Many years ago, while studying with one of my teachers, our group was discussing the appropriateness of self-disclosure in yoga classes and to our students in general. Some people in the group felt that self-disclosure wasn’t appropriate at all, and that conversation should be kept professional and focused on the students and the practice. Many of us, myself included, disagreed. We thought that self-disclosure on the part of the helping/teaching professional, when used appropriately, had the potential to be important part of the process. When used effectively, self-disclosure could help to build connection, create safety, and add depth to an experience.
There are certainly times when self-disclosure is not appropriate, such as when the sharing becomes focused on the helping professional, and detracts from the students/clients own experience. One way I often gauge for myself whether self-disclosure might be appropriate, is I ask myself “why am I considering sharing a piece of my own experience?”. If the answer is for personal reasons such as simply wanting to tell my own story, or to somehow make myself feeling better, gain sympathy, or from a desire to be seen in a certain way by the other, then I can be sure that self-disclosure is not appropriate. In those instances, the best thing I can do is to shelve my own story and stay present to the students/clients experience.
If, however, the desire to self-disclose is coming from a place of wanting to normalize someone else’s experience, provide validation, show empathy or compassion, build connection or strengthen the relationship, then I might be more likely to consider it. Further questions I ask myself are, “will my self-disclosure put my students or clients in a position of feeling like they need to take care of me?”, “Will my self-disclosure take the focus off of them?”. If my situation is unresolved, or I still feel very emotional about sharing it, that might be an indication that I am not ready to share it just yet and that it may not serve my students/clients in the way I am hoping.
The same teacher I mentioned above, once offered a wonderful way to help check whether self-disclosure was appropriate. She taught that in Alcoholics Anonymous one of their purposes is to share three things—experience, strength, and hope. I remember my teacher suggesting that unless we had all three of these that we probably weren’t ready to share publicly. First, we need to have the experience—an understanding of something on a personal level and to have somehow touched it directly with our own knowing. Second, we need to have strength about the situation or the teaching—meaning that we have lived through it and in some way become stronger from having had the experience. Third, that we need to have hope for the future. Ideally, our experience and the strength we have gained from it somehow inspire us to move forward in a different way, and with hope for new possibilities.
At the end of the day, I believe the choice to self-disclose as a professional in a helping role is a personal one. Self-disclosure is not a black and white issue. It is complex and requires ongoing self-reflection as part of any therapeutic process—whether you are a yoga teacher, therapist, or any other helping professional. What might be appropriate for one person, may not be appropriate for another. And similarly, what might be helpful for one student/client to hear, may not be helpful for another. Like anything we do as teachers, therapists or helping professionals, ultimately, we must use our best judgment and learn from our mistakes.
When we are uncertain, the best practice might be to say nothing, and later on request support from a mentor, teacher, or our own therapist to review the situation. Although self-disclosure might create a number of concerns to be navigated, my experience is that when it is done appropriately it can make a tremendous difference.
Founder of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers, says that “what is most personal is most universal”. Offering a piece our own experience as a way to connect, normalize, validate, build hope, and create safety is one tool in a very large toolbox of any helping profession. And like any tool, it must be right for both the user and the person on the receiving end, as well as appropriate to the situation and context. Like any intervention in any therapeutic process, it takes time to build our skills and experience in such a way that we can make sound judgment calls that lead to good results. Even the most experienced helping professionals make mistakes, but it is our humanness that creates both the space for these mistakes to arise, as well as allows us to do the work that we do.
As all helping professionals know, we give a lot of ourselves. We don’t do this work for the money or the prestige, we do it because we love it and have a genuine desire to help. Our humanity, our willingness to take down our walls and serve from our hearts, our capacity to be real with our students/clients is what allows the people we are serving to feel seen and understood.
The paradox is that by opening our hearts, we also make ourselves vulnerable. The same human qualities that allow for connection also make us susceptible to making mistakes. If we are to stay on this path with both our passion for this work and our integrity intact, we must be willing to be honest with ourselves. We must endeavour to engage in ongoing self-reflection, learn from our mistakes, apologize as necessary, take risks, practice self-compassion, and offer forgiveness to ourselves.
The path of service is a humbling one. If we truly want to be of service to others, then there is no escaping ourselves. If we truly desire to be of service in the highest way, then this path requires our willingness to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, and extend to ourselves the same love, compassion, and permission that we give to others.