May I Ask You a Question?

Leo, one of my cats, has no problem with questions of any kind. But in therapy personal disclosure is a common issue in  therapy as patients wonder if it is intrusive to ask the therapist personal questions and  therapists wonder how much to disclose. I have never found this to be an especially difficult issue. Taking a page from an early supervisor, I tell patients early in our work that they should feel free to ask any questions that they like of me. I tell them I will answer any that I feel comfortable with *and* that I think it  is also important that we consider what the question is about for them. What is happening, what are they feeling that gives rise to this question today? Very rarely has anyone asked anything that felt intrusive or that I felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t answer. 

But this issue touches into boundaries and the frame of therapy and needs to be handled thoughtfully rather than automatically.

Years ago, when I was trying to sort out just what was the nature of my relationship with my analyst and wishing that I could know that we would or could be friends when our work was over, he told me that he considered the analytic relationship to be very personal, as personal as any. That puzzled me because I knew the boundaries — we wouldn’t have dinner together or any of the kinds of things that friends do. Yet the relationship was very close. Therapeutic relationships occupy their own niche — neither friendship nor distantly professional, but a space which is both intimate and follows its own etiquette. And because it is different, an intimate relationship yet not mutually disclosing, it can be difficult to understand the boundaries.

The therapist is not the subject of the therapy and that is one reason that there may be some reluctance to answer personal questions. Not because there is something to be hidden but because focusing on the therapist’s life means turning away from that of the patient, thus it can be a resistance, this wanting to ask questions. Or the desire may rise from ordinary curiosity. This is why it is useful to consider what underlies the desire to know. It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship is not like any other and that one of the goals of depth therapy is to make the unconscious conscious.

“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. ”
-C.G. Jung

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