Self-disclosure is a touchy subject among therapists. Some therapists never self-disclose, while others feel stifled by having a rigid boundary around self-disclosure. As I consider self-disclosure in therapy, I ask myself, “When is self-disclosure appropriate?” “How does self-disclosure deepen the therapist-client connection?"
But, as soon as I ask these questions, I realize that their counterparts should also be asked: “How do I know if self-disclosure is inappropriate? “How can self-disclosure hinder the therapist-client relationship?”
Self-disclosure is complicated.
Recently, I was supervising a group of therapists, and the conversation turned to self-disclosure. It became clear to me that self-disclosure tends to be an all-encompassing term for what is really a nuanced process of self-revelation that includes degrees. From our group conversation, I was able to identify three separate degrees of self-disclosure: The normalizing statement, the personal story, and the reactive response.
1| The normalizing statement
An example of a normalizing statement is when a client tells a story, and the therapist says, “If I were in that situation, I might feel x, y, or z. Do any of these fit for you?"
In this example, the therapist is using personal identification to serve as normalization. The truth is, the “I” isn’t necessary; it could easily be replaced with “most people I know,” or “several clients I’ve worked with.”
The purpose of this type of disclosure to to help clients feel supported. As a form of self-disclosure, the normalizing statement is relatively low risk in terms of potential consquences to the client, or the therapeutic relationship.
2| The personal story
Typically, a therapist shares a personal story in order to challenge or validate a client’s’ conclusion, or to expand the client’s perspective. For example, if the client is anxious about requesting a raise at work, the therapist would share a story about when she requested a raise, or one relevant to the client’s anxiety about asking for a raise.
The personal story is a common form of self-disclosure. It involves the therapist revealing inconsequential information with a therapeutic purpose. Like the normalizing statement, the personal story is unlikely to be an imposition on the client. The potential exists, however, that the story will not have the same meaning for the client, or that the client will find a point of disagreement with the therapist's interpretation. This could emphasize difference between the therapist and client, or lead the client to challenge the therapist.
3| The reactive response
As implied in the term, the reactive response is a type of self-disclosure that may or may not involve the therapist revealing personal information; however, the interaction is a result of the therapist being emotionally triggered. As a result, it is a personal interaction rather than a therapeutic one.
Two instances when the reactive response is common are: a) when therapists face a challenging client or interaction that in some way reminds them of a personal relationship (with or without their awareness), or b) when a client is experiencing turmoil, and the therapist has been through something similar. The reactive response moves the therapist out of the therapeutic role and into the role of equal, protector, or savior, among others. This type of interaction can damage the therapist-client relationship and negatively impact the therapeutic space.
Therapists' ability to respond therapeutically rather than reactively is based on their recognition, in the moment, that they have been triggered, as well as having the skills to use the emotion in a way that is beneficial to the client.
Should you self-disclose?
I tell supervisees and new therapists to avoid self-disclosure at all costs, especially as they are learning to use therapeutic skills and establish their therapist identities. My reasoning for this stance is that it is much more productive during the training stage to find all the ways to connect with clients that do not involve self-disclosure. Once therapists are licensed and have practiced for several years, and once they are skilled in the linguistic and therapeutic options for addressing clients without self-disclosing, then they are ready to consider whether or not self-disclosure will enhance their work.
Of course, many therapists will disagree with this view. What matters most is that you are a) aware of your reasons for self-disclosure as well as b) what the self-disclosure has created within the specific interaction/session, and c) you integrate that information in order to make the best decision next time.
- What one thing are you taking away about self-disclosure from this article that will impact your practice?