Friday, April 08, 2011

The perils of self-disclosure

I've had a recent spare of new clients complaining to me recently about past therapists, psychologists, counselllors and their preference to talk about themselves. There was the psychologist who liked to spend the session talking about the trials and tribulations of his weekend angling trip, the counsellor who thought that discussing work place issues gave her carte blanche to talk about her own frustrations. This information was given to me early on just in case I might be feeling the same need to unburden myself and to stop me in my tracks.

Self-disclosure, the divulging of personal information about the self, presents a considerable ethical dilemma in therapy, a situation made more difficult by the internet search engines and social networking sites. Not all self-disclosure is intentional. Several clients have told me they've Googled me. I immediately went home and Googled myself. Not too much to worry about there... a few sleep-inducing research papers and not much else. I restricted access to my Facebook page, not that I have ever really bothered about using it. Sometimes self-disclosure is unavoidable. When I was out sick for a while, clients knew that about me, and I had to be extremely careful in dealing with questions about it when I returned to work.

But what about intentional self-disclosure? Used sparingly and judiciously, intentional self-disclosure can be  therapeutic, can help to build the therapeutic alliance. It's a double-edged sword, however, and careless or excessive use of disclosure can make make the client uncomfortable, burdened and transfer the focus away from client to therapist.

Similarly, how you deal with requests for self-disclosure from the client is critical. When a personal question is refused with a flat: "no", it may be destructive to the therapeutic relationship. For example, in an environment where trust is key, people might feel there's a lack of reciprocal trust. Maintaining good boundaries at all time is essential but softening that refusal by explaining how the sharing of  personal information would change the nature of the therapeutic relationship and exploring the interest further can be useful.

Client side, therapist side - what's been your experience with self-disclosure? What's helpful? What's not?


Corinne said...

Your write-up about the perils of self-disclosure reminds me yet again what a double edged sword it is. In my practice I also aim to use it sparingly and judiciously, sometimes a bit more towards the end of a long therapeutic relationship. When the client then changes his/her mind and does not want to leave, it can feel uncomfortable for me and your article has just reminded me that self-disclosure can also become a bit of a bad habit to develop and we need to monitor ourselves carefully.

Candycan said...

I struggle with not knowing anything about my therapist. It seems like a really unnatural relationship for someone to know everything about me and me know nothing about them. However, at any point where she has talked about herself in any way e.g. 'the daffodils were out already in the garden', I find myself clamming up and never asking any more questions about the topic.
Maybe subconsciously I see that boundary and don't want it to be crossed because I know that it is for the best that I don't know anything about her. On the other hand, when she told me she'd be taking 6 months plus off work and I asked if she was ill, she gave me a blunt answer that it wasn't relevant for me to know that. This hurt my trust and made me angry. What did she think I would do with the information? The worst I could do is worry about her... and I would do that anyway not knowing either way. So I agree, it does need to be handled well.

London Counselling said...

I also agree about how difficult it can be to know how much self-disclosure is helpful and therapeutic, and what is over the line. I was amsazed, but not really surprised by some of the examples given.

Debi said...

I am working on my hours to complete a license in clinical social work and become a therapist. I have learned to gracefully side step questions about myself and tell the client that we are here to find out why they are in the session,not to find out about me. I do put myself into the middle of analogies, such as crossing the street when cars are whizzing by, to tell a client to listen to their inner voice in relationships. I also work as a registered nurse, not in psychiatry. I am not as guarded in this setting. However, I never disclose anything too personal, such as where I live. I try to keep things general, but will talk about the general vicinity of where we are, and animals in general, since I am a dog owner.