The Great Disclosure Debate
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
Counselor self-disclosure may be defined as the practice of revealing personal information about oneself to a client. Few research articles have addressed this topic, debating the pros or cons of self-disclosure. However, self-disclosure is a serious consideration from a professional viewpoint for psychotherapists, counselors and psychologists.
There are three main types of self-disclosure (Anderson & Anderson, 1989).
Professional disclosure is revealing your professional experience and education. Professional disclosure is something most of us reveal by virtue of the acronyms following our names (e.g., Ph.D., LPC, M.S., etc.). We also disclose to clients through the diplomas and certificates hanging on our walls. Most of us do this basic inquiry when we walk into a professional’s office and scan the walls of diplomas. Our professional experience is also requested by savvy clients who want to be assured that we have the proper experience and training before trusting us with their emotional and mental well- being. Similarly, we often ask our lawyer or medical doctors, “How many cases like this have you won/cured?” In our profession, the question may be in the form of, “Do you work with adolescents/depression/anxiety (fill in the blank)?” As professionals, we provide counseling and psychological services for specific mental health concerns or subgroups of individuals (adolescents, LGBT, etc.) with proper training and certifications. Clients come to us for professional, unbiased, nonjudgmental services, and they want assurances that we have the experience and qualifications necessary to help them. Professional self-disclosure is expected and warranted for counselors and therapists. It is the other two types of disclosure that often land counselors in murky water.
Personal disclosure is revealing more private and individualized personal information about oneself to a client.
Our personal disclosure is often displayed in our offices through photographs of family and friends, vacation homes or the scenic trips we took. Personal self-disclosure is also revealed by the jewelry we wear (e.g., wedding band, necklaces and bracelets with disclosing charms and pendants) or the holiday office decorations we choose (e.g., religious, political). Other times, counselors self disclose private information to clients through their personal history. Personal stories of a counselor’s divorce, depression or bouts with bulimia may lure a counselor into thinking that, by sharing her personal histories, she is helping the client. Yet, unlike other professionals, if we disclose our personal information, it may put us at a disadvantage to helping our clients.
Dies (1973) and Strong (1968) demonstrated that conveying our weaknesses to clients undermines our role as experts. Does it matter if your divorce attorney is married or not? Would you care if your anesthesiologist or chiropractor had been under anesthesia or had back problems of his own? Or what if your accountant shared that he had been sober for the past several years? Would it change his expertise in finances? The personal disclosure of professionals does not impact their treatment or your care. However, a counselor’s personal disclosure may impact the client’s perception of your knowledge, bias or impartiality. For example, sharing your own relationship problems, anxiety or addictions may undermine your ability to remain professional or knowledgeable from a client’s viewpoint. A client may feel, “Well, if she could not maintain a marriage (sobriety, etc.), how can she help me?” More importantly, what concern is your personal life to them?
Every week, I am asked personal questions by my patients - from the mundane to the bigger issues. What does the E in my middle name stand for? Am I married? Am I divorced? Have I ever gone through depression? The questions are endless. My answer is always the same. It is not about me; we are here to talk about you. My office photos and décor reveal nothing of my personal history. My jewelry is kept minimal and non-descriptive. When a client persists, I often turn the question around and ask “Why is this so important for you to know?” Most often clients are redirected with this response, and we continue with our counseling session. Sometimes, a client will say “Well, if you were ____, then you would understand me better.” I always respond, “A divorce lawyer does not need to be divorced to win your case; nor does the best criminal attorney need to have committed a crime in order to help you.” So far, I have yet to lose a client over my lack of self-disclosure, and my clients respect my professionalism and focus on their concerns.
Affective disclosure can be defined as when a counselor reveals his beliefs, views or feelings on client-related issues. This is often another mistake that professional therapists make. Self disclosing our beliefs or views on client related matters does not let us maintain our impartiality – which is why our clients come to see us. If a client wants to know whether or not we agree, disagree, believe in or do not agree with their decisions, choices or views on particular concerns – then she may as well seek the advice of her friends or family.
As professional counselors, we do not advise clients. Unfortunately, counselors often provide their opinions to a client’s problem. This can bias a counselor’s judgment and objectivity in providing the client a sounding board for them to process through their own predicaments utilizing their own belief systems rather than incorporating ours.
The Patient's Point of View
In 2003, (Kim, Hill, Gelso, et. al) a study on the effect of self-disclosure on East Asian American clients concluded that affective disclosure was not as helpful (effective) for clients as disclosing strategies (e.g., “When I get anxious, I use breathing techniques”). However, as a counselor, I still believe that best practice would utilize any strategy that takes the personal self-disclosure out of the equation and replaces it with a generic ‘client’ (e.g., “Some clients use a breathing technique when they start to feel anxious”). Clients do not seek the help of a therapist for the sake of knowing the therapist’s views or beliefs. Clients come to your office with their own set of values and beliefs already in place. It is your job to help them either accommodate those beliefs into their particular situation or adapt those views so they reconcile cognitive discord or distortions.
My clients fill out an intake form that asks an open-ended question (if they have had previous counseling) “what worked or didn’t work?” One of the most frequent answers I get is, “He/she talked too much about her/himself.” Over the past several years, I have participated in several ‘mystery’ counseling sessions; whereby I was asked to take a ‘client’ and evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of different counselors. I bring along an identified patient (e.g., child). In nearly 100% of the sessions I have attended, the feedback I get from the identified patient is that the counselor talked too much about himself in the attempt to share and perhaps show similarities in the situation. The patients overwhelmingly felt that the counselor did not hear or understand them. In one particular session, I recall my ‘client’ sat in the office with tears streaming down his face. The counselor ignored the tears and shared her story about her own son’s situation. This specific client and situation were repeated with two other counselors with a nearly identical outcome. The misconception by therapists is that by self disclosing to our clients, we will help them form a trust or bond with us. However, at the root of all therapy is relationship building. As Carl Rogers taught us, we build rapport and trust with our clients through empathy, positive regard, immediacy, congruence, respect and concreteness. I think if Carl Rogers were around today, he would agree to keep the self-disclosure to a professional and limited level.
Professional self-disclosure is a valuable tool in establishing the core conditions for a positive, helping relationship with a client. Personal and affective disclosures are unprofessional and unwarranted in the role of the professional counselor. Our ethical codes of conduct make it clear that we provide a professional service and should not engage in befriending or personal relationships with our clients. Maintain your professionalism and leave self-disclosure at home.|
Dr. Tracy Hill is a school counselor in the West Chester [Pennsylvania] Area School District. In addition, she has a private psychology practice in Malvern, PA, and teaches psychology and behavioral health at Immaculata and Drexel University. She lives in Malvern with her three children and new therapy puppy, Freud.