  Being a patient in therapy feels  — and is — vulnerable and exposing.  It takes courage to bare one’s soul to someone who is initially a stranger; trust comes with time and must be earned.  Efforts by either party to “even the playing field” through therapist self-disclosure cannot hasten this process or make it easier; the cost of such doomed effort is the therapist’s privacy.  Many therapists have been in therapy ourselves, and that was when we were vulnerable.  Good therapists owe their patients undivided attention, thoughtful reflection, concern, and empathy — but not an experience of false equality at the cost of their own privacy.  I feel comfortable telling you I attended the Chinese New Year’s parade both because it won’t hamper our transference work if you happen to be my patient, and also because it isn’t very private.  I consider both of these factors when a patient asks me a personal question.

43 comments to Therapist disclosure: why all the secrecy?

  • Mariah

    Here is something that I do not understand. You say that the nature patient’s transference reveals a great deal about how he or she sees others. But doesn’t what it really reveal is a great deal about how the patient sees and treats others that the patient doesn’t know, or has to talk to for the first time? I can see how that might be helpful in the business world, where a lot of times you are talking to people once and then never again. But in the world of family, friends, and love, where relationships grow and deepen mutually? How is knowledge of transference at all helpful?

    • Hi Mariah, thanks for writing. I agree that transference as observed in therapy most closely mirrors the patient’s feelings toward others in “real life” who are relatively unknown. When others are better known, transference may have less of a role. However, transference exists in all relationships, and can have subtle but important effects even with others who are not “blank slates.”

      The traditional therapy relationship isn’t set up to mimic any particular relationship outside of therapy. It is set up, in large part, to highlight the patient’s personality. By definition, personality consists of patient attributes that tend to persist across different situations. We all relate differently to different people, yet therapy looks for common personality threads that underlie these encounters. These threads may be prominent in some situations and more obscure in others. But therapy only aims to help persons change themselves, not the people around them. So knowledge of personality, in part through observing transference, is exactly the kind of discovery that can help a person across many different interpersonal encounters.

      Variations on your question have come up before, so I should post a longer piece on this. Thanks again for writing.

  • Catrenia

    Okay, I have read this on your recommendation after I commented on your counter transference blog. I always figured that a therapist not answering personal questions was procedure. I never thought about how it would affect transference. I never really thought about transference as such a big part of therapy before. I know it plays a part in other aspects of life. It just naturally happens I guess. I don’t really think I do that so much in therapy.. Thinking about it now. I just see my therapist as a doctor who is supposed to listen to my crazy thoughts, and make the sound not so crazy.

    Yes, I will admit I google all my Psychiatrists (and everyone else including myself haha). I like to see what schools they went to, and what kind of work they did. I had one therapist who I goggled and found out she was like the ultimate master data base on sleep. That’s what she worked on in school. It’s also cool to see what awards they have. I wouldn’t be surprised if you doctors googled us as well. As far as personal questions. I respect their privacy. They also respect mine when I don’t want to talk about stuff. Although sometimes that is a bad thing. The main thing I want to know about my therapists is do they have kids, and where they are from. I don’t think that is terribly personal.

    I do want my therapist to be a little relatable. That’s why I ask if they have kids. I have a lot of issues with my parents, and it makes me a little more comfortable talking to someone who has kids. My therapist now Is a male who has kids, and I have been able to trust him, and open up about a lot of things I have never opened up about before. That in itself is transference I guess, but had he declined to answer or got all upset when I asked him, therapy would have gone a very different way or may not have gone at all. He did ask me why I wanted to know, and i told him, so he answered. Fair trade, I think. He used his judgement, and did a fair job reading me. It was helpful.

    I have had therapists Where in the first session they would ask the typical questions: tell me about yourself what are your goals, what types of therapy have you done before, do you take meds etc. Then they ask do you have any questions for me. I ask simply so where are you from somewhere around here? The therapist completely clams up and Gets nervous and is kinda freaking out. That sends me running. It’s not like I am asking for you address. Just are you from around here? The left coast maybe? New England? Just o you have kids, not how old are the what are their names and how many. If the therapist wants to say more that’s up to them.

    The therapist does need to use his or her judgement about what is best to disclose. Every patient is different. Every therapist is different. From a personal perspectiveI feel a little more comfortable knowing a few simple, basic things about my therapist. Just trying to settle the nerves during that first session. You can’t leave absolutely everything to the imagination though.

    That was informative. Thank you for suggesting I read that. I have a new found appreciation for transference in therapy.


  • […] asked whether I’d ever been in therapy myself. Without answering his question directly (see my thoughts on psychotherapist disclosure and privacy), I replied that many of us have, and asked what it meant to him. It would be a bad sign: […]

  • Arthur Remes

    Hi Doctor Reidbord

    Reading your blog entry above. I felt I had to comment. First, some disclosure on my part: I have been in therapy for many years. I I have been to various therapists, a Horneyan, a Sullivanian, a Modern Analyst (Spotnitz based), and Albert Ellis himself, among others.

    While I agree with you about the importance of transference and counter-transference in many kinds of therapy, I believe that they play a part in all relationships and will have an effect even if the patient does know about the therapist. Ellis, of course, discounted it’s importance completely. I found both schools of thought helpful personally.

    However, I think it is important to introduce a significant idea into the discussion, that of consumer’s rights. As an intelligent and educated person, I feel it is my right to have an idea of my therapists training, professional experience and general life experience. If I am having problems raising my children, I believe I am better served by a therapist who has been a successful parent, for example. This is not always true, but often is. I at least want to have the option of knowing whether or not the therapist has the qualifications to help me, just as I would if I were going to a surgeon or an auto-mechanic or an art teacher.

    At the first interview, when the person being interviewed is not yet a client, I believe simple, respectful answers on the part of the therapist are called for. In many cases, might this not be the beginning of an ego-strengthening process? I understand that in an analytic based therapy this may not always be appropriate, but I wonder if the mystification around simple human interaction damages the patient and the profession.

    • Hi, and thanks for writing. I agree that transference and countertransference play a part in all relationships, yet only in analytic based therapies are the associated feelings used therapeutically. Ellis is joined by practitioners of many other schools in discounting their importance.

      Your point about consumer’s rights is important but complicated. At the level of formal professional qualifications you’ll face no argument from even the most orthodox psychoanalyst. A “consumer” should know whether an MD is trained as a psychiatrist, whether a psychologist has masters or doctoral level training, whether a clinical social worker is licensed to practice. This type of information is often available publicly. You can look me up on the California Medical Board website and see that I’m a licensed MD who finished medical school in 1985. Other official sites show I was board-certified in psychiatry in 1991.

      Whether I’m a successful parent is a different kind of question. It’s about my personal life, not what I do at the office. It’s not a question you’d ask a surgeon, auto mechanic, or art teacher. It doesn’t bear directly on whether I might help your parenting issues: I may be able to help you even though I couldn’t help myself (there are many great coaches who can’t play ball); factors outside my control may have made my own parenting “unsuccessful”; your issues with parenting may be different than my issues.

      Aside from the utility of the question is the problem of line drawing. Are those seeking sex therapy entitled to know the details of my sex life? Since topics discussed in psychotherapy can cover the whole of human experience, I would in theory need to be a completely open book to any patient who sought to check my “qualifications”. I confess that I see no clear line between public and private, especially now in the age of Facebook and Twitter. But there has to be a line somewhere, and analytic therapists tend to draw it somewhat more restrictively than other types of therapists. As I’m sure you’re aware, this is not done in the interest of abridging “consumer rights,” but to foster the phenomena that can lead to insight and change.

  • Spencer

    Thank you for this article. I am a clinical psychologist. I was trained in psycho-dynamic principles with a focus on transference and counter-transference, but now living in a country where CBT is king. I would like to add few thoughts:

    1. Your article addresses the issues of transference and disclosure. Obviously these ideas are related but they are also discrete issues. The therapist can self-disclose and still work in the transference.

    2. Despite Ellis’ rejection of transference, there is a growing acknowledgement that therapists need to be mindful of this dynamic regardless of their primary orientation (see “Transference and Countertransference in Non-Analytic Therapy”; Judith A. Schaeffer (2007) University Press of America).

    3. The issue of therapist self-disclosure and transference is less complete without a consideration of the counter-transference. A therapist who self-discloses without first thinking through why they are doing it (own need vs it serving a therapeutic goal)is jeopardizing the therapy. By contrast, if the therapist is sufficiently aware of their own dynamics – including their counter-transference reaction to the client – is conscious of what they are disclosing and why, AND would feel comfortable talking about it in supervision, their disclosure is more likely to be ethical and constructive.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful points and agree with each of them. To embellish further:
      1. While transference would arise even toward an “open book” therapist (as it does in human interactions generally), it’s harder to see and appreciate. Thus, unthinking or reflexive self-disclosure interferes with transference work. Obviously, all psychotherapists self-disclose to some extent. I see this as a matter of degree, and in many instances it constitutes a trade-off between empathic connection and analytic exploration. Selective self-disclosure improves with clinician experience, too: One learns what is helpful and what isn’t.
      2. I too have heard of a growing recognition of transference and countertransference in non-analytic therapy. However, analytic/dynamic therapies remain the only ones that employ transference as a therapeutic tool.
      3. I agree, sensitive attention to countertransference is key. See this post for further thoughts on countertransference.
      Thanks for writing.

    • Sil G

      Dr. Reinbord —

      While I understand your academic points of real life in psychotherapy, considering I also lost a son to suicide due to blatantly opportunistic transference games played by a psychotherapist, your comment leaves no room for so many cases of worst case abuse like mine that your words make academic sense but sound like apologism to the umpteenth degree….

      If you mean what you said in a true sense of BOTH academia and that forgotten human experience on the ground uncompromisingly united, you may want to at least rearrange your academic language going forward.


      Silvija Germek

      • I am sorry for your loss. It must pain you to hear these terms discussed in positive ways. Nonetheless, I have no need to apologize for transference, or for using it in therapy. Discussion of transference is not a “game.” Just as a scalpel or medication can be destructive in the wrong hands, a psychotherapist’s tools can be as well, if guided by blatant opportunism and abuse. Yet scalpels, medications, and psychotherapy are all healing when used with skill and compassion.

  • beitingon

    What a wonderful, thoughtful article. My therapist has never chatted–if she did, I’d feel cheated. After all, therapy is primarily about me and, sorry, I pay good money. Sometimes I have been curious about her and would like to know just a little bit more her. However, what matters to me more than anything is that she is present WITH me every second, it seems, of our session, and her empathy, compassion, patience and perseverance have helped transform my life. For instance, after months of observing me being unable to mourn my mother’s death she gently told me her own experience of being with her mother as her mother died. This self-disclosure became a crucial turning point in my therapy, the point at which I began to face and learn to be with my own feelings–and it was a crucial step towards firming up our alliance and my trust. It seems to me that used sparingly and selectively, self-disclosure can support a patient’s trust and thus the course of therapy.

  • Luca

    Thank you very much for such a thoughtful article. I come from a very peculiar experience, having spent a good couple of years listening to embarrassingly detailed accounts of my Gestalt therapist’s life: literally, he sometimes did much of the talk, and I was left to ask “Yes, but what has all this to do with me?”. There followed some explanations about building a relationship of trust and fostering motivation, but I ended up just finding it all pointless and counterproductive, not to mention shamefully expensive.
    Thankfully, if a little belatedly, I was able to quit that therapy, and I am now seeing a CB therapist whom I find much more professional in that sense. I remembering asking him to not disclose literally anything to me, something that I now realize was not at all necessary. I do feel listened to, taken seriously and valued now, and I am now building an effective therapeutic ‘alliance’ that has allowed me a much more thorough sense of wellbeing. I can see now my transference at work, entrusting him to help me value my experience, thoughts and emotions, and to accompany me in making some of the changes I feel I need.

  • Judith

    Once I, a psychologist, went to a doctor for a routine check up and found myself listening to all his personal information and problems. I did not return.

  • Alanis

    Hello Dr Reidbord, I read your article on transference and it is indeed very interesting, although not depicting exactly the full spectrum of feelings emerging in front of the therapist’s unwillingness to answer questions. Being in therapy for many years i still don’t see why all that mystery, i think it impedes my own therapy and feelings.
    I would like to ask you to explain more on how the transference acts therapeutically if i as a person and patient have already told my therapist that i have numerous obsessions about people when i am in love with them and i can’t predict what they think about me or how they spend their lives which might seem trivial but for me is important. I have already delineated, described and analysed a great part of my fantasies and curiosity on other people with the help of my therapist so I don’t exactly see the reason why I should confront with this issue once again and during the therapy itself.

    • Hi Alanis,

      As I wrote in the original piece, transference work isn’t for everyone. Or more accurately, it’s a matter of degree. It may be too upsetting or unnerving for you as practiced by your therapist, something that can only be worked out between the two of you. I can’t help but mention, though, that “telling” your therapist about your issues and “delineating, describing and analyzing” them together isn’t the same thing as working in the transference. The goal is not an intellectual understanding of what is going on, nor making sure your therapist knows. It’s an emotional experiencing of these unpleasant feelings in the therapeutic relationship that allows you to observe yourself feeling them. The fact that you continue to struggle with your fantasies and curiosity about other people is reason enough to continue to work on this issue, either in transference work or some other modality of therapy.

      I edited out the second part of your comment per your request. This is not the sort of advice that anyone on the internet can give you; I can only refer you back to your own therapist. Also, I do not offer personal replies by email, sorry. Thank you for writing.

  • Jen

    Hi,So I assume then the Therapist objective is client tranceference .He or she observes and finds out what makes the client tick. Therapist slowly brings it into sessions. The client starts admiring and trusting the client based therapy. The client then wonders does the therapist have the same feelings? Is this just a game.Now the client is emotional attached to something that is just the job of the therapist.So the client stops therapy because it is known these feeling are set and not true. Leaving the client alone and feeling gulable. What should one do? Does the therapists have to also wonder if these feeling will go away? And when?

    • Hi Jen,
      In dynamic therapy — remember, not all therapy is the dynamic type — a main aim is to take note of the client’s transference. The therapist’s impressions of the transference are reflected back to the client, with the goal of increased insight and self-awareness by the client. Usually the client gradually gains trust in the therapist (although not always) and may develop a positive admiration. Most often there are mildly positive feelings in both directions. When a client’s feelings are much stronger, positive or negative, the client often wonders whether their therapist feels the same way. Usually the answer is no, or at least not as much. Some therapists will share this feedback right away; others will wait to hear what the client assumes the therapist feels. Such assumptions are also transference, and can help the client gain insight. It’s not “just a game,” it’s how this type of therapy works. If the client stops therapy at this point out of shame or anger that the therapist’s feelings aren’t the same, he or she misses out on the value of this experience for self-awareness. I should also mention that a good therapist would anticipate that this particular client was unable to work with transference, and should have shifted his or her technique away from transference work before the client felt so uncomfortable. Thanks for writing.

  • Elizabeth

    As a medical professional myself, though not in the primary field of psychiatry or psychology, I found myself in therapy initially to aid with matters related to my marriage. Rather unexpectedly, I opted to continue with this process individually as I could see potential benefits that could be realized with some of my (less than optimal) daily behaviors. I find myself now in a bit of a conundrum – whether related to resistance and wanting to leave, or transference (or both). I have become frustrated with my inability to ask a direct (personal) question of the therapist (evolved from initial meeting into something that was accidentally learned in a completely unrelated setting that countered my likely conjured image of therapist) as well as the therapist’s inability to explain why the question is not being answered. I do believe that the lack of direct answer (by therapist) is purposeful, perhaps in a way as to not impede our progress, but not having confirmation of the answer seems to be causing a problem for me both from the factual perspective as well as the therapist’s overall ability to remain (or appear) genuine. Not sure if my thoughts here make sense although I gather some of what I am thinking is that these sorts of thoughts on my part, are expected and simply part of the “work” of therapy.

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      Unintended boundary violations are paradoxically some of the most difficult and potentially useful occurrences in dynamic therapy. Accidentally learning something personal about one’s therapist is inherently uncomfortable for most patients/clients, if for no other reason than it “isn’t supposed to happen.” It poses a clinical and possibly emotional challenge for the therapist as well. Maintaining the usual frame of therapy by ignoring or denying the issue — maintaining business-as-usual when the business isn’t usual anymore — is a natural but often unhelpful reaction by either or both parties. At the same time, it may not be in the patient’s best interest for the therapist to aim for quick resolution of anxiety by answering questions, clearing everything up, and so forth.

      As mentioned before, I find it beneficial briefly to explain my rationale for not answering patients’ questions. I’ve never seen the value in being mysterious per se. All the same, dealing with uncertainty, and not always getting one’s questions answered is a big part of dynamic treatment. Although I don’t know the nature of your question to your therapist, I imagine it would be most useful to discuss your curiosity (including what you accidentally learned, if you haven’t divulged this already), and your frustration at the unanswered question. Remember, there may be multiple reasons for a therapist not answering a personal question: not answering may help you learn more about yourself, answering may interfere with the treatment, and/or it may simply be a private matter that the therapist chooses not to share. In the end, you may find this awkward episode pivotal in your therapy. Thank you for writing.

  • Lisa

    Hi Dr. Reidbord,

    Your thoughtful consideration of both sides of the issues is much appreciated. As you highlighted in your original post, clients often find out things about our therapists that they might not like us to know about them, probably even more so in long-term therapy. I read a humorous account of a woman who accidentally saw her therapists white underwear as the therapist, who was wearing a short skirt, was shifting positions. The questions the writer was plagued with ranged from, “Did she flash me intentionially albeit subconsciously?” to “Why is she wearing white underwear?”. That brief glimpse completely changed the way she saw her therapist. I think these sort of accidental “revelations” happen more often than not and can very much interfere with the therapy.

    I ended a long-term therapeutic relationship with a therapist who was CBT trained but said he liked to use the blank slate approach. I found the non-disclosure very difficult to deal with. It was impossible for me NOT to notice things and I wasn’t always sure, like the woman who saw her therapists underwear, what to do with the information. It became increasingly harder the longer I was in therapy, to block out who this man actually was. For instance, his wedding ring came off one day. For a while, I didn’t think too much about it but did get curious and, being an attorney, I checked the court records online and did not find a divorce. I assumed his wife was dead and then was consumed with grief for him. It killed me that I couldn’t say, “I’m so sorry your wife died, ” assuming she did die.

    I understand that a spouse’s death is an incredibly painful and private event in one’s life. I’m not saying he should have told me whether or not she died. I’m just saying that it was difficult for me to deal with my feelings while not being able to talk to him about it. I honestly couldn’t wrap my head around the relationship. It seemed so inhumane sometimes. I did wind up telling him what I found because I couldn’t take the stress of having a secret anymore. I thought it was a much healthier and more honest way to do therapy – being able to communicate openly with each other. Not being able to talk about certain topics very much mirrored my childhood. Honestly, there were very few things we could talk about in my family of origin. There were many many secrets and still are amongst siblings to this day. When your family members are denying what you observe AND won’t let you talk about it, things can get a little hairy. In terms of learning new relational patterns, I am convinced that this type of therapy is harmful as it only reinforces old patterns.

    With my therapist, it felt like the information and my grief was a ball of flubber bouncing around in my head. I tried to control it and not let it interfere with my therapy but it took a lot of energy and was incredibly stressful. In any event, he was very upset that I googled him. He felt that I disrespected him because I knew he was a private person and I looked anyway. Our relationship rapidly deteriorated from there. There had been a few other issues in the months before that due to my inability to do long-term therapy that way. This was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    I’m so relieved to be done with the therapy. It really helped me a lot in some big ways but it also probably caused me harm and slowed down my progress. I now have a therapist who discloses and it works much better for me. I know what her issues were. I know that she was in therapy and I think that’s a good thing. I know she has a supervisor. My old therapist didn’t have a supervisor. I asked him to seek supervision on an issues and he refused. He said I was trying to change him.

    One last point about countertransference. My old therapist didn’t know how, being CBT trained, to use his own countertransference and that also impeded my therapy. It doesn’t seem very therapeutic or ethical or competent to invoke transference with the blank slate but NOT to work with your own countertransference. Just my opinion, but I think it should be mandatory that all therapists should receive supervision and be in therapy themselves. As an attorney, I would constantly compare the standards that attorneys are held to vs. the standards that therapists are held to and the bar is much higher for attorneys.

    I know plenty of people hate attorneys but there is a lot to be learned from the profession. Attorneys go into court and/or their work goes into court and they get judged by their peers and judges. Their work is not hidden. Not so with therapists. Also, attorneys cannot ignore, say, the rules of civil procedure just because they don’t like them. Again, not so with therapists. Basically, it appears that almost anything goes re: therapists. Therapy is much more an art right now than a science, though science is catching up finally. That being so, there should be even stricter rules and regulations re: supervision and the therapists own therapy. Plenty of people get hurt by incompetent therapists. It’s easier to pass clients off as “crazy” as opposed to the therapist just being incompetent or the field itself just not having the answers even some think they do. Sure there are plenty of incompetent attorneys. It’s just not as easy to catch a mistake that a therapist makes because the therapist is not objective about the work and the work is not open for review.

    I don’t really have a question. I just wanted to share my experience and be heard. I hope this didn’t come across as an indictment against you. The feelings reflected here are directed towards my past therapist. As I said in the beginning, I really appreciate your openmindedness and willingness to look at both sides of the issues.

    Best regards,


    • Hi Lisa,
      Dynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis encourage patients to express their thoughts and fantasies about the therapist. Noticing a therapist’s wedding ring is missing, and assuming his wife died, should trigger a discussion — not the swallowing of your fears because you can’t get a straight answer. “Liking to use the blank slate approach” without an exploration of the resulting transference is as senseless as opening a surgical patient with a scalpel, and then not doing anything useful. It’s painful and without purpose. Instead, your therapist might have wondered with you about your tendency to assume the worst — divorce or death — instead of more benign possibilities: your therapist lost the ring, or it was being cleaned or re-sized, etc. Your observation and resulting fear could have been put to good therapeutic use, to help you gain insight into your own emotional life, without your therapist having to disclose anything about his private life.

      I agree that psychotherapy is much more art than science. The problem is how to ensure quality in an encounter that is largely one personality relating to another. Even supervision and required therapy for therapists are no guarantees, although they may help. Thanks for writing.

  • Lisa

    Hi Dr. Reidbord,

    ” The problem is how to ensure quality in an encounter that is largely one personality relating to another. Even supervision and required therapy for therapists are no guarantees, although they may help. ”

    Yes, I agree there are no guarantees but it’s better than not having a supervisor at all, in my humble opinion. 🙂 Maybe in the future they will be able to tell from doing an MRI what type of therapy you need. Maybe all therapists will be required to have MRI’s themselves so it can be determined what type of client they can be certified to work with.

    There are probably many therapy clients who aren’t being well-served because they don’t know what to expect, they are relying on Hollywood images for therapy, because of the stigma attached to being in therapy and generally being reluctant to expose emotional difficulties. My last therapist told me something to illustrate and support how private he is and how it is a consistent trait throughtout other areas of his life. He told me that some people come to therapy and feel like they have to tell him everything. He rolled his eyes to indicate that he was uncomfortable with that or thought it was unnecessary. Then he said, “well, you know, I help them in the way that I can.” My first thought was, “Wow. Those poor people. They are doing what they think they should be doing in therapy and, for some reason, this man isn’t getting it, isn’t finding a way to communicate with them, isn’t interpreting their behavior correctly.” He has a thriving practice because he’s very likeable and comes across pretty much as a non-threatening human being, though very professional and educated. But I don’t know how effective he really is. He thinks highly of himself and should, based on the numbers who want his services. But it’s just not enough.

    Everybody says that therapists go to therapy to understand their own issues. But then, after that, it’s like a light bulb goes off and they think, “Oh hey, I can make a living doing this” but they haven’t necessarily sorted out their own issues. The issues that might make someone a bad lawyer or doctor are much more clearly illuminated because there are more objective standards in place. Even though it might be harder to come up with more objective standards for therapists, it’s worth the effort.

    For example, when there has been boundary crossings re: sexual activity, the harm is clear cut but other types of harm are much more ambiguous. The mental health population generally is comprised of people who have been oppressed. If there was more litigation re: poor mental health care, there might be better standards to protect clients but this population isn’t likely the one to stand up for their rights. In any event, who would want their emotional lives exposed in such a way?



  • Lisa

    Hi Dr. Reidbold,

    Just one more thought. It might be a little off topic but then again, disclosure issues (both too much and not enough) can affect therapy in a negative way. Until science catches up, states could insist that attachment assessments be done on every therapist before certification. They could also require that therapists do attachment assessments on every client as part of the initial consultation. They could prohibit avoidant therapists from working with preoccupied clients as a starter. There’s research to support that. My therapist wasn’t up to date on the attachment research though he considered himself secure. After I brought in attachment materials, etc., he realized he was more avoidant than he thought he was. Our issues collided in a very difficult way for me. My functioning declined. He was aware of it but didn’t do much about it. It went on for a long time. 🙁 I went on many consultations and every single consult said he was insensitive but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. He thought he was acting consistent with being a psychologist, he later told me. We worked out our issues for a while but eventually they became a problem again.

    During a particularly difficult period, I appealed my insurance company’s decision to deny me unlimited visits as I only had 30 visits a year. A psychologist/psychiatrist from Washington, D.C. was their consultant. His opinion was that I should have gotten all that I could have gotten out of therapy after that period of time and that I should be terminated. He also said I should be given 4 termination visits and referred out to the community. No joke: If my therapist had done that, I would have wound up in a homeless shelter.

    Interesting that the consultant never focused on the quality of the care I was receiving. Instead the problem was me.

    I AM functioning much better now, thank God, and did get some positive benefits from working with that therapist. I also learned A LOT about the brain and all the current research being done. That was very satisfying. However, I have been told it would have gone much faster if he knew what he was doing (I would have saved some money) and that I wouldn’t have suffered as much. Thank God for the smart and dedicated people out there. Can I put in a special word for Dr. Sue Elkind and Dr. Kate Hudgins here? Dr. Sue Elkind was indispensable.

  • Mohan kumar

    I am married to a lady who always sends email to her therapist and she disclose her bed room stories to her therapist. At the end she says love you, kiss you, hug you and she is very passionate and loving to the therapist. What does this mean? I am confused.? she also chat with a few other guys( her friends and Uncle etc).
    I also came to know that her parents took this lady few years ago for a counseling to this psychiatrist when her married life was falling apart. Her behavior with me is very much extra ordinary.
    can any one give me some valuable advise?

  • Elizabeth

    Over one year later and finally found the wherewithal to ask one of the questions to which I had been seeking an answer. The question was of a personal nature to my therapist. Not really sure why it finally came to be addressed so long after I had more or less (apparently, “less” was not an accurate representation since it continued to re-surface occasionally) suppressed the topic in my mind as being less than relevant to my therapy process. Interestingly, when answered now, the response is actually different than had the question actually been raised one year ago (therapist life events intervened). While the therapist agreed that it would be worthwhile to continue to discuss my concerns about having asked/answered a question that seemingly so lingered for me, other issues have been a bit more pressing (or I have allowed them to be that way). In addition, work travel for me helped to insert a much-needed break from therapy during which time I really questioned the value of continuing. After returning, just this week, I believe that I am almost intentionally taking more of an “objective” approach to our discussions. I recognize that in doing so, I am probably protecting myself from really experiencing some of the sadness that I know I have in my life (nothing overtly traumatic and certainly not anything that would ever result in self/other injurious behavior). However, as it happens, I also wonder if having the answer that I now do (albeit straight-forward only) created an area of potential commonality between the therapist and I – something that I had previously thought was missing and maybe even necessary in order for me to continue – and yet now seems to make my issues feel all the more “real” and present in my life (possibly one less barrier between therapist and I regarding disclosures/discussions on my part). Direct parallel to thinking, when younger, that I never wanted to be married because I would not have wanted to be a single parent (my father died when I was young) and yet, for non-mortal reasons, find that I am essentially on a path to single parenthood anyway. Something about having a desire/need/concern and then being afraid when that desire/need/concern is achieved, perhaps?

    I do understand if this dialogue is not one to which you can respond nor follow, given its somewhat stream of conscious presentation, although reaching out once again because have found your outlook insightful previously. If nothing else, maybe merely writing my thoughts will enhance my behavioral understanding.

  • Char

    Hi Dr. Reidbord, I’m seeing a psychologist who uses psychodynamic theropy I supose because it was listed on his website along with many other methods. I’m new to receiving counseling and reading you and your readers comments is helping me to understand more of what I’m feeling during my sessions.
    I’ve only seen him 4 times but the second visit I asked him if he was ever divorced. The reason why I asked is because I’m having marital issues and wondered if he was going to be empathetic to my present situation. He answered yes he was and went on to talk about why and what she did, pretty detailed information but I was alright with it. Then he told he he has OCD and I asked him what is that exactly. He said it’s when he has to constantly check to make sure he had turned the top burner’s off of his stove. The curious person that I am lead me to look up online more indepth as to what OCD can look like and I became very concerned because I found out there are several forms of OCD that can include sexual obsession thoughts and wanting to harm others.
    Long story short. Should I be alarmed that he disclosed this to me? And what coarse of action should I take at this point if any? I’m still learning to trust him and with knowing he could e looking across the room at me and think these thoughts about me has me feeling really nervous now.
    Thx, Char

    • Hi Char, Your story is a good lesson for therapists: it’s hard to predict the effect of disclosure. Your psychologist may have intended to put you at ease by revealing his own divorce and OCD, “we’re all the same here, no need to feel ashamed.” Yet it had the opposite effect. It’s easy for therapist disclosures to be taken the wrong way. Is the therapist trying to impress me with his fancy vacation? Cower me with her knowledge? Is he telling me to stop complaining about problems that are less severe than his own? Is this a subtle message that I should get divorced too? If disclosure is for the patient’s benefit, it’s crucial for the therapist to consider why it’s offered, and how it will sound to the patient. Revealing a diagnosis that frightens and repels is a sad miscalculation.

      Unfortunately, we can’t even assume these disclosures were for your benefit. Your therapist may have his own need to confess, to receive sympathy, etc. You may feel guilty for opening this can of worms by asking if he’d been divorced — but it isn’t your fault, especially if he was looking for any excuse to blurt it out.

      You should know that sexual and violent obsessions can occur in OCD, but they are not the most common. Fears of leaving the stove on, or a door unlocked, are more typical. People with OCD go to great lengths keeping things safe: they’re more worried about danger than others are. All the same, your therapist threw a monkey wrench into your therapy with this disclosure. I suggest you let him know that he did, then pay attention to how he handles it. If the two of you resolve it quickly and to your satisfaction, perhaps you’ll want to keep working with him. If not, you may decide that a focus on your problems, and not your therapist’s, is why you spend time and money to see one. Thanks for writing.

  • Char

    Dr. Reidbord, Thank you so much for the quick response. Just if I may give you a little more info about my situation. I think the reason he opened up so freely about his ex-wife was to let me know that she had had an affair and not him. He said he is now married. I then asked the second bold question, it just shot out of my mouth “Are you happy?” referring to his new wife. I kid you not I don’t know if I’m in a dream or not but all he did when I asked him that is he shifted his eyes to the left and paused and never answered yes or no! So I quickly started talking about anything because the moment was uncomfortable.
    What do you think I should do about this? And would you agree that it’s important that he would make sure to answer my question particularly regarding the subject matter?
    Thank you for sharing. Char

    • There are no rules about what a patient or client may ask a therapist. It’s the therapist’s job to decide whether and how to answer for the patient’s benefit. It’s hard for me to see any value in your therapist talking about who was at fault in his own divorce, nor whether he’s happy now. So no, I don’t agree he should answer your question — although you’re free to ask. Of course, even if your therapist doesn’t answer your questions, this should be done sensitively, and with curiosity about why you’re asking.

  • Consolata Ruth

    This is very informing discussion. Can someone help/guide me on how to carry out ist personal therapy for a counselor in training.

  • cristalexi

    It’s elitism and exclusivity. They do this to non-clients too, especially non-clinical colleages.

  • Yasmin


    How do I start transference conversation with my psychotherapist? I must say first, she is an amazing Trauma Specialist and I feel blessed to be in therapy with someone who does not go “there, there, yes, you are right, someone who doesn’t let me get away with silly escape plans.” I don’t think I would have any respect for her is she did that.I remember our first session. I told her that I will try and get away with not talking seriously about my issues, I will most probably be very rude and completely closed off and can she please push my boundaries and my unhealthy self-defense coping skills. She agreed and over the last 3 years she earned my almost absolute trust.

    She has never mentioned transference herself, reason most probably being my inability for self-reflection during our sessions. Multiple traumas prior to my son being born and then his traumatic death. That brought all previous traumas back to the surface, so time for self reflection is definitely replaced by constant hyper-vigilance, analyzing and over-analyzing world around me all the time, complete control of what I was allowed to say and what not. Being constantly on guard I have noticed how some of her questions came across as me, maybe seeing her as “perpetrator” or even an “observer”.

    I have been seeing her for almost 3 years, starting 2 years after my son took his own life. I have noticed, few times the way she would ask me if I felt she was letting me down by normal breaks in therapy (holidays, Christmas, Easter break etc). Her questions surprised me at the time but looking back, I must come across as “feeling let down” by others in my life when in fact I am aware I blame myself for the thing which were not my fault at all.
    The way in which she asked those question just felt strange and I would hate to start thinking she believes me to weak to discuss transference.

    To be honest, I am a little worried of bringing it up. My fear is her reaction if I mention it and her possible decision to refer me to someone else. I couldn’t start taking and going over all the trauma again with a new therapist.

    • Hi Yasmin,

      Transference is inevitable, but it’s a conscious decision to pay attention to it. Here are some things that may count as transference:
      – anticipatory disrespect for therapists who let you “get away” with avoiding your issues
      – feeling rude and completely closed off toward your therapist
      – demanding “boundary-pushing” because you assume your therapist wouldn’t naturally do this
      – assuming she doesn’t mention transference because of something about you (and not because of her own preference or comfort)
      – seeing her as a “perpetrator” or even an “observer”
      – feeling let down by holiday breaks
      – blaming yourself for your therapist’s vacations and holidays
      – imagining your therapist thinks you are too weak to discuss transference
      – fearing your therapist will reject you if you bring it up

      Some therapists work with transference all the time; some never do. Since yours asked whether she let you down by taking holiday breaks, it sounds like she is open to discussing transference. Your role in this is to keep an open mind: maybe you do feel “let down” by others, but haven’t wanted to admit it to yourself. (Many people with trauma histories blame themselves unnecessarily.) Remember, transference is traditionally defined as unconscious, i.e., feelings you don’t realize you have. A good trustworthy therapist is an excellent partner to help you learn more about these feelings. Take care.

  • Anton

    All the consternation about how much therapist disclosure is appropriate just indicates to me the impossibility of trying an engineer a human relationship. Therapists seem to think they can heal people by offering up a staged performance. The premise is that from something contrived will emerge something genuine. Transference projections seem to arise in direct proportion to how opaque and secretive the therapist is, which to my mind makes those projections dubious. I have heard from many people who were harmed psychologically by one of these relationships.

    • Anton,

      Most human relationships, particularly in business and personal services, are “engineered.” The most obvious examples include the smile from your waiter, the cheerful enthusiasm of the sales clerk, and the can-do spirit of the software coder you just hired. A little less obviously, the tired surgical nurse may not genuinely want to hear about your gas pains, but will attempt to be pleasant enough that you can speak up and get relief. The staged performance, as you put it, is what allows us to live together in a civilized fashion.

      You’re absolutely right: no therapist is being entirely natural: “Hello Ms. Jones. I’m having a tough day today, so please don’t bother me with your problems.” On the contrary, in exchange for significant sums of money, we agree to give you our undivided attention, and to listen to both the content of what you say, as well as how you say it, with a trained ear. We offer carefully phrased feedback that may help you appreciate things about yourself that are hard to see or accept. We agree to suppress any personal idiosyncratic reactions that are apt to be hurtful or distracting. We try to interact in ways that make you feel better and not worse over the long-term.

      And in the case of dynamic psychotherapy, we suppress our usual human reflex to answer direct questions. This is definitely unnatural. But as I tried to explain in the post, it’s a technique in the service of greater insight. A CBT therapist assigning homework, or a family doctor delivering a canned warning about smoking, presents an equally staged performance — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

      Opacity and secrecy aren’t always helpful. Used crudely or thoughtlessly, they can be harmful. But they are hardly unique that way. Virtually anything therapeutic can hurt if misused.

  • Beyonce


    I wish you were my therapist. Only because I think you would be able to talk about this tranference in person so we can easily get into the real nitty gritty thing about my trauma…(-: I am so happy to find your website.

    I am becoming a therapist (I just started this year). I am adult so this is my second career. One mandatory thing during my 5yrs studies is I have to in therapy myself. I am so happy about this because I never been in therapy and I love learning so I joined a group therapy led by a psychiatrist. The group therapy was amazing. So amazing that I was sure I will be a great therapist and equally important, I will learn and be more conscious of my own issues. I am even just a better person since my therapy cause I am so aware of my reaction and thoughts (of future responses and answers). I have PTSD from severe childhood trauma.

    Now this is my problem.

    My therapy works on inner child. I am happily married and did tons of work on my own (like learning about attachment theories and practicing it in the past) and changed quite bit in my long life and moved from disorganized, to avoidance, to very much earned and embedded secure attachment. So in other words, I am good at changing and also love being criticized if there is merit to it…I learned by observing others and also by being told what is wrong (and taking it into consideration). I am a good listener and attune to others reaction to me.

    My T wants me to just talk about how sad my inner child is and wants me to visualize it and feel its sadness and tell the inner child that she is safe now and should come out. I am not very good visual person. I stopped relations with my mother because of my rauma and continues denial of reality testing I did with her. She is not beating me up or pinching me or whatever, but her manipulation is still here. I am not in a relationship with my mother and this all happened before I wanted to become a therapist or seen this therapist. In short, I am so safe and at peace and happier than ever before…in all fairness, I am self-exploring because I am not spending energy fighting off my mother in my head or in person.

    How do I move from this inner child thing? I express some real feelings that I am realizing are strong and coming up now during therapy, my therapist just wants me to hold a doll and become an infant….just repeat I am safe, I love you, I am here for you to my inner child.

    I told her one time, when I visualize, I sometimes see my mom’s face, or my siblings’ full of anger, shame, fear…and I feel their energy and “identify” with my mom…cause I do not want to feel my victimhood or helplessness when I was a child. Also I cannot see my face when I visualize, I see others around me (I am very good reading faces as a result). I had a lot of anger in my adulthood (young adult) and I am no longer angry…hence why I am not in relationship with my mother. The major area of discord with my therapist is I am not angry at my mother and she wants me to be angry and also use strong words to describe her. I see no need for this feeling since I hated her already all my life and cut her off now. I am actually for the first time at peace. My mom also had her own long history very similar to mine as a child. She was bad but as human, I am done with her and hope the best for her last years on earth.

    However, I have a long trauma. I suspect I have many blind spots (maybe some are the above things). I want to explore my feelings of inferiority, transference (my therapist response are too childish for me), and my sense of worthless or not good enough, my distrust of authority…I do not find holding a doll (I am from a culture where there were no dolls so this even more silly) to be therapeutic but actually a bit more humiliating. I have no issues with vulnerability or crying in-front of people or expressing feelings.

    I do not want to challenge the doctor’s job and I find the group very helpful but how do I tell her…no doll, I am better closing my eyes and breathing, and I need serious adult response not silly childish response (as if I do not know that)’n. Example, a response to my feeling I take space and time away from people including the therapist was well you pay the session so I should not feel that way! What! I know that…but…you see my point.

    It has been only few months.
    I stayed knowing my full resistance to her and I intended to further challenge my resistance but I am feeling I may become one of those clients that just leaves…no more contact.

    I want her to challenge me not to talk to me like I am a child. I know every answer she gave me so far and just shake my head (inside) thinking wow she really thinks I do not that..this is waste of my life. The inner child is the driver but yet, I am very responsible and do not have Id tendencies that are barrier in my life such as overeating or shopping or any self harming issues.

    I am also curious about my reaction and resistance to her and want to know more so I can be a good therapist in the future to help others and to get to the bottom of this.

    How do I talk to her about transference and why is this my job? Should not a therapist bring this up in the first place?

    What do you think?

    • No style of therapy is good for everyone. The “inner child” work you describe may help patients develop compassion for the child they once were, or gain more awareness of their childhood feelings. It sounds like this isn’t a good fit for you. Also, a patient or client should be comfortable with the basic approach of any therapy she tries, whether dynamic, cognitive, trauma based, somatic, or anything else. If a therapist suggests you hold a doll — or share your dreams, or keep thought records in a notebook, or scream into a pillow — it is your decision whether to try it or not. And if you have tried it, you are free to decide you want to stop — because it isn’t helpful, or for any other reason.

      While most therapists are flexible enough to adjust their emphasis somewhat depending on the patient, we all have our preferred style. A therapist who repeatedly insists that you “hold a doll and become an infant” despite your obvious discomfort is not flexible enough to work with you. Therapists also vary in how much attention they pay to transference, from none to a great deal. You will probably find it more satisfying to work with a therapist who shares your interest in transference and self-image.

      I published your long comment without editing it, as I think it will interest other readers (and you state it very well). However, I want to remind everyone that this public forum is not a good place to share very specific personal matters. You sent another comment with more personal details that I am not printing, at least for now. Thanks for writing.

  • Laker

    Very good read. I have been seeing a new therapist. I have been giving him the third degree lately…..who am I kidding, probably still will for a while. Much to my frustration he is not giving up much. He asked my why I was asking the endless questions from different angles and I thought about it and responded “guess I needed to know your boundaries and hot buttons so I don’t accidentally get you angry and then you toss me out of here.” From someone with an extensive trauma background it now makes sense. Hopefully I can let my guard down sooner rather than later, therapy is too expensive to waste time doing the chicken dance. Great article…..have an awesome day!

  • […] 1) I, like many people, have an external picture I present to the world.  And moreover, since my work has been as a Registered Psychotherapist, it also gave me a professional reason, or some may say, a responsibility, to not have much of myself and the person behind the psychotherapist “out there”.  (If you’re curious to learn more about the clinical reasons behind this, this may be of interest: Therapy disclosure: Why all the secrecy?) […]

  • Tereza

    Dear Dr. Reidbord, I have a question. Is transference approach considered to be evidence based medicine? Were there interventional clinical trials completed to support ist effectivness in all diagnoses where it is used ?
    Thank you, Tereza

    • Hi Tereza,

      There is a short answer and a long answer to your question. The short answer: open-ended psychodynamic psychotherapy, where transference is a tool of treatment, is not considered EBM. Therapists who practice CBT and related approaches call them “evidence based treatment” in order to contrast them with the psychoanalytic/psychodynamic approach.

      The longer answer: this is misleading. First, a large literature, including interventional clinical trials, supports the effectiveness of transference-based dynamic approaches. A good overview of this literature can be found in Jonathan Shedler’s 2010 review article. As Shedler notes, while a greater number of studies provide empirical support for cognitive approaches, often the effect size, i.e., the degree of improvement, is greater with dynamic approaches.

      A more subtle point is that dynamic psychotherapy is often not aimed to treat a diagnosis. There is no diagnosis for a person who repeatedly sabotages his own romantic relationships, or who limits herself professionally when there is no external explanation. It is harder to measure and study these problems, and whatever improvement results from treatment. Also, many personality difficulties do not fit neatly into one diagnostic category, and thus cannot be studied in a clinical trial. Surveys of patients show broad satisfaction with the results of dynamic and other types of psychotherapy, but this isn’t considered strong “evidence.” Some authors have argued that randomized controlled trials, as valuable as they are, should not be the sole standard for EBM. Thank you for writing.

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