If you’re in therapy, you may want to know more about your therapist than they will to share. That can feel weird and frustrating. After all, you’re divulging your deepest feelings and, unlike in your other relationships, it doesn’t go both ways. Plus, you’re putting a lot of faith in the process– it’s natural that you’d be curious about your therapist, especially in the beginning before you’ve developed your own sense of your their personality and trustworthiness.
You’re always entitled to ask (and should!) about your therapist’s professional credentials. Facts like where and when they earned their degree/s, where they trained later, and whether or not they have had ethical complaints lodged against them are fair game. But competent, ethical therapists tend to stay mainly mum when it comes to their personal lives. Often they won’t answer questions about such things as relationship status, religion, political affiliation, or whether or not they have kids.
Why so stingy with the 411?
The answer is that too much information about your therapist will get in the way of your treatment. A therapist’s neutrality allows for the emergence of your transferences–negative feelings originating in your past that color the way you view things in the present and trip you up in unhelpful ways. Your therapist’s neutrality also allows you to explore these feelings more easily than if they were muddied up by your therapist’s actual traits and points of view. Your relationship with your therapist is like a controlled, concentrated version of all your relationships past and present, and you can learn a lot about yourself by studying it.
So will your therapist be like the caricature of the Freudian blank slate- cold and unresponsive? Not if they’re any good. Therapy is a real relationship and many principles of ordinary relating apply. Your therapist should be a professionally restrained version of their authentic self. If you land your dream job, your therapist should be congratulatory. If you become ill, they should express supportive concern. If you make a joke, they should laugh (assuming it’s funny and not emotionally out of synch with the moment– in which case it would be something to explore and understand). And there is significant gray area. Once they really know you (and if a situation calls for it), most therapists will occasionally offer opinions, give advice, or even share an anecdote from their personal lives. There will be variation relating to a given therapist’s personal style and theoretical orientation. The point is that good clincians don’t wing it– they have a set of guiding principles based on solid thinking about what constitutes effective, client-focused treatment. If they depart from their ordinary ways of working, they do so thoughtfully and because they think it makes sense for you in a given situation. For example, if you’ve recently lost someone important to you, your therapist might choose to tell you the destination of her two-week vacation– so you won’t feel too anxious about the separation.
What if you learn personal information about your therapist accidentally– say, by running into them and their family at the movies? Life happens. Your therapist should nod politely and move on. So should you.
These days, maintaining personal boundaries is tougher and more complicated then ever. The internet is ruthless; it doesn’t give a hoot about anyone’s privacy– even when the stakes are high. And, like all of us, you’re a curious human. If you’ve trolled the internet to see how much your therapist’s house is worth, you’re hardly the first. But therapists have an ethical responsible to be careful about how they conduct their cyber lives. They should keep their personal social media accounts private, and refrain from posting most non-professional ideas on other sites. Like the the child who naturally wants to know what’s going on behind their parents’ bedroom door, you’re entitled to be protected from your own curiosity by a helping professional who sets appropriate boundaries.
Finally, and this is important: Therapy should never feel like small talk. And it’s about you, NOT your therapist. If you ever feel your therapist is oversharing, wasting your therapy time on chit chat (especially about their own life), or if you ever begin to feel that your therapist wants to be your friend, these are big red flags. Discuss about your discomfort with your therapist; don’t worry about hurting their feelings. They should own these issues and endeavor to think about why they’ve fallen out of their professional orbit. But if they become defenseve, if they say something like “this is just my style” or try to interpret your concerns (in other, words, imply there is something wrong with you), consider getting a consultation with another therapist.
Remember: Therapy is an intensely interpersonal process. But it’s a service, and you are the consumer. That means your therapist works for you, and, ultimately, you are in the driver’s seat.