DSC8883 - SECTION 3: CONTENT, INTENSITY AND TIMING
There are three important factors for the clinician to consider when deciding whether to use self-disclosure. These are:
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
When it comes to the content of self-disclosures, there are two overarching principles that must be kept in mind: the content should always be oriented towards subjects that are in the client’s (as opposed to the clinician’s) best interest (6) and that the disclosure should be directly related to matters the client is discussing (10).
Disclosure for other any other reasons, or disclosure of questionable or inappropriate content, can result in client alienation.
Determining if the content of a self-disclosure is in the client’s best interest means asking yourself questions like “What is my purpose in sharing?…How do I expect the client to benefit?…If I were feeling as I think the client is would such a disclosure help me?”
The actual narrative of the self-disclosure need not be exactly the same as the client’s experience, but the effects and meaning of the events related in the self-disclosure should be analogous and appropriate to the client’s experience.
In terms of the amount of content, all self-disclosures should generally be brief and to the point. The clinician should not choose complicated stories with multiple characters that require great concentration on the part of the client.
It is also important that the clinician closely monitor the intensity of the information contained in the self-disclosure. Because of this factor, it is unwise to disclose information about yourself that you have not previously examined (1).
Unless you have processed the information thoroughly, there is a possibility that you may present to the client information that is more intense than you had anticipated. Under such circumstances, this risks exposing your own vulnerabilities, thereby confusing the client, and altering the focus of the interview.
It is also generally preferable to disclose past experiences rather than present ones. Present experiences may leave the client feeling that you are too emotionally involved in your own experiences to help them. They may also experience an obligation or expectation to offer you emotional support.
Another factor to consider is that clients may have their own set of expectations regarding what constitutes professional behavior on the part of the clinician. If those boundaries or expectations are violated, it can have a negative affect on the client and the client’s treatment.
The clinician must therefore evaluate and anticipate the client’s expectations in this area very carefully before choosing an intervention that involves self-disclosure.
This principle is especially important in work with clients who have significant perceptual distortions or problems with boundaries in their relationships. It is also of heightened importance in clinical relationship with difficult issues around transference and/or countertransference.
In all clinical relationships, however, whether or not there are complications with boundaries or transference, it is important that you not create an impression of yourself as emotionally unstable or psychologically maladjusted through the use of self-disclosure (3). This diminishes the client’s trust and confidence in the therapeutic process, and weakens your professional authority.
The third of our key principles has to do with the timing of the self-disclosure. In keeping with our overarching principles, timing has to do with assuring that the intervention is designed to further the well-being of the client.
This is to say that the clinician is expected to base his/her decision upon a conscientious assessment of whether the client is ready for a therapist to self-disclose. From a very practical standpoint, this means that the clinician should probably take a cautious stance towards self-disclosure until the client’s strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and perceptual style are clearly known.
Some clients may never be good candidates for the use of self-disclosure within a therapeutic relationship. Other clients may find self-disclosure useful reasonably early in the relationship. Without adequate time for assessment, however, the clinician will not have sufficient information upon which to base that decision.
In support of this generally cautious stance towards early self-disclosure, research suggests that clients are most comfortable with some psychological distance in the early stages of the relationship (3). Likewise, most of the literature cautions against using self-disclosure before therapeutic rapport and trust are established.
Assessment of a client’s therapeutic needs, of course, is an ongoing process. It is important to assess not just whether the client is ready for self-disclosure in terms of the development of the therapeutic relationship, it is also important to assess whether the client is ready for a self-disclosure at specific times within the course of a session.
Self-disclosures will inhibit client disclosure if the client is still talking, appears very emotional, or seems closed to other possibilities. It is important to choose an appropriate time that will not shift the focus of attention away from the client. Another issue in timing is whether the client is really ready to cede the floor to the clinician, or would prefer to continue with what he/she has been saying. Finally, it may be risky to self-disclose close to the end of a session, as this will leave no time to debrief should the self-disclosure go awry.
The clinician should also take great care to use self-disclosure sparingly. Repeated or too frequent use of self-disclosure increases the risk that the intervention will be viewed by the client as shifting the focus of the treatment away from the primary purpose of the counseling relationship- namely, to address the client’s problems and concerns.
Furthermore, current research appears to suggest that low to moderate levels of self-disclosure are more likely to produce positive effects in the therapeutic relationship, while high levels impede the relationship (9).
When to Use Self-disclosure
With information about content, intensity, and timing in mind, there are some cues that would indicate that a self-disclosure may be a helpful intervention at a particular point in the treatment.
We will present some examples of these kinds of cues in the brief section that follows.
When a client expresses the notion that their feelings, thoughts, or experiences are strange or abnormal and the clinician knows the contrary to be true.
Client: “I keep thinking that I shouldn’t feel this way and that something must be wrong with me.”
Clinician: “Did you know that is a very common feeling? I know I felt that way when I was dealing with a situation similar to yours.”
When the client engages in all or nothing thinking.
Client: “If I don’t take this job I know I’ll never be offered another at such a good salary.”
Clinician: “I remember thinking the same thing when I passed up a lucrative job because I didn’t want to move. Turned out my instincts were correct because the next job I was offered paid even more. Is it possible that could happen to you?"
When the client believes he/she is the only one to have experienced something.
Client: “I couldn’t tell anyone what happened to me as no one would understand.”
Clinician: “You think no one else has had that experience. I can tell you that I know many people who have, including myself."
When the client has been struggling to achieve a particular goal and seems to be losing confidence.
Client: “I don’t think things will ever change no matter what I do.”
Clinician: “I thought that too when I was trying to achieve a similar goal, but I was wrong and so are you."
It is important to note that these vignettes cannot capture the mood and nuances of the therapeutic session. Clients may make similar statements that call for other reactions from the clinician. Therefore, use these examples as “rule of thumb”, not as absolute directives.