When You Disclose Too Much in Therapy
A normal part of the psychotherapy process is something therapists call “disclosure.” This is simply your telling the therapist your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, which is a normal process of most types of psychotherapy. Sometimes, though, we have thoughts or feelings which are very near and dear to our hearts, or feelings or experiences that we are deeply embarrassed about. When we share such experiences or feelings in therapy, we might feel like we have “disclosed too much.” And once you let the cat out of the proverbial bag, it’s hard to know how to continue on in the therapeutic relationship.
Disclosing “too much,” however, is not that uncommon an experience. The psychotherapy relationship is an odd one, the kind of relationship that you don’t find elsewhere in everyday life. It’s intimate like your close relationships with a romantic partner, but also professional, like the relationship you might have with your accountant or lawyer. Therapists, in fact, emphasize the professional aspect of the relationship and its professional boundaries. But in what other kind of professional relationship do you talk about everything that makes us uniquely human — our emotions, our thoughts, our reactions to others?
In that context, it’s no wonder that sometimes when we’re in therapy, we cross over that imaginary line we’ve drawn in our minds, and talk about a subject we hadn’t meant to bring up. The very situation we’re in draws out such experiences, in fact, actively encourages us to speak about them. Even when we’re not ready to.
The first instinct many people have after they’ve said more than they wanted to in therapy is to try and take it back, to “undo” what was said. A good therapist who is truly listening to you might realize you’ve just made a greater disclosure than you intended, and will help you process why you feel the way you do. You may, for instance, immediately ask to end the session, or give some other sign that something just happened that has made you feel very uncomfortable.
Try to resist the temptation to “take it back.” Instead, think about why you’re feeling so anxious about having it “out there” in your session and having your therapist now know this piece of information. Talk about the anxiety to your therapist and hopefully they will help you work through the anxiety you’re feeling, which may help dissipate it (or at least reduce it).
A second common instinct about overdisclosure is to try and minimize the meaning or weight of what was said. Resist this temptation, too. This is our selves trying to protect our self-esteem and ego, often simply trying to minimize the embarrassment. If you dismiss the importance or meaning of what was said, you may convince your therapist, who will never broach the topic again. While this insulates you from the embarrassment you felt in the short term, in the long term it may hurt your ability to talk about this or related important issues.
Plus, you’ve learned you can “pull one over” on your therapist and have him or her be none the wiser. If you can do it once, you can do it in the future anytime any type of topic comes up that makes you the least bit uncomfortable or anxious to talk about. Psychotherapy is about change, and nearly all change in life involves some anxiety and uncomfortableness. If you’ve discovered a way to prevent that, you may have also discovered a way to successfully sabotage your own therapy.
A third instinct is to grit your teeth and bear it through your current therapy session, and then never go back to your therapist. Some people actually do this. Or they’ll return the following week and never speak of it again. When the therapist brings it up, they’ll dismiss it out-of-hand as though someone else said it, or it happened to someone else.
This is nothing more than running away from the problem. And while it may work in the short term, it’s not the best way to handle an uncomfortable situation long-term. People certainly use it as a coping strategy, but then it means they miss out on anything in life the moment it becomes a little too much for them to take. They simply walk away.
Disclosing too much in therapy can be uncomfortable as heck. But it can also open the door to delving into deeper issues, or things that you just needed to talk about but couldn’t figure out a way of bringing them up. While immediately, you may feel overwhelming feelings of embarrassment or having said too much, usually with a good night’s sleep and talking about the disclosure itself with your therapist, you can move past those initial, automatic negative feelings.
The key to moving beyond too much disclosure in therapy is to stay in therapy and to talk about the disclosure itself with your therapist. Directly and upfront, as soon as possible. Even if it’s not in the same session, maybe you need a week to regroup and find some peace with it. These might sound like impossible, Herculean tasks, but in most cases, doing so will result in a better and healthier therapeutic outcome for you.
Grohol, J. (2009). When You Disclose Too Much in Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/04/28/when-you-disclose-too-much-in-therapy/