Self-Disclosure: Client, Counselor, or Both?

What is Self-Disclosure?

Self-disclosure refers to personal information that people choose to share about themselves with other people. It can vary in terms of topic, level of detail, who is sharing, and how much is shared. 

The counseling context shifts the proportion of self-disclosure from other, every-day conversations. In every-day conversations between two people, we may expect self-disclosure to fall somewhere around fifty-fifty. However, in a typical counseling, or talk-therapy, session we may expect that the client is the person doing essentially all of the self-disclosure. Let’s talk about why this is and if there’s an opportunity for that to change. 

Where this comes from.

It may come from the counselor themselves. Every individual has a preference for privacy and confidentiality that feels comfortable and appropriate for them. Counselors are no different. They may choose not to self-disclose because in their role as a counselor, it feels most appropriate to them to remain private and confidential about their personal experiences.

Additionally, it is often taught to budding counselors to keep “themselves” out of the counseling room. This comes from the tradition that believes the counseling context is meant solely for the client. Meaning the counselor’s personal experiences, values, and opinions aren’t brought into the counseling room so as to not unduly influence their clients. Counselors who share this tradition may have concerns that sharing about themselves will take away from the client’s experience in counseling. This is a valid concern as it is the counselor’s responsibility to make sure the focus of counseling stays on the client.

But what if the counselor wants to self-disclose?

More recent counseling traditions believe that carefully considered counselor self-disclosure is not only appropriate in the counseling context, but that it can also improve the counseling relationship. But this begs the question – what does carefully considered self-disclosure mean?

If a counselor experiences the instinct to self-disclose during session, the first question they should ask themselves is “Who is this self-disclosure for?” If the answer is for the client, or in order to strengthen the bond of the counseling relationship, then it is likely appropriate. 

The next consideration a counselor needs to make is how much to self-disclose. This is the client’s session, after-all, not the counselor’s. Keeping self-disclosure short and sweet as the counselor is likely the way to go. Disclosing that an experience is shared can benefit the counseling session and relationship. However, it is important to be aware that the counselor runs the risk of harming the counseling relationship if they over-indulge in their own experience and make the session about them. 

Finding the balance.

So, who is doing the self-disclosure? The client, the counselor, or them both? Well, the client is still going to be doing the majority of the self-disclosure. But that doesn’t mean the counselor has to remain a mysterious projection of themselves at all times. With careful clinical judgement, appropriate timing understanding the motivation behind it, and keeping it succinct, counselors can use self-disclosure to effectively strengthen the counseling relationship and improve the counseling experience for both the client and the counselor.

Blog by Taylor Steele