Blank Slate vs. Self-Disclosure and Being a Hippie Therapist

by Monica Ross

It feels like a bit of an odd thing as a psychotherapist to come up with posts for your business page on facebook. Some might ask, why are your posts so jump from a post about Alan Watts to a clip of an indie film to a poem by Lemony Snickett? My immediate answer to questions like this is, Why not? Refer to earlier blog post on coloring outside the lines. Some might ask, as a therapist, aren’t you concerned about putting yourself out there too much or about possibly saying something that would turn a potential client off? Aren’t you supposed to be a blank slate?

Let’s go back a little bit to where the term blank slate started. Blank slate or tabula rasa comes from the idea that we are all essentially born a blank slate and that all of our knowledge comes form our experiences. It falls on the “nurture” side of the “nature vs nurture” debate, in other words are we a product of our genes or our experiences?

I remember sitting in class as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin and first learning about this concept in health class. It takes me back to that very building on campus. So, yes, John Locke, tabula rasa, blank slate. Why does the topic of blank slate come up with psychology and psychotherapy?

Well, as counselors we learn about something called self-disclosure as part of our training. In school, we are typically encouraged to watch out for such things. Why? Well it could get complicated. The roots of the problematic nature of self-disclosure go all the way back to the grandfather of psychology Mr. Sigmund Freud himself.

Non self-disclosure gets heavy emphasis in the modality of therapy known as psychoanalysis. In that mode of therapy, the therapist or psychoanalyst is sort of a blank slate.  The client or “patient” as clients are often referred to in psychoanalysis don’t even face their therapists in the therapy session.

The clients know next to nothing about their psychoanalyst.  They look the opposite direction as they talk about their problems. Psychoanalysis was one of the earliest forms of psychotherapy and it is still practiced today.

Enter humanistic psychology, which came about much later. I posted about that the other day. Humanists are more relaxed about this stuff. They even think that perhaps revealing parts of ourselves as therapists could potentially be beneficial for our clients.

Why? Well for one, it helps us to gain trust. It helps us to help others to open themselves up as this New York Times article parts out.   The article goes on to talk about balance. I will have to say that in the therapy session itself rarely do I reveal personal information about myself, only just occasionally, and only where I see that it may be beneficial to my client in some way.

Outside of the therapy room, I feel like it’s okay just to simply be who I am out in the world. I don’t know how I could have come out of the life that I have led growing up and not somehow have ended up more on the humanist side of things. It’s just my style.

When I post things on my business page, I try to stick with subject matter that is of interest to me and may be of interest to others. On my business page I try to post things that are educational, inspirational, promotional, and personal. My posts have to do with life in general, with art, with music, with humor, with film, with poetry, with nutrition, with topics that have to do with embracing life and being human in all its forms.

It does at times feel like walking a tightrope. Of course I wouldn’t want to offend anyone or turn anyone away. I’m not saying that I have all the answers in terms of how therapists should be using social media.

I’m just following my intuition with this and trying to be creative. There is a part of me that is interested in all of these things--the blending of technology and social media with psychology. I want for it to work. And I don’t want to offer post after post about an interesting article in Psychology Today or the Huffington Post.

It just seems a little didactic to me and a in a way impersonal to do that.  From what I’ve read, those articles aren’t often easily absorbed because people on social media tend often to not take the time to stop and read them, so I do post about them but I use them sparingly.

Someone might ask, what if in using this approach and revealing more of your interests, you lose clients? Ah, now there’s a very valid question. By putting myself out there in a such a way, I may potentially be losing clients.

What if someone reads something that they then take in the wrong way or that leads somehow to a lawsuit? Or what if a client or anyone really abuses the purpose of the business page by posting comments that are either derogatory on the one hand or over flattering on the other? I guess all of that could happen and I guess I would deal with it when it did.

It’s not going to stop me from trying to carve out this path and to stop what I’m doing at this point certainly would be to live in fear of the unknown in a way. As I said earlier, I try not worry so much about all that stuff. As a young clinician, I’m sure I’ll come across CEU opportunities where I’ll learn more about the legal aspects of it all. I haven’t done that yet, or only in a limited fashion.

Where it gets murky and where I think people worry is they may not want to go to a therapist whose beliefs and values are different from their own. And when you put yourself out there in these venues, for instance by writing on your blog or through social media, you are in way putting your beliefs and values out there in subtle sometimes form.

Why might someone not what to go to a therapist whose beliefs and values are different from their own? I think in part because there is this general belief in popular culture that you go to a therapist in order to get advice. And why would anyone want to get advice from a therapist whose beliefs or values are so radically different from their own?

How could that client come to respect the therapist’s advice? But listen closely because this is very important--therapists don’t give advice. Or at least, we’re not supposed to be doing that. That is rule #1 of being a therapist.  That's the first thing we are taught.

This is important because it enables us to be a therapist who is a Christian for instance and see a client who is an atheist. This is supposed to work because being a therapist in a way is practicing to some degree a universal or socially acceptable set of beliefs and values that cross all religions, all cultures, all institutional practices, etc.

It enables me as a gay therapist for instance to treat someone who may believe that homosexuality is a sin. That is the theory anyway. What do therapists do if they feel that their set of beliefs and values may interfere with their ability to treat someone whose beliefs and values are different from their own? They refer their client to a therapist who would feel more comfortable in treating that client.

A good therapist should be able to navigate those things in session, navigate the ability to counsel someone who might be very different from themselves, and if not, to have the sense to refer that person to someone who can adequately treat them.

That is the beauty of therapy. We listen for what is important to the client and encourage that person to follow that thing, that set of values whatever those values are up and to the point where those values perhaps tip into the territory of not being healthy in some way. With all of this confusion out there about what therapy is about, yeah potentially I could lose clients.

These clients that were seeing me before that knew absolutely nothing about me will now get a sense of who I am--about my likes and dislikes, about my tastes in life by what I post.  They can get a sense of that as well by going to my Psychology Today profile, clicking on a few links, and coming to this very page where I’m talking about all of this stuff. I’ve decided to be at peace with all that and to keep heading this direction.

There will still be those who come into my office who know nothing about me and have no interest in knowing anything really. That’s perfectly okay too. I’m shaping and defining myself as a therapist everyday and for me this writing and posting on social media stuff is part of that process.

I wonder at times if I have former professors or colleagues who are reading any of this stuff I’m posting. I wonder are any of them rolling their eyes at any of this and would they stick with a more traditional stance and avoid all this blogging and social media crap? I’m okay with the answer to that. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you will be criticized anyway. –Eleanor Roosevelt

Here is a link to a rundown of five broad categories of basic therapeutic approaches and orientation styles. I’m a bit of cognitive and a bit of humanistic and bit of holistic therapist as mentioned earlier.  If by reading the word holistic you read "hippie" I guess I'm okay with that.  I do feel a bit of a hippie even though I don't always dress like one. ;)