Article: Therapist Self-Disclosure by Jane Pendlebury

Slef DisclosurePerhaps this is the most difficult subject that we all, as therapists face, no matter what theoretical modality we come from, whether counsellor or supervisor.  I refer to this topic as the “hot potato” of the therapeutic world; why?  Because no-one wants to talk about it or admit that they do it.

On recognising this avoidance, I wondered what has happened, how has this come to be?

My own fears are rooted in my original training, where it was emphasised that we never let the client into our own world of experiencing.  The intention was to safeguard our clients from altering the dynamics of the encounter, and thus the sessions becoming a social meeting.

As inexperienced trainees, I fully applaud this attitude, however, at no time since then, have I encountered anyone who openly admits that they have matured enough in their sense of “self”, and are now able to “risk” showing some of who they truly are.

As a person-centred therapist, I reflect and ask where is the congruence in this relationship?  How can I be fully present and authentic with my client, if I am holding back?

This doesn’t mean that I disclose so much about myself that the session becomes all about me, but rather I am aware of my “stuff”, and if appropriate, disclose a little, which enables the client to experience that I really do have some understanding of what it’s like to be them (albeit from my own perspective).

Key Protection

  • Who is this for?  Use your internal supervisor to constantly check out.  Is this helpful or narcissistic?
  • Is this appropriate for this client? Potentially, this could lead to the client being distracted from what they are disclosing, or being too vulnerable to receive it.
  • Resume. Immediately focus on the client as soon as possible afterwards.
  • Be comfortable. Only disclose about issues you’re comfortable with.
  • Attitude. Be alert to how I speak (tone of voice).

Simple disclosures could be:

  • I’ve seen that film too
  • I don’t watch too much TV, can you explain this to me?
  • I enjoyed that restaurant

I believe that if we keep the first key point in our awareness as a guideline, then we are working in the best interest of the client whilst also maintaining the guidelines for good practice, as set out by the professional organisation to which we belong.  In my case BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice.

So what actually is CONGRUENCE?  Here I will paraphrase Carl Rogers, Dave Mearns & Brian Thorne who describe it as “a way of being”.1  It is the state the therapist is in whilst being with the client.

Mearns & Thorne suggest three guidelines:

  1. Response: Therapist feelings only in response to client, which are appropriate
  2. Relevant: Therapist responses to be relevant to the immediate concern of the client (not own links of client content to those of other clients)
  3. Persistent or Striking: Therapist responds to persistent or recurring feelings in his/herself.2

So, having looked very briefly at guidelines made by other experienced practitioners, how does that sit with us?  I suggest that we reflect on our own personal development and self-knowledge, and then to be congruent with self.  No matter how challenging, I believe that this is the key to being an effective practitioner.  I have to know self, be comfortable with self, only then can I risk using my whole self in the therapeutic relationship.

Tony Merry emphasises the importance of being real with the client, which supports my views:

“If we are to be authentic it means that we cannot hide behind roles or masks. We have to come into the open and meet others openly and non-defensively.  This can be quite a hard thing to do, and often takes some courage to reveal ourselves and our feelings…….” 3

Use of Supervision

As in therapy, effective supervision occurs when there is a trusting relationship.  Yet I wonder how many therapists share with their supervisor the fact or the amount they self-disclose.  To enhance our internal supervisor it may be useful to reflect on the absence of what is shared in supervision, in other words, what I don’t say.  I guess that we all are capable of fooling ourselves!

If we think that self-disclosure is a “new” topic, we are misled.  It is heartening that there is a more open approach to this issue, however, Gerald Goodman writes on this topic in 1988.  This is at a period when counselling was gaining “respectability” in a wider audience. 

“....a pair cannot obtain even moderate intimacy without some risky disclosing”4  and

“......emotional risk-taking is a key ingredient for creating interpersonal trust....” 5

More recently, Beth Freire has been developing “The Therapeutic Relationship Scale”, referred to by Mick Cooper et al.   For example:

"My therapist revealed something personal about  themselves to me”.6

Whilst creating this article, I am aware of self-disclosing.  My style of writing, the words I use, the approach I use, the choice of quotes and references, all give the reader an insight into who I am.

Link this to the therapist consulting room .  Do I work from home; what is the décor of the room?  Are there pictures on the wall, if so, are they of family or something else?

What clothes do I wear to work?  Am I dressed casually or in a suit?  Wearing sandals, boots or shoes?  Plus many other variables.  What is my accent, is it local or from elsewhere?

Everything I do, discloses a little of who I am, therefore I believe it to be helpful to the therapeutic alliance that I acknowledge certain aspects of “self” openly.  This I mostly address in the initial session, thus avoiding client fantasy and demonstrating to my client, my willingness to be “open and honest”.

In conclusion there is something else I wish to disclose about myself.  When I commenced writing this article, I wrestled with the idea of either writing with quotes from others and making an academic article, or simply referring to my own views on the subject.  I believe that I have made a compromise, by being open about my own views, whilst making limited references to others. This leaves the reader able to pursue the topic further if you choose to do so.

Jane Pendlebury works in private practice as a therapist and supervisor.  She is an accredited member of BACP, is registered with the Professional Standards Authority and UKRC and is a member of BAPCA & WAPCEP.  If you wish to make contact please use her email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

References:

Mearns & Thorne, D & B, 1997. Person-Centred Counselling in Action. 1st ed. UK: Sage; 75

Mearns & Thorne, D & B, 1997. Person-Centred Counselling in Action. 1st ed. UK: Sage; 81

Merry, T, 1999. Learning & Being in Person-Centred Counselling. 1st ed. UK: PCCS Books; 100

Goodman, G, 1988. The Talk Book: the intimate science of communicating in close relationships. 1st ed. USA: Rodale press; 186

Goodman, G, 1988. The Talk Book: the intimate science of communicating in close relationships. 1st ed. USA: Rodale press; 3

Cooper & Holldampf, M & D, 2010. Person- Centred Experiential Therapies Work. 1st ed. UK: PCCS Books; 206

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