Therapist self disclosure
Therapist self disclosure is a process of communication you may have considered using when engaging with clients during sessions. Therapist self-disclosure occurs when a clinician shares personal information with a client. Personal information may consist of thoughts, feelings, personal information, or personal experiences.
Therapist self-disclosure may occur in a brief and limited manner such as sharing with a client who struggles with a chronic illness that you also have a chronic illness. It can also happen in a more in-depth or detailed way. For example, this same therapist may share their personal struggles and emotions regarding life with a chronic illness with their client.
This article will discuss:
- Types of self-disclosure
- How different treatment orientations view self-disclosure
- Benefits and risks to self-disclosure
- Factors affecting self-disclosure
Types of therapist self-disclosure
In a therapeutic relationship, self-disclosure can occur in various ways and on different levels. In some instances, you can work to protect or limit therapist self-disclosure by becoming aware of how you may intentionally or unintentionally share personal information. Other times, you may have limited ability to control the disclosure.
Deliberate self-disclosure: With deliberate self-disclosure, a therapist engages in the intentional sharing of personal information. It may happen verbally or nonverbally.
It may occur through:
- Photos in an office setting (ex: child’s school photo on the therapist’s desk or bookcase)
- Discussion of the therapist’s vacation plans while scheduling the next appointment (ex: “We need to skip the session next week because I will be on a cruise.”)
- Sports memorabilia in the office
- Books placed in the office
- Engaging in certain gestures, touches, or sounds during a session
- Unavoidable self-disclosure: Unavoidable therapist self-disclosure happens when the therapist discloses personal information that cannot be prevented.
Some of the unavoidable information includes:
- Age range
- Visible tattoos
- Visible disabilities such as limps, need for a wheelchair, hearing impairments
- Wedding or engagement rings
- Religious jewelry
- Fashion (clothing, make-up, hairstyle, jewelry)
A home office can present with other means of unavoidable self-disclosure. This self-disclosure can occur during a telehealth session or a face-to-face session in a home-based office. When a session occurs in your home, clients have a view into how you live your personal life rather than the intentional design and decor of your office.
Clients may learn personal information about neighbors if neighbors are loud or visible during a session. Pets may make noises or come into the session. Family members may walk into a session (despite your best efforts to prevent it). Clients may obtain personal information regarding the appearance of your home and home decor. Certain hobbies might be visible. Personal artwork might be displayed in view of the client. A home office may disclose information regarding personal food choices or beverages, books you enjoy, or plants that you like.
Accidental self-disclosure: Sometimes accidental disclosure happens.
Some examples might include:
- Unplanned meetings in a public place or location outside of the office or telehealth session
- Impulsive, instinctive, or spontaneous reactions to something that happens during a session
- Accidental events such as dropping a folder and a personal item falls out of the folder, forgetting to put away a personal item that was present before the session, or an item forgotten in the office garbage can
Deliberate actions by clients: In today’s digital world, clients can learn almost anything about their therapist with an internet search. Internet searches can reveal personal information about you that you might work very hard to protect in the therapeutic relationship.
Clients can learn a variety of information such as:
- Political party affiliations
- Personal address
- Family member names, ages, locations
- Volunteer activities
- Criminal history
- Religious affiliations
- Prior work history
- Licensure complaints or violations
- Anything posted on social media
How do different therapeutic orientations view therapist self-disclosure?
Because a therapeutic orientation guides the approach to treating your client, differing therapeutic orientations look at therapist self-disclosure from different perspectives. The perspectives stem from the history of the treatment approach and the dynamic of the therapeutic relationship.
Traditional psychoanalytic perspective: A psychoanalytic orientation would typically approach the therapeutic relationship as an opportunity for the client to project their thoughts and emotions onto a neutral psychotherapist. The counselor in a traditional psychoanalytic relationship remains neutral and separate from the client. Therefore, this orientation encourages minimal self-disclosure to maintain the anonymity and neutrality of the therapist.
Humanistic orientation: The humanistic approach to therapy considers that therapists should remain open and transparent with their clients to promote a more genuine and authentic client-therapist relationship. Humanistic therapists consider this relationship as essential to the success of the therapeutic process and outcome. Humanistic therapists suggest that therapist self-disclosure helps clients to see their therapists as humans who also have struggles, just as they do.
Behavioral, cognitive, and cognitive-behavioral orientations: These treatment approaches utilize modeling and reinforcement as essential components of the therapeutic process. Self-disclosure is one of the tools that therapists can use to foster these tools. From these perspectives, self-disclosure helps to reinforce and normalize what the therapist tries to teach the client.
Self-help and 12-Step Programs: These approaches use self-disclosure techniques and transparency of the therapist as a guiding principle. Some of these programs may use a peer-led or sponsor approach, but many use a therapist as a group facilitator or class instructor. During these sessions, groups, or classes, self-disclosure becomes part of the process.
Benefits and risks of therapist self-disclosure
Self-disclosure can be a useful tool in therapy when a therapist uses it in a limited and professional manner. It can help to increase the trust between the client and therapist, develop more empathy, and reinforce a more authentic and genuine connection between the therapist and the client.
When used appropriately, therapist self-disclosure can help to normalize issues the client has experienced by learning that someone else has also gone through this issue. For example, a client may feel comforted and supported to realize that they are not the only person to have experienced whatever challenge or stressor that the therapist has shared in the session to have also experienced. This self-disclosure may lead to the client feeling more connected to the therapist knowing that the therapist has shared a similar experience.
Therapist self-disclosure can be used in a session to reinforce concepts addressed in the session. A therapist may discuss how they have used a specific intervention, skill, or technique. For example, when teaching about creating a journaling habit, the therapist may share their routine and how they made journaling a habit.
Self-disclosure can also be used to model and reinforce healthy choices, behaviors, and actions. If the session addresses the benefits of creating a healthy morning routine, the therapist may share some details of their morning routine as a guide, example, and reinforcement of how a morning routine can reduce stress.
There is a balance to consider with therapist self-disclosure between presenting risks and enhancing the client’s progress in treatment. When not used appropriately, self-disclosure can sabotage treatment progress because it can take the focus of the session off the client and direct it towards the therapist.
The client, and subsequent discussion, may address the information revealed in the self-disclosure vs. the treatment-related issue of the session. The therapist self-disclosure may give the client unintentional permission to not process a difficult issue or work on the treatment goal.
Therapist self-disclosure may lead to the client wondering more about the provider. The client may then ask or seek out additional personal information regarding the therapist. The client may use time in the session to inquire about the therapist’s personal information or situation instead of working on the issues and goals of the session. Or, the client may use time outside of the session to research online about the therapist.
For example, the therapist may address the client’s stress related to a home remodel introduced in the session. The therapist may share “I understand. We remodeled our kitchen last year. It was a lot of work. The house was a disaster all the time and I had to take my kids and husband out to eat way too much!”.
This therapist self-disclosure may lead to the client asking more personal questions about the therapist’s house, children, or spouse. After the session, the client may be wondering more about this personal information and research it online. It may result in the client learning about where the therapist lives, details about the children, and even result in a visit to the therapist’s home.
Self-disclosure can also trigger certain challenges a client may battle. When the therapist self-discloses problems, challenges, stressors, or even trauma experienced, the client may then develop worry or even anxiety regarding the therapist’s well-being. The therapist's self-disclosure may lead to an increase in the client’s caregiving tendencies. The client may want to work to solve, fix, or mediate the issue the therapist discloses.
Factors influencing therapist self-disclosure in counseling
Many factors can affect the decision to self-disclose personal information in a therapy session. The therapist should have experience, education, and supervision surrounding self-disclosure. For upsetting personal issues, challenges, and stressors, the therapist may even want to seek out their own counseling before disclosing it in a therapy session.
The therapist does not want to disclose hurtful, traumatic, or other upsetting personal information that they have not yet addressed or worked through personally. It can lead to the therapist turning the session into an opportunity to discuss their personal issue rather than appropriately using the self-disclosure technique. The self-disclosure should not come from a place of serving the therapist’s needs but for helping the client to gain a better clinical outcome.
The self-disclosure should always come from a place of clinical relevance and be related to the treatment orientation of the therapist. It should be grounded in theory and directly address a treatment goal. The therapist should keep the personal information shared during the disclosure, limited and brief. There should be a therapeutic purpose behind the disclosure rather than a therapist-driven need.
The decision to self-disclose should be an intentional and planned process. The therapist should consider that self-disclosure is based on the client’s treatment needs and does not lead to more harm for the client. It should not serve as a means to gratify any of the therapist's needs.
When the self-disclosure was unplanned, accidental, or happened due to the actions of the client, the therapist may need to address it in session. For example, the client may have looked up personal information about the therapist and brought this information to the therapy session. In a home office or telehealth setting, an unplanned personal disruption may occur (such as a child walking into the session). Or, the therapist may leave a fast food or junk food package in the garbage can while working with a client on a healthy eating routine with the client.
Certain situations may arise regarding self-disclosure when the therapist may need to bring the focus back to the client and treatment goals. For example, if a client discusses their deliberate actions to learn personal information about the therapist, the therapist may need to address this boundary violation and establish limits and boundaries with the client.
Self-disclosure can effectively help a client move towards treatment outcomes when applied appropriately and professionally. The therapist must consider the client’s needs, treatment approach, and potential for derailing the therapy session from self-disclosure. When unsure about the appropriateness, the counselor can always seek consultation or supervision regarding the decision.
When making your plan for the session and evaluating your decision regarding self-disclosure, TheraPlatform, an all-in-one EHR, practice management and teletherapy tool, can help you to remain focused and organized. They offer a 30-day free trial with no credit card required. Cancel anytime.
- Zur, Ofer. “Self-Disclosure & Transparency in Psychotherapy and Counseling, by Ofer Zur, Ph.D.” Zur Institute. Accessed April 5, 2023.
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