How much should therapists reveal about themselves? What Tronick’s Still Face Experiment teaches us about being Psychotherapists

Many psychotherapists are instructed, from the day they begin training, to abstain from almost any form self revelation to their clients. Different schools of psychotherapy have different ideas about how much therapists should hide their true beings from their clients. These vary in degrees. Some would go all out to clean out their online presence, some deliberately give their offices the blank look to hide their identity, some would go even as far as to work with the client withholding their facial expressions (by sitting behind the client, for example).

Is there reasonable purpose for this?

Some classical Freudians would argue that this is essential. They would shun even the idea of calling the client if he/she did not show up for a session.

I belong to the more humanistic category of psychotherapy, Gestalt Therapy. In our modality, the client and therapist as human beings take part in the psychotherapeutic process. If the therapist does not show up as a real person, it would not be Gestalt therapy.

How do we reconcile the differences in principles between psychotherapy schools with regard to revealing the therapist’s real face to the client?

The answer would have to come from developmental science itself: Tronick’s still face paradigm.

The still face paradigm was demonstrated by Edward Tronick et al. in 1978. This experiment is explained in the video below: https://youtu.be/vmE3NfB_HhE

The experiment involves having a mother play with the baby. We can see how baby and mother interact. The mother is then instructed to turn her face away. When she turns her face back to the child, she withholds her natural impulse to react to the child, and keeps her face emotionless. The baby reacts to the mother’s still face with painful despair. The mother later releases herself from withholding her facial expressions and the baby come back to life.

More modern-day scientific findings are proving that the practice of humanistic psychotherapies like gestalt therapy is congruent to supplying clients with the healing process. This experiment is one of them.

Clients suffering from panic disorder, depression, anxiety, OCD and trauma come to therapy to seek solace and inner peace. Can we imagine how it feels to meet a blank faced therapist in treatment? From the experiment, we can see how the mother’s blank face is the cause of anxiety in the baby. In gestalt therapy we believe in authentic verbal and non-verbal communication. Just like the mother with an expressive face, the therapist’s full presence is a source of solace. The client feels seen and her being is validated. He regains his lost sense of self. She finds her footing on solid ground.

Therapist trying to be the superior, in control and still faced, seem almost inhuman, especially in the presence of clients who are emotional and suffering. The dead face, in my opinion, is traumatizing.

Authentic presence when being with the other has a calming effect on the other person. This is how our nervous system normally functions from the day we are born.

On this topic, I am not advocating being exhibitionistic. I do not believe that therapists should be opinionated or take up too much space from the client. I do, however, believe in real human presence.

Psychopathology is not disease. It is suffering that emerges in the relationship between people. The suffering comes largely from chronic and acute loneliness. Loneliness can only be cured with being with the client in his/her darkest moments.

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