The decision to self-disclose is a highly personal one, and should only be done to the client’s benefit and clinician’s comfort and safety. While there are major benefits to doing so, there are ramifications to be aware of as well.
Here are my beliefs on the advantages, downsides, and best practices for self-disclosing your identity as a member of the queer community to clients:
Possible benefits of disclosing your queer identity
When done at the right time and for the right reasons, sharing your queer identity to clients can have a positive impact on the client's perception of themselves.
Disclosing can help normalize the client’s perception of their sexual identity
A well-analyzed therapist has spent time and effort examining their sexuality from various angles. As a result, they will likely be able to help normalize the reconciliation of one’s (possibly) ambivalent feelings about sex and sexuality in a way that a therapist who has not had to struggle through this type of experience could not speak to.
This is not to say that an LGBT+ individual should see an LGBT+ therapist. In fact, there could be much benefit to speaking about feelings connected to identity with a person who does not identify in this way, as it could push the client to understand perspectives outside of their own. After all, cognitive flexibility is the foundation of mental health.
However, it is important that an LGBT+ individual hear a different rhetoric from what they’ve been taught by society – that is, that they are an "outlier" and, in some ways, have less value than others. An LGBT+ therapist personally knows the importance of hearing that message and will likely overtly and covertly state it from the onset of therapy as a result of their personal experiences.
You may be able to provide inspiration as a mentally healthy member of the community
One thing that is common among young LGBT+ folks is a lack of role models. Cognitive behavioral research has taught us about the importance of parents in modeling behavior that will shape us in numerous ways.
Often, young LGBT+ individuals do not have models to turn to – and often end up shaped by their relationships, and not always in a positive way.
Seeing a therapist who identifies as LGBTQ and who is able to model mental health can be remarkably beneficial for a person whose models may not have identified with the internal, familial, and societal struggles that come along with being a member of the community.
While it should never be a goal for a therapist to be placed on a pedestal by their clients, realistically it does happen. It is our responsibility as therapists to use even this type of situation to benefit our clients, and not allow it to feed our own egos.
Possible ramifications of disclosing your queer identity
Although there are benefits to self-disclosing, there are also potential hazards to be aware of. These include:
Presumed similarity, based on shared sexual identity
One thing that can be somewhat misconstrued is that sexuality is at the top of how identity and personality are constructed. While sexuality is undoubtedly important in shaping who we are, there are other things that we might not even realize that impacts who we are more.
An example that comes to mind is socio-economic status (SES), a topic that often both therapist and client are uncomfortable discussing. Our SES can impact not only the way we interact with the world, but also our sense of security as we live. Sexual orientation is only one factor that impacts our development, and there can be a danger in both therapist and client as viewing the other as too similar.
In short, we don’t want to lose focus on the multitude of factors that can impact who we are, and how we are interacting with the world around us.
Loss of mystique and reduced power of the “blank slate”
I had a professor and supervisor during my graduate training who compared being a therapist to being an actor, and spoke about the importance of client’s needing to be able to project onto you. Therapists are human, and want to be seen as they see themselves, and struggle with the notion of being seen in a way antithetical to that.
However, it is important that we allow clients to project onto us, for this is where their difficulties lie.
When we give too much self-disclosure, it diminishes their ability to do this. It is not taking away completely, because now their projections/assumptions will be somewhat based in facts given to them.
Unfortunately, we never know what might have come up for them if they didn’t have the information we gave them. Being a proverbial blank slate is impossible. We self-disclose in everything that we do and don’t do as well as what we say and don’t say, but we should strive to offer as much of a blank slate to our clients to see what might come out of it for them.
When to self-disclose or confirm your orientation
Do disclose if you feel comfortable
We should self-disclose only when we feel comfortable doing so. If it is a topic that you do not want to become grist for the mill within therapy, then it is best to avoid it.
If your client asks you about your orientation, consider discussing their reason for asking
I do not volunteer my sexual orientation to clients, but I do always answer honestly when asked. However, there is a caveat: Before they get an answer, we discuss their reason for asking – and what it brings up for them as well as their assumptions.
When to avoid self-disclosure
Do not disclose as a way to build rapport with your client
Doing so shows discomfort on the part of the therapist, and highlights that they are looking for perceived similarities in an effort to establish a relationship.
Perceived similarities is something that friendships are grounded in. The relationship between client and therapist is not a friendship and therefore cannot be grounded in the same way.
Yes, we are friendly with our clients – but we are not their friends, and should not seek to be. We want our clients to establish friendships outside of a therapeutic setting that they can have access to more than once a week.
How to steer the self-disclosure conversation – so as not to shift the focus towards yourself
At every point, ask yourself why you’re choosing to disclose
As a therapist, you should for the most part be aware of the choices you are making when speaking with a client. This includes decisions to follow down a path of questioning, or focusing on one topic as opposed to another.
This is especially important when talking about sexuality: Does the client need to or even want to hear about my experiences, struggles, triumphs? Self-disclosure should always be done in the service of that particular client at that particular moment in time, and is not something to simply be blanketed across everyone we meet with.
When disclosing, avoid client avoidance
Often, there are clients who are uncomfortable focusing on themselves, and will use your self-disclosure as a method to avoid talking about themselves.
In a non-confrontational and non-judgmental manner, you can talk about the importance of them being able to have time to focus on themselves and reminding them that therapy is their time to do so.
At the end of the day, disclosing whether you identify as a member of the LGBTQ community is like any other self-disclosure
And it should be treated in the same way. First and foremost, ask yourself: Who does this information serve? Is this for the betterment of my client, or is this connected to my own needs?
And like any other self-disclosure, if you do not feel comfortable sharing it, then don’t do it. You can model to your clients the importance of boundaries by not disclosing information you are not ready to share. It can teach them that they too need to be able to speak about their own disclosures at a pace that feels safe, both with you and with others.