Exposing My Self

Everyone puts themselves on the line online, but could personal disclosure hurt my professional career?

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

As long as I’m careful enough, everything will be okay, I thought. Obsessively combing over each line, I tweaked a sentence here, added a clarification there.

I’ll just send it to somebody to make sure it’s all right, I thought. I emailed it to a writer friend, someone who had been there during the surreal period of time that the story covered.

‘Take out the bit about the Nazis,’ she said.

‘But the Milgram experiments were inspired by the…’ I said.

‘Elaine, you just can’t,’ she said. ‘People will be, like, WOAH.’

(To paraphrase Coco Chanel, before you and your story leave the house, look hard at yourself in the mirror and take one thing off. In my piece about new motherhood, breastfeeding rhetoric and submission to authority, Nazis were that one thing.)

Maybe now it’s fine, I thought. While I may not control Medium, I’d done my utmost to control the message. But with the cursor lying on ‘Publish,’ my fingers hovered a millimetre above the trackpad of my laptop. I could feel my heart hammering in my chest and hear the progress of the second hand on the analog wall clock, its sound suddenly amplified. Tick, tick, tick.

Why was my every sense heightened? Like everyone else using the Internet, I’m now accustomed to a level of daily disclosure that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. I bash out status updates and publish tweets as regularly and casually as I brush my teeth; my flexor tendons twitch with the early symptoms of ‘smartphone thumb’. But this was another matter. Clocking in at a 13-minute read, this piece was a damn sight longer than a 280-character tweet or a Facebook post about my chickens, but it wasn’t the word length that was the real difference here. This was a rebellion. I was poised on the brink of disrupting not just my personal privacy boundaries, but my professional ones too.

Fortune, it is said, favours the brave. But my livelihood depends on how well I maintain the dividing lines between personal and professional. I could be brave, but would it throw my fortunes into decline?

Sensitive, personally identifiable information about me is all over the Internet, and it’s probably also the case for you. With just your full name and one or two other bits of key information, it wouldn’t take much effort for someone to produce a hefty dossier: your date of birth, address history, employment information, friends and associates. You don’t need some sophisticated hacker for this. Ask a school-age child for five minutes of their time in exchange for a Snickers Miniature, and they’ll probably do pretty well. When Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed in a 2010 TechCrunch interview that people no longer expected privacy, it wasn’t just a self-serving excuse for Facebook to disregard it. It was true. People still wanted and valued individual privacy, but even at that stage, they had begun to stop expecting it. In 2010, the individual-privacy train had already left the station. A decade later, big tech has blown up the railway bridge and sent the train plunging to its destruction, leaving us all clutching our heads and lamenting what have we done, like Alec Guinness at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Some sensitive personal information, though, still meets the most essential definition of ‘private’. Your inner world — consisting of your feelings, thoughts, opinions, reactions, and perceptions — plays out on the stage of your mind to an audience of one: you. Others may believe that what you say corresponds directly to what you think. They may assume that your true preferences can be accurately inferred from your actions. They think that they can intuit your feelings from your facial cues or body language. But even with the fanciest fMRI scanner that research funds can buy, no one can read your mind. In a world where individual privacy has become practically obsolete, your inner experiencing is the last, lonely outpost of private life. You are the sole sentinel, the only one with the power to open the gate, to grant admittance. And I was about to blow the gate open.

Before I posted my story, a handful of people knew the facts about what had happened. Only members of my inner circle were aware of the details of my emotional experience. There was a good reason for that, because shame was in the mix. Of all the inner experiences that cause us pain, shame is amongst the most persistent and toxic. Blessed with a keen self-preservation instinct, it knows that it will only flourish in the dark, that its very existence depends upon concealment, and it excels in making us complicit in its survival. I know this because I work with other people’s shame all the time, in consulting rooms cloaked in confidentiality and made safe by assurances that the communication is privileged. I am a supplier of privacy in a world where stocks are running critically low.

Nearly every day, people tell me things that they’ve never dared tell anyone else. By the end of the hour, I may know more about their shame and pain than their best friend or their spouse of decades. It’s extraordinary that they so readily place their faith in a stranger, someone who’s done precious little to earn it, but it’s not me that they’re trusting so much as my profession. When clients come for therapy, they’ve usually been lost for a long time in the dark forest of their troubles, fighting through the underbrush of difficult thoughts and feelings, unable to see the wood for the trees. I help create and protect a clearing in that forest, a space where the light can shine on their experience and more clearly illuminate possible paths. For this process to work, it’s not just the client’s demons that I must help keep away from this space. It’s me, the personal me. My life and my stuff must not pull focus by cluttering the client’s clearing. I am not at the centre of this enterprise; I am merely a handmaid.

I studied clinical psychology and psychotherapy before the advent of Facebook, well prior to our current acute state of hyper-connectedness and context collapse. We students were well trained in the art of therapeutic self-effacement, how to affect the studied neutrality that would make the magic of therapy happen, how to maintain the inscrutable blankness onto which our clients could better project their fears and fantasies. However much you may come to know about your client, the client should know virtually nothing about you — at least, that’s how we were taught it had to be.

We learnt that it was not possible or ethical to provide therapy for your friends — not just because you had preconceptions about them, but because they already knew too much about you. We were advised to paint our consulting rooms in bland colours and to purge them of family photographs, to keep our home addresses and phone numbers out of the book, to remove jewellery that might give clues about our social or economic status. A colleague once chastised me for wearing shoes to work that revealed the fact that I possess toes. Trainees would swap horrified anecdotes about breaches of the personal/professional barrier — she ran into her client naked in the changing room at the gym! He ran into his client while he was walking to the cinema with his family! Self-disclosure may sometimes be an option — there are books devoted to whether, when and how such a practice could or should occur — but it’s generally treated as something that should be considered long and hard.

Thus it has ever been since Freud and Breuer invented talking therapy in late 19th century Vienna. The ‘blank screen’ notion is why traditional Freudian psychoanalysts sat in a chair at the head of a chaise longue, out of their reclining analysands’ line of sight. With all the trappings of a normal social situation stripped away, the unconscious could more easily be made conscious, and the therapeutic process would, theoretically, unspool from there. These days, wherever the therapist sits and whatever the approach, the client is still encouraged to be an open book, while the therapist remains a cipher.

The rule of privacy in the therapeutic endeavour appears to have three prongs. Prong one: by maintaining your clients’ privacy, you facilitate their trust and enable therapy to work. Prong two: by maintaining your own privacy, you prevent clients doing you some harm through their knowledge of your life. And prong three: by guarding your own privacy, you also protect your clients’, reducing the danger that their forest clearing will be cluttered up with too much you. The assumption that therapists require more everyday privacy than other people is commonly held. When Liz Fong-Jones left Google, she referred to her objections to the ‘real name’ policy for Google+. Listing parties who could be disadvantaged or harmed by this policy, she said that insisting upon the use of legal names for Google+ ‘would create yet another space inaccessible to some teachers, therapists, LGBT+ people, and others who need to use a different identity for privacy and safety’ [emphases added].

I’d never really questioned Freud’s blank-screen dictum or the necessity of adhering to the practice of therapeutic self-effacement — until, that is, it became nearly impossible to carry it off while also participating in the modern world as a digital citizen. When I began practicing professionally, it was still possible to prevent boundary disturbances by simply doing all the things my professors had advised. I didn’t talk about my own life, didn’t practice in the neighbourhood where I lived and did an extra check of the changing rooms at the gym before stripping off.

Now, if you Google your therapist, you’ll find a human — a human whose personal life may be as fraught with frailties and flaws as your own. In the modern world, you don’t need to run into your therapist on the street or collide with them in a changing room to divine some fascinating tidbits about their private lives. You just need an Internet connection. What’s a therapeutic practitioner to do? Must you be consigned to life as an off-grid hermit, devoid of hobbies, leisure pursuits, or a social life? Must you prohibit your entire network of family and friends from referencing your existence, or resort to a labyrinthine system of pseudonyms and noms-de-plume that would be the envy of a career criminal? It seems an unwieldy burden to bear.

What if psychotherapy had been invented today, in the world of Web 2.0, instead of amongst the WiFi-free cafes of fin-de-siecle Vienna? Surely a modern, brand-new framework for therapy in a digital age wouldn’t rely on its practitioners being sphinx-like figures of mystery. But maybe life wasn’t so compartmentalisable in Freud’s time either. In Unorthodox Freud (1996), Lohser and Newton point out that the granddaddy of talking therapy didn’t always practice what he preached, but it’s also possible that later generations of practitioners have interpreted Freud’s blank-screen admonishments inaccurately or generalised them too far. Did Freud really mean that for analysis to work, a client should know virtually nothing about their therapist?

To read Edmund de Waal’s description of turn-of-the-century Vienna in The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010) is to realise that if you were a member of a particular social class in that city at that time, you couldn’t twitch a little finger without everybody and their brother knowing about it. The monumental Ringstrasse that circled the city, full of Jewish industrialists, bankers, and intelligentsia, was practically a hermetically sealed social loop. Freud analysed his friends, his family, and his friends’ family. On some of his holidays, he sent his patients postcards; on others, he was actually with his patients. He didn’t see actually this as a problem. As Frederic Reamer wrote in Tangled Relationships (2001):

‘For Freud the analytic relationship could be circumscribed by the time boundaries of the analytic sessions and other relationships were possible outside the analytic hours.’ (pp. 2–3)

The cultural, social and financial elite of Vienna had scant expectations of individual privacy in the early 20th century. They certainly didn’t require Web 2.0 and electronic surveillance technologies to keep tabs on one another's every move. Freud was a celebrity, a public figure who wrote extensively. His patients were drawn from his own social set and he met them in his own home, in a consulting room filled to the brim with the archaeological tchotchkes that he loved. Calling this therapeutic space neutral would be absurd. At a time and place where private lives were constantly the subject of public dissection, Sigmund Freud was hardly a mystery man, and he didn’t think that he needed to be to do the work.

When I started training as a psychologist, I more or less gave up creative writing in favour of therapeutic work. Much of my writing was personally telling, so an academic position and a smattering of academic or professional writing seemed a safer bet for a multi-hyphenate career, as Emma Gannon calls it. So when I blogged on LiveJournal, I used a pseudonym, and in large part, I kept the details of my personal life rigidly private. When I discovered that my Pinterest account was actually easily linked to my identity, I was awash in horror that my current or potential clients might know what was on my Christmas list. When I read a book about couples therapy that described how common it was for clients to ask therapists about their marital status — they want to be sure that you can be trusted with their relationship, the author said — I felt shame and anxiety about my legitimacy as a practitioner, having experienced the same sort of romantic vicissitudes as anyone else.

Over time, though, stringently obeying the privacy conventions of psychotherapy became devilishly difficult to do in a digital context, and that wasn’t all. As a natural-born writer, following these rules felt like a slow, self-imposed asphyxiation of my creative spirit, a creeping death of my freedom to express myself as I needed and wanted. My hyphenate professional identity had to be ‘psychologist-writer’, for I had grown almost literally sick of stopping this from happening.

And I didn’t want to limit what I wrote about, either. I’d already edged a bit out of the safe zone by writing a non-fiction work for general instead of academic audiences, a book that included details about me and my immediate family. Once I hit ‘Ready to Publish?’ on the breastfeeding story, though — this question helpfully situated next to my real likeness and my actual name — the world would know intimate, formerly private details about my failings, my flaws, and my body.

But I did it. I threw caution to the wind and broke the therapeutic fourth wall. Once I clicked the mouse, there was no hauling it back. At the time of writing, it had been viewed over 11,000 times.

It didn’t take long for my (former) worst nightmare to occur. I received an email from an erstwhile client, saying that they had seen a story of mine on Medium. They didn’t say which one, but I don’t know if it matters. Whichever one it was, it probably contained enough sensitive, personally identifiable information to send some of my former professors into a tailspin.

But it was fine. It was fine. And I haven’t said it twice because I’m trying to reassure myself on that point — it’s because it genuinely is. I will continue to follow the first and most important prong of the three-pronged rule of therapeutic privacy: I will fiercely protect the privacy of my clients, and I will never write about the specifics of individual therapeutic work on Medium. But I’m beyond worrying about the professional impact of disclosing my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and opinions — online or in print.

I will continue holding the space for my clients in the consulting room — I consider this a sacred covenant. But I am no blank screen. Instead, I am a perfectly imperfect human being, someone who is hoping to bring more good to the wider world through any information I choose to disclose about my most private experiences. I have committed to following my values, even in the face of fear and trembling about breaking rules and getting into trouble. I firmly believe that disclosure of frailty has more healing power than pretenses of strength. And from where I’m sitting now, I have precisely zero concerns about anyone knowing any of that about me.

[clicks ‘Publish’]