Let’s Just Be Real. Let’s Be Ourselves

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I have been told that I “keep my cards close to my chest”, which I assume means that I don’t reveal a lot about myself – I withhold myself or parts of myself. Given this trait (that I don’t dispute), my somewhat introverted nature and, my interest in other people, what you get is a person who listens more than talks.

Ash Beckham’s TEDTalk “We’re All Hiding Something. Let’s Find The Courage To Open Up“. Made me think. What do I reveal and conceal about my true self? When and why do I do that?

Maybe it’s because I’m a “private person.” Maybe it’s because I prefer to think rather than to speak. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid that I’ll say the “wrong thing.”

Or, more likely, it’s my training and 30 years as a psychiatric mental health nurse.

Talking about myself was “taught out of me.”

In my professional circles of mental health nurses, therapists, counselors, and psychologists, there is a concept called “self-disclosure”. And self-disclosure is bad. This idea comes from training and tradition. I remember my professor in my undergraduate psychiatric mental health nursing class almost 30 years ago, emphasizing how important it was to know the difference between a “social relationship” and a “therapeutic relationship.” Relationships were either one or the other; they could not be both.

Fast-forward to the present and this is still in textbooks and is engrained in practitioners’ minds. Today, if you are a health care provider and a client’s friend, these so called “boundary” violations are called “dual relationships,” and are not tolerated at worse, and seriously frowned upon at best.

Persons who seek therapy want their therapists and nurses to understand them. I conducted a study a few years ago where I asked persons with mental illness what helped them to feel understood. What I found was exactly the opposite of what is done in practice – persons with mental illness wanted someone who shared with them their similar experiences. They felt more understood when their health care providers shared some “authentic” aspect of themselves.

I agree that as a therapist, there are good reasons for some separation. I agree that the focus of therapy sessions should remain with the person seeking help (the client) and that self-disclosure can create a big shift of attention – to where the client spends the whole time helping the therapist. This is not what I advocate.

However, do we need to take it as far as we have, and continue to? Can we be more authentic, as Ash Beckham encourages us to be? Can’t health care providers and therapists be more themselves?

It’s no surprise then, to know that persons with mental illness really like talking to individuals with lived experience of mental illness, persons who have personal experience with the mental health care system, and who are recovering from their illness or substance use issues. These health care workers that persons benefit from talking to are called peer support specialists or peer counselors. At least 36 states have peer specialist training and certification programs. In Illinois, the credential is “certified recovery support specialist” (CRSS). And research supports their work.

Perhaps mental health nurses, therapists, counselors, and psychologists can learn something here. To be sure, peer counselors are helpful because of their unique perspectives but they are also helpful because they, in my experience, are truly authentic. They “self-disclose.”

To take it back to a reference from Ash Beckham’s TEDTalk, I sometimes would like to toss a grenade into the professional self-disclosure closet. Let’s just be real. Let’s be ourselves.

This piece was originally posted on February 28, 2014 on Huffington Post.

About monashattell

Mona Shattell is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development in the College of Science and Health, and Professor in the School of Nursing at DePaul University. The College of Science and Health at DePaul University is comprised of 8 departments (health sciences, psychology, STEM studies, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and mathematics), 1 school (nursing), and 4 centers (STEM Center, Quantitative Reasoning Center, Center for Family and Community Services, and the Center for Community Research). The college currently has 150 full-time faculty members, 2700 undergraduate students and 725 graduate students, and $15 million in research funding. In her role as Associate Dean for Research, Dr. Shattell promotes research in all departments, schools, and centers in the college; she enhances the culture and capacity of the college to support scientific inquiry, supports and mentors tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, and promotes student research. In addition to her position as Associate Dean, she also serves as the PI of mental health services research teams and as board member for several community non-profit mental health advocacy organizations. She is Associate Editor of Advances in Nursing Science and Issues in Mental Health Nursing, a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, and the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters. She has participated in several fellowship programs: she is a former Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, which is a media fellowship program that develops thought leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups; she participated in the Sigma Theta Tau International Mentored Leadership Development Program, and post-doctoral K30 Clinical Research Training Program through NHLBI. She is active in a number of professional organizations and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. She is also a member of the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, the Southern Nursing Research Society, Midwest Nursing Research Society, Sigma Theta Tau International, and the International Academy of Nursing Editors. She serves on numerous community boards of mental health-related service and advocacy organizations. Prior to joining the faculty at DePaul University, she was tenured Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received a PhD in nursing from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, a Master of Science degree in nursing from Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, also from Syracuse University.
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2 Responses to Let’s Just Be Real. Let’s Be Ourselves

  1. Mickey says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing this Mona. As I thought about what I would share in my next post, I had decided to discuss doing research within one’s own community and my experiences with a project where my being very open about my identities and political philosophies was a key to success in recruiting. I have certainly blurred the lines between researcher and community member in this project and will share those thoughts next week. It’s quite a shift for someone from the stoic Midwest who learned to stifle emotions and “keep my cards close to my chest” as you noted.

    • peggychinn says:

      another terrific resource along the line of doing research within one’s own community is the first chapter of the book “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold” by Liz Kennedy and Madeline Davis. This book is about their oral history of the lesbian community in Buffalo during the 30’s and 40’s. Liz was a professor of women’s studies at SUNY Buffalo and very out lesbian; Madeline was a librarian/archivist at the Buffalo public library, and not only out but outrageously out from her teen years in Buffalo, and had been “initiated” in the community as a teenager among the women they studied. I lived in Buffalo during the time they were conducting the study, and part of their commitment was to regularly give back to the community by presenting their work at various events .. I heard them speak several times over the years. Their study is a model – I have recommended this chapter for all of my doctoral students over the years because of the detailed and really excellent description of how they planned and conducted this study in their own community, preserving the integrity of the study, as well as their own relationships within the community.

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