In my last post addressing mental health stigma, I mentioned that I have become more comfortable over time disclosing to others that I have attended therapy. However, as I mentioned in that post, being vulnerable takes strength and courage. There are many times where it may not be appropriate or healthy to be vulnerable with others. Over the years, I have developed a litmus test for deciding when to share. I ask myself three questions: Did the opportunity present itself organically? Do I feel safe? and Does it seem appropriate? Regardless of whether I am talking to a client, friend, or colleague; when I feel pulled to share a part of my story, I will ask myself these three questions.
Did the opportunity present itself organically? The first question relates to the context of the conversation. While I am a mental health advocate, I want to be sensitive to others and be careful of oversharing. I don’t introduce myself by saying “Hi, I’m Amanda and I’ve been to therapy.” Not the best conversation starter. As a therapist, I have had many interesting reactions when disclosing my occupation to others and it is important to me to minimize people’s discomfort when engaging in small talk. I am aware that many people are afraid that I might be analyzing them during our conversation or that I might somehow force them to cry in the middle of a party. In the cases when someone seems intimidated or uncomfortable, I typically will try to make light of the situation by making a joke. Another reaction I have often received when disclosing that I am a therapist is for the person to want me to be their therapist for the duration of the conversation. This would also be a situation in which I would be hesitant to share further information for fear that it might encourage them to continue sharing! However, there are times when talking to others that personal topics arise in a natural way and this will lead me to ask myself the second question.
Do I feel safe? This question has to do with risk. Anytime we share something personal about ourselves, we are taking a risk. It is important that I take healthy emotional risks with people who are trustworthy and who will honor my willingness to open up. This question has a lot to do with my own story and with my gut reactions. Are there things about this situation or this person that set off red flags for me? If I don’t get the reaction I expect or want, what might the consequences be? This question has come with a lot of trial and error over the years. Sometimes people do not react in ways that we want or expect. However, over time and with practice, it has become easier for me to predict which situations present the opportunity for a healthy risk.
Does it seem appropriate? The final question focuses on the broader context of the relationship. Within the context of this relationship, does it seem appropriate for me to share this information about myself? The type of relationship I have with someone impacts what is appropriate to share with them. Some relationships, such as the therapeutic relationship, have power differentials in them. When I am the therapist, I am the person in the room with the greatest power. Therefore, the responsibility falls to me to set healthy boundaries. It is also my responsibility to ensure that whatever I share in the therapy room is in the best interest of the client. When I am talking to a friend, I can be more open because the power is more equally balanced. When I am sitting in the client’s chair talking to my therapist, I can be even more transparent because they hold the power and all of the responsibility that comes with it.
It is impossible to predict the outcomes of healthy risk-taking in relationships. I hope by sharing my litmus test with you, it will help in your decision-making process. What is your process for deciding on healthy risk-taking? I welcome your feedback and questions.