Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

The impact of internet self-disclosure on the counseling relationship

By Laurel Shaler December 16, 2019

It was only our third session, but “Anne” and I seemed to be connecting well. She was thrilled to finally have time for counseling, given her busy life as a stay-at-home mom to three young boys and with a husband who traveled extensively. Over time, Anne began to relax and feel more comfortable opening up about some of her painful past experiences. She started sharing that one of the particularly challenging times in her life involved her and her husband’s struggle to conceive.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, however, I could almost see her wrestle to pull them back in. She stumbled to recover but seemed to be saying that she had no right to complain about their journey to parenthood because “at least” they had been able to have children. As my mind began to process what was happening, it hit me: She has seen my website.

Anne was one of my first clients after I opened a small solo practice. After leaving my previous clinical position and moving into counselor education, I had created a website on which I posted blogs and links to online articles I had written, listed speaking topics, provided links to videos as well as radio and podcast interviews, and shared about my books. Anyone who reviewed my website and read about me would learn that a part of my journey had been through infertility.

There was always a risk that students would search my name on the internet and come across my website, but that was a risk I was willing to take because I felt called to reach out to the community at large regarding topics related mostly to emotional well-being. Along the way, I shared a bit of my story.

When I opened my counseling office, I included the information about my practice on my website, but it did not occur to me that clients would review the website and bring what they found into the sessions with them. I knew that I would never be “friends” with clients on social media, nor would I search for my clients on the internet, and I included that information in my informed consent. But Anne’s reaction to her own vulnerability helped me realize that my internet self-disclosure was having a negative impact in the counseling room and that it might impact future clients as well.

Soon after my interaction with Anne, I consulted with another counselor regarding next steps. I did not want to shut down my website or stop speaking and writing, but I also did not want to cultivate an environment where my clients were so concerned about me that they filtered what they were saying so as not to hurt me (based on their own ideas regarding what would hurt me, that is). The counselor with whom I consulted had one suggestion: Separate my one website into two, with one being a personal website and the other a practice website.

I saw numerous flaws with this solution. First, I could not manage (or hire someone to maintain) two websites, especially with my private practice being very small. Second, a client could still easily locate my personal website by performing a simple internet search. (After all, the name “Laurel Shaler” is not a common one.) I thought there had to be another option for addressing this dilemma. I began to realize I could do several things to mitigate the effects reading my website might have on my clients, but at the same time, there were certain things I could not control. The same is true for any of us who self-disclose on the internet.

I cannot control a client searching for my information online, for instance. Because I have something of a public presence given my public social media accounts, trade books, and blogs/articles on the internet, clients are likely to run across some information about me that goes beyond the scope of my private practice. I have to be OK with that to maintain both an online presence and a clinical practice. Likewise, my clients need to be aware of the pros and cons of learning more about me over the internet.

What it will really come down to is the same factor that affects every counselor-client relationship: therapeutic rapport. If my client and I can establish safety and trust, as well as appropriate boundaries, and can communicate effectively, then we can more than likely work through whatever may arise as a result of the internet self-disclosure.

Through a self-supervision process, I have come to realize that Anne may have overidentified with me. In other words, in the same way she might not want to hurt the feelings of a friend, she did not want to hurt my feelings. She assumed that because I had been through an infertility journey that did not result in biological children, that sharing her journey that did result in biological children would upset me. Although I did not address the issue head-on at the time, if given a second chance, this is what the communication might have sounded like:

Anne: I shouldn’t complain because I know not everyone can have children, and I am really lucky and fortunate and blessed to have children even though I did go through infertility. I know it’s not the worst thing in the world, and others have a much harder time than we did. I shouldn’t have said anything about it.

Laurel: It sounds like even though you are grateful that your infertility journey ended by having children, that you had a hard time going through that experience. Can you help me understand why you think you should not say anything about your infertility?

Anne: Well, to be honest, I read on your website about your infertility journey, and I am so, so sorry for what you went through. I don’t want to compare my story to yours, in particular since I was able to have children and you weren’t.

Laurel: Your sensitivity to me says a lot about who you are as a caring and compassionate person. At the same time, I want this to be a safe space for you to feel free to openly share about your entire story. I want to encourage you to hold nothing back on account of me. You are welcome to read what I post — keeping in mind what you read may impact your view of me or our counseling relationship.

Anne: Yeah, I like what you write but did not want to offend or upset you.

Laurel: Thank you, Anne. I do not believe I will be offended or upset. However, if I am, that is my own issue that I need to work through with a counselor or supervisor. It would not be your fault. Are you open to exploring the infertility issue and the turmoil that brought to your life and marriage?

Anne: Yes, because it really messed me up for a while and my relationship with my husband too.

Laurel: OK, please start wherever you would like.

Anne: It all started …

Obviously, this fictional dialogue could go many different directions. This is a good-faith guesstimate of how the conversation might have unfolded based on the relationship I had with the client at the time.

In reality, even though I was a bit flustered internally and did not address head-on the client learning about me online, we were able to move forward with our therapeutic relationship. Anne came regularly to see me for about six months before she and her husband decided to pursue marriage counseling, at which time she needed to pause individual counseling.

My personal takeaways from this experience were twofold:

1) Counselors must think thoroughly and carefully about how having an online presence might impact their counseling practice and the clients they are serving. Counselors have to decide whether the two are compatible and if they can still be effective counselors. Is there controversial content that may lead a client to feel uncomfortable with the counselor? Is the counselor something of a “celebrity,” leading clients to be a bit star-struck and concerned about disappointing the counselor? Numerous aspects of internet self-disclosure need to be considered. Additionally, counselors must decide how to navigate the two or more hats that they wear. For example, counselors must decide whether to have two separate websites or one website that incorporates both a personal/commercial side and a counseling practice side.

2) If counselors have an online presence, this should be addressed early on in the counseling relationship. This can be part of a written informed consent, along with other information regarding the counselor not searching for clients online, not accepting or sending friend requests on social media, etc. This can also be addressed verbally in session, wherein counselors discuss their online presence and talk through how a client’s review of the counselor’s internet information might affect the counseling environment. Counselors must be aware that disclosing their online presence is, in and of itself, self-disclosure. Therefore, as with all self-disclosure, this must be addressed solely for the benefit of the client.

There is absolutely a way to have both an online presence and a successful counseling practice. Many counselors have done so beautifully. My personal experience taught me a valuable lesson about how these two can work in tandem rather than against each other. Anne — like all clients — deserved to have an authentic counselor with whom she could truly be transparent, without filtering herself based on information she knew about the counselor.

Although I believe knowing less about the counselor can be beneficial to clients, I am well aware that in our internet-driven and instant-knowledge society, many clients will desire to learn all they can about us before, during and after the counseling process. Getting out ahead of potential problems that could arise as a result may prove helpful for clients. Because my online presence is not going anywhere, this is an ever-evolving process that I must pursue for the sake of my clients.

 

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Laurel Shaler is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor, and licensed social worker. She is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Studies at Liberty University. Contact her through her website, drlaurelshaler.com.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. stefano

    Hi Laurel, I’m writing a book about counseling and self disclosure in counseling. I’d like to include an excerpt from your article in the book: the part of your reccomendation about your experience.
    best ragards
    Stefano Masci

    Reply
    1. Counseling Today Post author

      Hello Stefano, the author’s website is listed at the bottom of the article — feel free to contact her directly.

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