30th October 2020
At the October meeting of the ‘Fells & Dales’ network of counsellors, our discussions were on the theme of Therapist Self-Disclosure, prompted by Graham S. Danzer’s book of the same title (Routledge, 2019).
We had a lively debate, drawing from our own experiences, trainings, opinions and beliefs. Our ‘use of self’ was agreed to be one of our greatest assets, whereby we ‘lend’ ourselves temporarily to our clients, allowing ourselves to be affected by them, and where appropriate to respond to them using the thoughts and feelings generated within us. The discussion was wide-ranging, acknowledging the broad spectrum of ways in which therapists might self-disclose, from the proverbial blank screen that gives little away, to the ‘splurging’ of self-revelations in the guise of congruence.
We identified many aspects of the therapist’s self that clients might be picking up – both visible, such as our appearance, age, clothes, furnishings, premises – and hidden, such as our religious beliefs, marital status, sexuality. It might be important for clients to know something about us, in order to feel safe with us, or to have confidence in our professionalism and our ability to help, or to be reassured that we can identify sufficiently with their issues, having at least partially shared their experience. We noted that our understanding will never be perfect, but our genuine effort to understand will hopefully come across and be felt by them. They need to know that we are human, with our own fallibilities and weaknesses, but also professional, and robust enough to contain both them and ourselves.
These are some of the possible questions posed by clients, that we considered:
- Why did you become a therapist?
- Are you a Christian?
- Are you gay?
- Are you married?
- Do you have children?
- Do you ever feel depressed?
And these are some of the questions we asked ourselves:
- Why did I become a therapist?
- Is it a good or bad thing for clients to idealise us?
- How do we respond to clients’ direct questions?
- How much of our own vulnerability would we want clients to see?
We discussed ways of ascertaining what might be behind a client’s question, without game-playing or being patronising, e.g. “I’m happy to answer your question but I’m curious to know why that might be important to you.”
We agreed with Mick Cooper’s useful distinction between therapist’s self-involving statements, that can help the client to feel ‘normalised’, understood and less alone in their experience, and therapist’s self-revealing statements which tend to take the focus away from the client and onto the therapist, in which case the empathic connection with the client may have been lost. We concluded that any self-disclosure should be brief, that we should be alert to its impact on the client, and that our intention should always be to advance the therapy and deepen the relationship.