The therapeutic relationship is inherently unbalanced. Over time, the client shares their thoughts, feelings, joys and fears, without hearing the same from the person sitting across from them. It’s natural to wonder about your therapist, whether you’re curious about their background, approach, opinion, or just how they’re doing that day.
“We are relational creatures,” says F. Diane Barth, LCSW, a New York-based therapist. “It makes perfect sense for a person to ask questions of someone with whom they are going to share their intimacy.”
The short answer to the question is: Yes. If you have a question, you should ask. Your questions are valid and likely relevant to the therapeutic process. (Obviously inappropriate questions are of course another story.) The therapist may or may not answer the question, but they will explore its meaning with you.
In the past, a therapist’s response could match their modality. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic approaches historically involved minimal therapist disclosure—a blank slate—so that the client projected their thoughts and emotions without interference. The development of new approaches, such as humanistic therapy, has encouraged a more dynamic relationship between therapist and patient. Thus, a therapist’s approach to self-disclosure may differ depending on the modality, their individual personality, and philosophy.
“Will you be able to understand me?
The most common questions therapists receive relate to experiences relevant to why the client is seeking therapy. For example, a parent struggling with their children may ask if a therapist has children. A client with an eating disorder or addiction may ask if the therapist has dealt with the same condition. These questions relate to relationships, families, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and physical and mental illness.
The common theme running through these questions is: Will you be able to understand me? Will you be able to help me? These are valid and important questions. You deserve to understand how the therapy you pay for will work.
Therapists answer these questions in different ways. Many will answer directly; they will share, for example, if they have children or if they have been married or divorced. Some won’t answer directly, but they will explore why you are asking the question. They may say, “Why do you ask? or “Are you afraid that I don’t understand what you are struggling with?” Tell me about that.
“These questions have valid motivation,” Barth says. “Sometimes just recognizing that it’s a valid motivation is all the person wants.”
What follows will depend on the client and the therapist, says Jen Henretty, Ph.D., a Virginia-based psychologist. They will likely discuss the question and the answer and then move on. Or, they may conclude that a different therapist would be a better fit. A therapist will sometimes refer the client to another professional with relevant experience.
Other personal issues involve the desire to understand the therapist and maintain a human connection. For example, a patient might ask, “What was your experience with the pandemic?” or simply, “How are you today?” These questions are also valid and entirely acceptable (although patients should not feel pressured to do so). In response, many therapists will respond directly, have a moment of connection, and then return the conversation to the client. However, if the client continually asks questions about the therapist in session, the therapist may want to explore this tendency – is the patient used to being a caregiver? Do they have trouble expressing their own needs?
Another type of question is to deflect discomfort, Barth says. A patient may ask the therapist a question at an uncomfortable point in the conversation. Maybe self-examination scares them, or maybe they feel vulnerable and want the therapist to feel the same way, Barth says. The therapist can explore the client’s motivation and address their underlying concerns.
The last category includes miscellaneous requests unrelated to processing. A client may ask where a therapist is going on vacation if they will be out of the office. A well-meaning patient asked Henretty if she was single because they wanted to set her up with someone.
A good therapist will be careful about self-disclosure; they will only share what they think is important to help the customer. “Any self-disclosure by a therapist should be deliberate,” says Henretty. “Some research shows that therapist self-disclosure is something patients remember best.” On the other hand, if the therapist answers the question and remains self-focused for a substantial period of time, that would be a red flag.
The point to remember is to ask – if the question is important to you, the therapist wants to know. And if you’re nervous, your therapist is there to help. “It’s not up to the client to determine what is appropriate. The therapist should help to understand what those boundaries are,” says Henretty.
These questions can even boost your progress. Henretty remembers a client early in her career, a young man she saw at a college counseling center. Henretty remembers looking at her and saying, “I’m sure you have no problem with time management and can’t figure it out, can you?” Back then, there was more of an unspoken rule that therapists don’t divulge, period. But she said, “Yeah, time management is an issue for me too.” He acknowledged that she understood and he began to open up.
“If I had said, ‘Why are you asking?’ I may have missed an opportunity to communicate with him,” says Henretty. “It paved the way for him to talk about more uncomfortable things. It’s like, ‘OK, she’s human.’
To find a therapist, visit Psychology Today’s Directory of Therapies.
LinkedIn image: Photoroyalty/Shutterstock