What is Self-Disclosure
Self-disclosure refers generally to a counselor’s sharing of personal information to clients during or outside the counseling session. Types of counselor self-disclosure can range from the sharing of information about the counselor’s personal life and experiences to the sharing of his or her personal opinions about particular issues and events. There are four main types of counselor self-disclosures: accidental, unavoidable, client initiated, and deliberate.
Accidental self-disclosures are incidental (unplanned) encounters outside the counseling session, spontaneous verbal or non-verbal reactions in session, or other occurrences that happen to reveal therapists’ personal information to their client.
Unavoidable self-disclosures are client revelations about a counselor’s personal life that occur through obvious distinguishing characteristics such as the counselor’s race, gender, clothing, jewelry, etc.
Client initiated disclosures occur when clients seek and find information about their counselor on print or online media such as biographies, resumes, family history, volunteer activity, professional achievements, etc. Generally speaking, the disclosure of personal counselor information to clients through accidental, unavoidable, and client initiated means is thought to blur the boundaries of the counselor-client relationship and to be minimized wherever possible.
On the other hand, deliberate counselor self-disclosure is that disclosure of personal information that a counselor makes purposely to a client as a tool in the counseling process. The use of deliberate counselor self-disclosure in the counseling process has shown to have some real benefits, but its use also carries some risks.
The Benefits of Using Self-Disclosure
Counselor self-disclosure can have a number of identifiable benefits to the counseling process:
- Self-disclosure can be a means of building rapport with clients, which is essential to the counseling relationship. Counselors often choose to disclose about themselves and their lives to aid in the development of trust that is necessary for counseling to be effective.
- Clients may feel uneasy telling a stranger about their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Getting to know their counselor better through the counselor’s sharing of information on a personal level can help reduce this uneasy feeling.
- Clients sometimes think that they are alone in their struggles. Thus, another reason for the use of counselor self-disclosure is to convey empathy to clients and to help them feel that they are not alone in their struggles, and that their emotions and experiences are being heard and validated.
- The counseling process can often feel one-sided for clients, in that the focus is primarily on their presenting issues. This imbalance has shown to make some clients uncomfortable, and in such cases, thoughtful personal sharing from the counselor can lessen their discomfort.
- Clients may be intimidated by a counselor’s professional status and credentials. Personal disclosure by the counselor may serve to “humanize” the counselor in the client’s eyes and diminish the impact of this perceived power differential on the formation of an effective counseling relationship.
The Risks of Using Self-Disclosure
Counselor self-disclosure also has some potential risks:
- One of the most significant risks of counselor self-disclosure is a shift in treatment focus away from the client’s needs and treatment goals. The sharing of too much information by a counselor about his or her own personal struggles may be perceived by the client as a sign of counselor impairment and inability to perform his or her professional duties responsibly.
- Excessive personal sharing by a counselor may be seen by the client as self-serving. It may convey disinterest in the client’s issues and, thus, may be damaging to the counseling relationship.
- Counselor self-disclosure can be detrimental if it is provided without consideration of the client’s presenting problem. For example if a counselor shares his or her struggles, a client who has difficulty with worry or excessive caretaking might be triggered to engage (toward the counselor) in the very caretaking behavior that he or she is trying to correct.
- Counselor self-disclosure can be detrimental if it is provided without consideration of the client’s value system. Sharing personal experiences or views that violate a client’s value system may threaten the client’s trust in the counselor as an appropriate source of help,
- Too much counselor self-disclosure can blur the boundaries in the professional relationship. The client may come to view the counselor more as a friend than a professional helper.
As demonstrated above, counselor self-disclosure can have some real benefits to the counseling process; however steps must always be taken to avoid its potential risks for clients. Those steps include the following:
- Consider the benefits. Ask yourself in advance of using self-disclosure just how the disclosure will help the client. Unless a clear benefit to the client can be identified, self-disclosure should not be used.
- Consider the risks. Consider the potential detriment that self-disclosure might have on the client. The use of self-disclosure should be reconsidered if any potential risks to the client can be identified, regardless of the prospect of potential benefits.
- Be brief. In self-disclosing, say what you need to say in the most concise manner possible, limiting the details of your disclosure to what is most likely to benefit the client. Self-disclosure is less likely to cause harm when it is thoughtfully planned in advance of the session in which it is used.
- Use “I statements.” Make it clear that you are giving your opinion based on your personal experiences only. Otherwise, it can be easy for clients to assume that you are conveying academic and professional expertise, and this can be misleading.
- Consider your client’s values. Inasmuch as making disclosures that are not aligned with your client’s values can be potentially harmful, refrain from using self-disclosure until you have had time to acquire an accurate sense of the client’s value system.
It can be difficult to predict exactly how a client will respond or react to a disclosure. Careful monitoring and frequent checking-in are important in order to gauge how the client is feeling about all aspects of the therapeutic relationship. Given that each client is different, as is each counselor, a rigid view is likely unhelpful when it comes to the practice of self-disclosure. Instead, each choice to use self-disclosure should be made according to careful consideration of its potential assets and liabilities to each client.
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Zur, O. (2010). Self-disclosure. In I. B. Weiner & W. E. Craighead (Eds.), Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (4th ed.) (pp. 1532-1534). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Audet, C. and Everall, R.D. (2003). Counsellor self-disclosure: Client-informed implications for practice. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 3: 223–231.