Explore the Subject of ‘Self Disclosure’ by Counsellors

Explore the subject of ‘self disclosure’ by councellors Disclosure in the dictionary is ‘the act of revealing and exposing to view’ My understanding of self disclosure in this context is to mean revealing the counsellors personal information and emotions. In this unique relationship this is to be expected when the client is communicating, in fact it is actively encouraged, because that is their roll in the therapeutic relationship. However my exploration will concern when is it acceptable for the counsellor to talk about themselves or their own feelings?

Counsellors must speak since this is a talking therapy and surely every word and response is a form of self disclosure, yet what is said can have serious consequences. I will demonstrate how and when this can hurt or assist the client. When I began having personal counselling myself, I expected a relationship like a close friendship, I found the fact that this ‘expert’ had the answers, but didn’t offer them to me, which was at times very frustrating. My counsellor was psychodynamic and I am now aware that different styles of counselling accept a more open, less restricted, approach to self disclosure.

Since this is however a psychodynamic course, I will endeavour to, within length limitations, give an outline of the important issues using this approach to the subject, illustrated with bibliography, class learning and personal experience of being a client. Our professional roll as counsellors incorporates enforcing certain boundaries, even on our ability to speak candidly about what we feel and think. The client is encouraged to talk openly and freely, to help them to learn from the exploration of their problems.

However when using the psychodynamic approach we withhold our own knowledge and experiences, although sometimes it may appear to be appropriate and useful to the client. It can often be quite difficult to do this, especially when clients are asking us questions, but once we have started revealing personal details, it may be difficult to stop. We should be aware that a client could also be trying to get the counsellor to verbalise as a form of resistance or defence, to avoid talking about and facing their own problems.

I agree with Freud’s view; “It might be expected that it would be quite allowable and indeed useful, with a view to overcoming the patient’s existing resistances, for the doctor to afford him a glimpse of his own mental defects and conflicts, and, by giving him information about his own life enable him to put himself on an equal footing….. I have no hesitation in condemning the technique as incorrect. ” (quoted by M. Jacobs 1992; 84)

Non verbal communication is very important, as we as counsellors can learn from client’s body language, we must take care that the client does not read ours. Freud preferred the client to recline on a couch for just such a reason, he said “I do not wish my expressions of face to give the patient material for interpretation, or to influence him in what he tells me. ” (quoted by M. Jacobs 1992; 84) The counsellor today however, must learn to control their immediate reactions, particularly the negative ones of shock or disapproval, verbal or otherwise.

During my personal experience of being a client, I noticed that my counsellor came to grimace at the mention of the name of one of my close supportive friends, and I later realised, through things she said, that she felt some rivalry towards this person. This self disclosure of her counter-transference feelings was very damaging to our relationship. We have to be very aware of our clients reactions to what we say and do, in this way, even if we have made a mistake, our positive responses to the error can be useful instead of damaging to the client.

Self disclosure may be invited by the client’s inappropriate feelings towards us as counsellors. These transference reactions, may be worded and feel like, a personal attack or question, worthy of a personal reply. However it is important to realise that the client is saying something significant, but it is not about us, so self disclosure is not necessary. It is important that we remain neutral to encourage this transference to occur. M.

Jacobs gives this reason: “The psychodynamic counsellor, like the analyst, wishes to encourage the client to speak of the ideas and images that come from within himself, rather than those which are suggested directly by the counsellor, or by signs which the counsellor gives. ” (1994 27) So when we are surprised by a personal enquiry of this type, it is better to look through the distortion and use an appropriate response such as “I wonder why that is important to you? or even “It seems as if I was reminding you of someone else? ” Not looking at their motivation is a missed opportunity for the client to gain a deeper understanding of their present reactions towards other people. If we take a neutral roles the client is the only one introducing their beliefs, expectations or thoughts into the room. In the early days of being a client myself, I had an experience of this linking not being done. My counsellor revealed that she had taken my questioning of her ability personally.

She said my doubts had hurt her feelings, this disclosure was particularly damaging as I felt angry at that time, but had no wish to hurt her again, so could not express my negative feelings. The counsellors counter-transference feelings can lead to either positive or negative disclosure, we must learn to discriminate between the two kinds. Brown and Pedder use this clear definition; “Winnicott often distinguishes between ‘objective’ and appropriate counter-transference and ‘subjective’ aspects which stem more from our own situational or unresolved personal issues. (1991; 62) The former is helpful, identifying with the client’s situation through empathy allows us to tune in to and reflect back their unconscious thoughts and feelings. These can be hidden behind dreams, stories and defences. When we as counsellors use a response such as “I wonder if under this there’s some anger? ” or “I feel as though I would have been upset about that, but you don’t seem concerned… ” it allows our diclosure of our own responses to challenge the client’s view of the world, which can be a beneficial breakthrough for them.

Alternately expressing feelings that come from our own past and counter-transference can have devastating results. I can remember an occasion in class, during a roll play, when someone playing the counsellor had so much in common with his ‘client’s’ experiences, that his counter-transference nearly tempted him to say; “That’s what happened to me… don’t make the same mistakes I did, this is what I learnt from the experience”. He resisted the temptation… and when reviewing the session in the class he asked the ‘client’ what his response would have been if he had revealed this about himself… he client replied “how can you know what I am feeling? your circumstances are not the same as mine, I don’t want to hear about you! ” The kind of unsolicited self disclosure he was considering may have caused a huge amount of potentially damaging, anger and resentment towards the counsellor. So in conclusion, when is self disclosure helpful or harmful to the client? This is a professional relationship and not a social one, so different rules of disclosure do apply, hopefully theory may be enhanced by expertise and we may learn to modify these rules slightly for different clients.

I think that this is an unusual and special alliance and it is vital for the client to learn to see a counsellor as ‘real’, a human being, personally involved in and interested by their problems, someone they can identify with and learn to trust. Some self disclosure is helpful, if not essential, for building this part of the therapeutic relationship. Sometimes it is impossible not to reveal personal details, such as your holiday arrangements, health or appearance, the client may also ask questions for information or through their transference.

The fact that the counsellor does not have to reveal personal details can increase personal security and enhance their involvement. Gently exploring with the client why they feel they need to know, is the most helpful kind of response. Self disclosure is damaging when the information is unsolicited, or when the counsellor gives answers which evoke an emotional response in the client. As a client myself, I found that my counsellor’s revelations had damaging effects on me, maybe because the feelings they aroused in me were never resolved satisfactorily, even by lengthy discussion.

This eventually led to my change of counsellor, which was a depressing and painful, experience and shows how destructive self disclosure can be to the therapeutic relationship. It even caused me to question the process itself, not for the reason I expected, because I didn’t get my questions answered, but because I did! Although it may be difficult for the new client or inexperienced counsellor to adjust to, it is a time for the client to explore their feelings, make their choices and find their own answers. Maybe with experience and true self awareness we can learn to keep the focus naturally on the client, finding the balance of openness and rofessionalism that is needed to help them most of all. Brown & Peddar Introduction to Psychotherapy, 2nd Edition, Tavistock Publications, 1991 Jacobs, M Freud, Sage Publications Ltd. Jacobs, M Psychodynamic Counselling In Action, Sage Publications Ltd. 1994 Jacobs, M Still Small Voice, S. P. C. K. 1993 Kennedy & Charles On Becoming a Counsellor 1973 Oldfield S The Counselling Relationship Routeledge Press Psychodynamic Counselling vol. 1 No. 1

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