W. Bryce Hagedorn once counseled a client who was wrestling with intense feelings of shame regarding things he had done during the Vietnam War. The client, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, felt responsible for the soldiers he had lost during combat. He never expressed any details connected to these painful and complicated memories, however, until Hagedorn used a pivotal therapeutic tool: self-disclosure.
Hagedorn is also a Marine Corps veteran who has served in combat. The disclosure of his military service “opened the door to share things that the client had never shared before, even with going to the Department of Veterans Affairs [for treatment] for years. Before he was able to share, he wanted to know if I would be judging him,” says Hagedorn, a licensed mental health counselor and director of the counselor education program at the University of Central Florida.
When used sparingly, professionally and appropriately, counselor self-disclosure can build trust, foster empathy and strengthen the therapeutic alliance between counselor and client. However, counselor self-disclosure also holds the potential to derail progress and take focus off of the client. It is a tool that should be used with care — and in small doses, according to the ethics professionals working at the American Counseling Association (see sidebar, below). Learning how, when or whether to use self-disclosure with clients is best achieved through training, experience and supervision.
Hagedorn notes that once a clinician self-discloses, the client may naturally be inclined to ask questions seeking additional personal information about the counselor. “If you’re going to self-disclose, know ahead of time where your bailout point is,” says Hagedorn, a member of ACA. “Once you open the self-disclosure door, where are you going to stop? When I worked with couples, they could see that I was wearing a wedding ring. I was often asked how long I had been married, if I had kids or if I ever struggled like [the clients were] struggling. Know where you’re going to stop answering questions.”
Hagedorn doesn’t believe that self-disclosure should be an automatic, out-of-the-gate technique for counselor practitioners. Rather, he advises, counselors should consider it a tool to keep in reserve, using it only when appropriate — and with clear intention.
“I’m in favor of less is more with self-disclosure,” Hagedorn says. “If you’re going to self-disclose, you have to do it with dignity and understand the reasons why a client is asking [for personal information from a counselor]. Explain to the client, ‘Even if I have walked down a similar path, it doesn’t mean I have walked down your path.”
The many aspects of self-disclosure
Counseling Today recently collected insights about counselor self-disclosure from American Counseling Association members of varied backgrounds and practice settings. Read their thoughts below.
We encourage readers to add their own thoughts to this discussion by posting comments at the bottom of this article.
Kimberly Parrow is a doctoral student at the University of Montana. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in working with clients to address grief and posttraumatic growth.
Client comments often spark the urge for self-disclosure. The feelings of connection in a professional counseling relationship tempt counselors to self-disclose, sometimes without warning. I think the consideration of providing personal details to clients occurs regularly [but] believe situations when such disclosures are appropriate are few. Appropriate self-disclosure is client-focused, validates the client’s experience and spurs further exploration. A constructive disclosure is brief, focused on meaning and light on story.
Professional counseling relationships require a harmony of the necessary theoretical and relational components. When the pull to disclose occurs, I take a moment and ask myself three things:
a) Is the disclosure grounded in theory?
b) Is there any other way to keep the locus of the experience within the client’s world?
c) How will the disclosure affect the therapeutic relationship?
For these reasons, I think it is important to keep in mind that the decision to disclose should not be made in the moment. An appropriate disclosure is the product of thoughtful planning.
I once had a young adult client recovering from a tragedy that killed several people and left him clinging to life. Our work began after several months of hospitalization and physical therapy. A number of sessions became focused on his feelings of dissociation regarding his own near-death experience. He would make statements such as, “I almost died, and it feels like I don’t care.” He explained the feeling was getting in the way of connecting with his family and friends. His support people couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more thankful to be alive, and neither could he. Feelings of isolation and confusion were becoming a sticking point in his recovery. He felt alone in a rare experience. However, he wasn’t and isn’t alone; I have had a near-death experience too.
My decision to disclose took several days. The disclosure would be tied to our treatment goals, but keeping the locus on the client was a challenge. A discussion of my experience might be too alluring and could pose a threat to our therapeutic relationship and focus. Eventually I decided on a very brief statement, [saying], “I almost died once too,” and waited for the subject to surface again. When it did, I shared my brief statement. It was simple and powerful. In that moment, he was able to trust that my validation of and explanation for his dissociation was real, because I had also lived it. As a result, our therapeutic bond deepened, and our trauma recovery work gained traction.
Benjamin Hearn is a school-based counselor in Columbia, South Carolina.
Self-disclosure is something that we all do with our clients from the moment we begin interacting with them. Our clothes, offices and other nonverbal communications all disclose things about [us], either intentionally or unintentionally.
Our more common notion of self-disclosure, however, centers on information we share about ourselves verbally with our clients. One piece of information that I have found myself often considering whether to disclose is my identity as a gay male. I most often disclose this information when I have sufficient client rapport and a client voices an incorrect assumption about me, such as asking about my wife. At other times, I may use disclosure to model a healthy gay identity or to promote a sense of similarity between myself and a client.
This latter approach was particularly helpful with a teenage client who had recently come out as gay but did not know other gay people and conceptualized them using common stereotypes. In order to keep the focus on him while disclosing, I framed my disclosure with a question afterward, saying, “I’m not sure if you know this, but I’m also gay and wonder if you see me as fitting within these stereotypes?” This allowed my client to explore differences in gay identities, as well as modeling a secure identity. He noted that he was surprised at how casual I had been in my statement, after which I was able to assist him in exploring reasons that he was anxious about his own disclosure to others.
Regardless of the content being self-disclosed, counselors should consider the possible risks and benefits of disclosure prior to disclosure and how they will keep focus on the client afterward. This can be done by questioning how a client responds to the information or by ending the disclosure using an empathy statement such as, “I remember when my own child left for college. You feel like the house and your life is just emptier.” Though this statement contains a self-disclosure, it is framed in a way that acts as an empathy statement, which the client is then able to evaluate according to their own experience.
Overall, mindful and intentional self-disclosure can act as a powerful technique in the therapeutic relationship [that] can normalize client issues, model healthy behaviors and increase clients’ own self-exploration.
John J. Murphy is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology and counseling at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of the book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, published by ACA.
The decision to self-disclose, like any counseling decision, is based on my judgment of its potential to enhance clients’ goals. For me, self-disclosure is never planned but occurs spontaneously, just as it does in other relationships and conversations. Self-disclosure can help convey our humility, humanity and understanding. Research indicates that the most effective counselors are seen by clients as genuine, compassionate and accessible, and self-disclosure can help foster such perceptions.
The following examples of self-disclosure occurred in a psychoeducational group that I led for parents and guardians of children with behavioral difficulties:
- We started the first meeting by stating that some parents describe parenting as one of the most joyful, gratifying and challenging experiences of their lives. I commented that parenting was much more draining and humbling than I ever expected, adding that “if I made as many mistakes on a job as I do as a parent, I’m pretty sure I’d be fired within a week.” They liked that metaphor and brought it up a few times in subsequent meetings.
- I made the following comments in a meeting during which a parent stated how hard it was to change her parenting style: “Some of my parenting habits have been really hard to break. One that comes to mind is the use of those short ‘precision requests’ we discussed last week. Even though I teach it to parents, it’s hard for me to do it with my own kids. So, I have these times when I can almost see the words traveling from my mouth toward one of my kids, and I just want to reach out and pull them back before they get there. I’m not sure why I expect these words to work now when they haven’t worked the last 100 times. It’s frustrating and embarrassing.”
Both examples framed the experience of making and accepting mistakes — a valuable skill for any parent — as a shared, inevitable part of any major life journey, parenting or otherwise. While neither example was deeply personal or self-revealing, I hope that acknowledging my own parenting blunders and frustrations helped level the relationship and enhance my approachability.
Self-disclosure, like anything else we do as counselors, is only as useful as clients’ response to it. Obtaining regular client feedback on their experience of the alliance can also help detect a client’s response to self-disclosure and other aspects of our overall counseling style and approach.
Catherine Beckett is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral counseling program at Oregon State University. She also has a private practice in Portland, Oregon, specializing in grief counseling.
Like many other aspects of counseling, clients are going to have different experiences with different approaches. One question I always ask during the intake process is, “If you have had counseling in the past and it worked well, what was it about the therapist’s approach or style that was positive for you? Or, if it did not work well, were there aspects of the approach or style that contributed?”
Some clients say, “That therapist shared too much; I didn’t like it.” Whereas others may say, “That therapist wouldn’t even answer basic questions about him[self] or herself, and I found it hard to have a relationship with somebody I didn’t know at all.” So, within the bounds of what I believe is ethical and what I feel comfortable with, I will try to be respectful of a client’s preferences in the service of building a positive alliance.
The second principle I have found useful is the practice of requiring myself to have clarity about the purpose of a disclosure prior to making it. I suggest to clinicians whom I supervise that they be able to follow any disclosure with, “The reason I am sharing this is …” This serves two purposes. First, it holds counselors responsible for clarity around intention. Second, it makes the purpose or intention clear to the client, as opposed to — and guards against the possibility of — a disclosure coming across as chitchatty, or as the counselor making the session about him/her.
I also believe that counselors need to be very cautious about using disclosures to convince a client that we understand how she or he feels. Even if we have had an experience similar to what that client is going through, the reality is that we don’t know how she or he feels. We had our own experience, and the experience of our client may be quite different.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana and the author of eight books, including Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, published by ACA.
My first thought about self-disclosure is that it’s a multidimensional, multipurpose and creative counselor response (or technique) that includes a fascinating dialectic. On one hand, self-disclosure should be intentional. If counselors aren’t aware that they’re using self-disclosure and why they’re using it, then they’re probably just chatting. On the other hand, self-disclosure should be a spontaneous interpersonal act.
Self-disclosure is an act that involves revealing oneself. As Carl Rogers would likely say, if your words aren’t honest and authentic, then your words aren’t therapeutic. From my perspective — which is mostly person-centered — the purest (but not only) purpose of self-disclosure is to deepen interpersonal connection. As multicultural experts have noted, self-disclosure can facilitate trust more effectively than a blank slate, because transparency helps clients know who you are and where you stand. What’s less often discussed is that it’s impossible to not self-disclose; we’re constantly disclosing who we are through our clothing, mannerisms, informed consent form, office accoutrements and questions.
I remember working with a 19-year-old white, cisgender, heterosexual male. He told me he was diagnosed as having reactive attachment disorder. After listening for 15 minutes, I was convinced that there was no possible way he could meet the diagnostic criteria for reactive attachment disorder. First, I used an Adlerian-inspired question/disclosure: “What if it turned out you didn’t really have reactive attachment disorder?”
You might not consider a question as self-disclosure, but every question you ask doesn’t simply inquire, it simultaneously reveals your interests.
Later, I disclosed directly, using immediacy: “As I sit and listen to all your positive relationships, it makes me think you don’t have reactive attachment disorder.” Despite my interpersonally clever use of an educational intervention embedded in a self-disclosure, my client didn’t budge, countering with, “That doesn’t make any sense, because I’m diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.”
At that point, I wanted to use self-disclosure to share with him all the ways in which I was a smarter and better health care professional than whoever had originally misdiagnosed him. Fortunately, I experienced a flash of self-awareness. Instead of using disclosure to enhance my credibility, I spontaneously disclosed, “I’ve been talking way too much. I’m just going to put my hand over my mouth and listen to you for a while.”
As I put my hand over my mouth, my client smiled. The rest of the session was — in both our opinions — a rousing success.
Zachary R. Taylor is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and behavioral health director at a health center in Lexington, Virginia.
I specialize in working with patients who have chronic anxiety and panic, and I regularly disclose that I suffered from these disorders myself for more than 10 years.
The key is being specific about my experiences because many anxious patients feel no one understands what they are going through. Simply saying, “I too was anxious” often doesn’t connect. Instead, I choose specific stories about my many trips to the emergency room, my phobia of checking the mail, the clutching on to my Xanax and my sophisticated driving routes through town to avoid anxiety triggers.
When I share these things, it’s usually out of an effort to normalize their experience and get leverage because, if they know I’ve been there, they’re more likely to accept my help not only as a licensed counselor but also as a former anxiety sufferer who has used these same counseling principles to recover.
Second, I use self-disclosure to reinforce principles we are working on in counseling. For example, to this day, I still experience scary and sometimes tragic images that flash through my mind out of the blue. These used to send me into full-on anxiety spirals, during which I would go through all kinds of safety behaviors to reassure myself that I, and everyone I loved, was OK.
The only real difference between these images then and now is not that the images don’t come back anymore but that I learned how to do things many counselors know as cognitive defusion and psychological flexibility. This is the ability to recognize the imaginary quality of these images and learning how to have the courage to treat them as things I can safely ignore.
This example, in particular, is useful when patients believe every anxious thought, image or sensation and take them as something they need to either respond to or repress. It gives them a new vision that recovery doesn’t mean never having another anxious thought but learning to cope with them when they show up.
However, we must remember there’s a difference between showing patients our psychological scars versus our psychological wounds. There is a significantly greater risk in revealing hurts not yet healed. We must be judicious in self-disclosure, make it brief, always have a clear therapeutic purpose and have a reasonable expectation that the patient can manage the disclosure and that they never feel the need to care for us in the process.
Richard S. Balkin is an LPC and the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development. He is also a professor and doctoral program coordinator in the Department of Leadership and Counselor Education at the University of Mississippi.
In the second semester of my master’s program, my skills class was taught by a professor who followed a psychoanalytic orientation. She was clear that she would give feedback based on this orientation and that it was OK to reject her feedback as long as we supported any alternative with our understanding of theory. I do not recall any student rejecting her feedback. That being said, I do recall my first session with a client. When the client entered the room, I reached out to shake hands. When reviewing my initial session with the professor and class, I was asked [by the professor] why did I reach out to shake hands? When I indicated I thought that was the polite thing to do, I was told, “That’s about you, not the client.”
I remember being taken aback by this feedback, which seemed to me rather extreme. Not only did I listen to it at the time, but I was influenced by it for many years. Naturally, not shaking hands with the client easily extended to what I could possibly share with a client. If the initiation of a handshake was viewed as countertransference, I could only imagine what my professor would say if I were to self-disclose.
Of course, all of this was challenged in my first year working as a professional counselor, when I worked on a dual diagnosis unit with adolescents. Many members of the multidisciplinary treatment team were active in 12-step support programs, so self-disclosure as a means for teaching about addiction and working together was very natural. More importantly, the adolescents seemed to appreciate the candor and learn something from it.
No doubt, self-disclosure can be helpful, but it can also be self-serving for the counselor, contributing to an unhealthy dynamic in the counseling relationship. If the curative components of counseling truly are based on the counseling relationship, then counselors might do well to consider how self-disclosure will deepen the counseling relationship. In [the ACA-published book] Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life, my co-author, Jeffrey Kottler, and I mention ways that self-disclosure can be therapeutic, [including] communicating understanding and acceptance and promoting deeper reflection.
Sidney Shaw is an LPC in Anchorage, Alaska, and a core faculty member in the School of Counseling at Walden University.
Researchers often describe two types of self-disclosure: immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure. Immediate refers to process self-disclosures from the counselor about their own feelings or ways of experiencing the relationship with the client. Nonimmediate self-disclosure or counselor disclosure about their life, personal experiences or biographical information is often what counselors are referring to when they discuss self-disclosure. Immediate and nonimmediate self-disclosure both have potential to deepen the alliance and promote client wellness. That said, there can also be negative effects of indiscriminate self-disclosure. The litmus test of whether or not to engage in self-disclosure is to do so only when it will be therapeutic for the client.
In the spirit of self-disclosure, I’ll share an anecdote about nonimmediate self-disclosure from my own practice. Early in my counseling career, I worked with indigenous communities, and one of my first experiences was to co-facilitate groups on the topic of healthy families and communities. In preparing for the upcoming groups, my supervisor asked me, “Have you thought about what story you are going to share about yourself?” I replied that I had not considered it, and I could feel my anxiety rise as he mentioned it. As a recent counseling graduate, I was highly concerned about negative effects of self-disclosure — e.g., too much emphasis on me, communicating that how I dealt with a situation is how the client should deal with it, etc.
As my supervisor pointed out, and as supported by my subsequent experience and broader research findings on the topic, self-disclosure is frequently an important element of developing trust in working with indigenous clients. One of the groups that I co-facilitated was on the topic of male family relationships. With this in mind, I shared a brief story about my father, how we had been through a long period in which our relationship was conflictual and how we eventually worked to move toward a more harmonious relationship. Cultural context is an important factor to consider in terms of how and to what degree to engage in self-disclosure. Thoughtful and intentional self-disclosure can help counselors build alliances with individual clients and with communities outside of their own.
As counselors, we may initially intend to self-disclose in order to promote client well-being, but self-disclosure can subtly and unwittingly begin to creep toward serving our own needs. The question of whether or not our self-disclosure is therapeutic for the client is not one that counselors should answer in isolation. Ongoing consultation with skilled, wise and competent supervisors and peers is an essential element of helping counselors answer this question.
Caitlyn M. Bennett is a licensed mental health counselor and an assistant professor at the University of North Texas.
One of my areas of clinical expertise is anxiety, especially in adolescents and young adults. Anxiety has a way of making people feel out of control, and oftentimes, clients have told me that they “feel crazy.” Because of this, I have found when processing and making sense of the physiological aspects of anxiety — i.e., racing heart, tightness of chest, etc. — with clients, it can be empowering and validating to self-disclose my personal physical expressions of anxiety.
Prior to this self-disclosure, I find that general psychoeducation about anxiety [and its effects on] the brain and body serves as a catalyst to making sense of anxiety as well as serving as a bit of a normalizing factor. This helps me to gauge whether clients feel connected and understand the physiological impacts of anxiety. For example, their experience of anxiety may not involve as much of the physical experiences. Thus, me expressing my personal physical experiences of anxiety would not be helpful for the client.
After exploring psychoeducation, I begin to encourage clients to share about their personal physical experience of anxiety. If clients have a hard time identifying where in their body they experience anxiety, this is where I introduce self-disclosure by sharing, “When I feel anxious, I may feel my anxiety in my chest or my shoulders tense up. What about for you?”
I have found that this softens and makes exploring anxiety safer and more relatable without taking away from the counseling space being for the client. It also creates an added layer of connectivity for the therapeutic relationship. I have found that some of the most powerful sessions have been when clients feel understood by me as their counselor and also realize that I am only human too.
In all aspects of self-disclosure, I reflect on rapport and encourage my students to do the same. For example, I don’t make it a point to self-disclose prior to establishing a working therapeutic relationship. Self-disclosing prior to creating this relationship may create misunderstanding of what counseling will or will not look like for the client.
It is also important for counselors to remember that self-disclosure can be such a powerful tool. In my personal process of integrating self-disclosure with a particular client, I reflect on the pros and cons of self-disclosure, the difference of impact in emotional (personal feelings) versus content (facts) self-disclosure, the development of the client and multicultural factors. When I have explored this with counselors-in-training, we often focus on using self-disclosure “for good and not for evil.” That is, will the self-disclosure I choose to use be helpful for my client and their process or only benefit myself?
Carol ZA McGinnis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and approved supervisor. She is a pastoral counselor and clinical director for the AWI Counseling Center at the Fairview United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Maryland, and an associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator in the graduate counseling program at Messiah College.
As a person-centered [counselor], I rarely self-disclose and only after professional consultation and deep reflection on how that content may be of significant help to the client.
One client who had decided to drop out of high school and pursue her GED received a brief self-disclosure from me at our termination session. I considered the fact that I had dropped out of high school and earned my GED many years prior to completion of my Ph.D. sufficient to disclose. [In doing so, I] meant to encourage and challenge the client to stay the course.
Another client I can recall self-disclosing to was a Muslim adolescent whose parents had asked with concern about my religious orientation. After consultation with my site supervisor and fervent prayer, I decided to disclose my faith tradition along with reiteration of my work that would focus on the client’s beliefs and not my own. It was rewarding to receive a copy of the Koran at our termination session in appreciation from the client and his family.
I do, however, use emotional self-disclosure fairly frequently to validate and normalize client anger. Oftentimes, people who come to me for help with their anger feel shame, guilt or fear, and it has been helpful for them to hear that I am in alignment with them when they report an unfair or unjust event as the source of that emotional response. This disclosure does not include circumstances or stories from my life but instead remains strictly within the realm of emotion in the moment.
One client example of this type of disclosure involved a [client’s] vague memory of an unidentifiable doctor who had engaged in questionable behavior during a medical physical when she was a teenager. The client could not recall what had happened beyond [the doctor’s] request to have her strip naked and do jumping jacks, yet the anger she held toward him was fresh. When this client cursed through tears at this person in the counseling session, I disclosed my own feeling of anger toward this person because he had violated her trust and his professional mandate to act in an ethical manner. Efforts to report this professional were largely unsuccessful due to the client’s blocked memory, yet the client reported feeling affirmed and validated by our work that focused on mitigating that traumatic event.
The ethics of self-disclosure
Practitioners who choose to self-disclose information about their personal lives in counseling sessions often walk a fine line between using it as a tool to connect with clients and diverting attention away from clients and on to themselves.
When used incorrectly, self-disclosure can take focus away from the therapeutic work and the needs of the client. When used appropriately, however, practitioner self-disclosure can build trust, strengthen the therapeutic relationship and help a counselor to express empathy.
So, how much self-disclosure is too much? Practitioners must always put the client first when using any intervention, including self-disclosure, says Joy Natwick, ethics specialist for the American Counseling Association. Counselors should carefully consider their client’s needs and presenting issues and whether the self-disclosure could trigger an issue with which the client struggles, such as excess worry or caretaking behavior, she says.
In addition, self-disclosure should never be used as a response to the counselor’s emotional needs or in situations in which self-disclosure would jeopardize the quality of care to the client, Natwick emphasizes.
Self-disclosure should be regarded as a tool to engage clients and help move them toward their treatment goals. If it would have any other outcome, it is unlikely to be the correct intervention to use, Natwick says.
For additional guidance, consult the following standards in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics:
- A.1.a. Primary responsibility
- A.4.a. Avoiding harm
- A.4.b. Personal values
- A.6.b. Extending counseling boundaries
- B.7. Case consultation
- C.2.g. Impairment
- C.6. Public responsibility
- H.6. Social media
- I.1.b. Ethical decision making
Related resources from ACA
- Boundary Issues in Counseling: Multiple Roles and Responsibilities, third edition, by Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey
- Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Richard S. Balkin
- The Secrets of Exceptional Counselors by Jeffrey A. Kottler
- ACA Ethical Standards Casebook, seventh edition, by Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “#MeToo: The ethics of counselor self-disclosure” by Joy Natwick, February 2018 Ethics Update column
- “Creative and novel approaches to empathy” by Ed Neukrug, February 2017 Knowledge Share
- “Building better counselors” by John Sommers-Flanagan and Kindle Lewis, November 2017 Knowledge Share
- “Why can’t we be friends?” by Allison L. Kramer, February 2016 Knowledge Share
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.