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Today I had a decision to make – my daytime work is filming something that I am a part of that will end up on youtube. I had to decide what top to wear. This got me thinking: self-disclosure is a tricky beast, where it’s generally agreed that some self-disclosure might be ok, if it benefits the client, but other self-disclosure is not ok, where it might not. Although having said that, there will inevitably be times where we self-disclose to benefit a client, when this doesn’t help, or choose not to disclose when it might have helped.

But disclosure is in the ‘life’ disclosures that we do or do not make. And it’s here where I see people often reply with a ‘why would you need to do that?’. Generally this comes from a person in a majority – so I am questioned for example, being open about my sexuality with clients, by a person who is not of a minority sexuality, yet who has no issue wearing a wedding ring. In this instance, it’s assumed that the person asking ‘why’ is straight. They have already been saved the issue of disclosure by virtue of the fact that it’s just assumed by society.

There are other disclosures to be made as well however. All too often these are also based on ‘norms’. I would not be surprised to hear myself told that it is not always appropriate to disclose to my clients that I have a mental ill-health history. However, what I then need to know is if I can wear long sleeves always (as a result of that mental health history I have extensive scarring on my arms). If not, what happens to the person-centred principle of therapist congruence, where my client can see that I am (for example) uncomfortable in the heat, but for some (unknown to them) reason am not wearing short sleeve/rolling my sleeves up? Should I be free to wear short sleeves and no cardigan into my office? If not – why not?

We make other disclosures all of the time, based on our speech, our clothing style, and it would be daft to assume that we do not. But still, there definitely seem to be ‘sanctioned’ disclosures that we should or should not make, based on what society (or counsellors?) as a whole have decided are ok. Whilst I don’t think that our place as therapists is to tell our clients our life stories, I do think we need to be aware of the fact that we self-disclose all of the time, and this isn’t avoidable. Sometimes I think that we should actively embrace this and yes, whilst a conversation might be interesting to have around the client-asked question (why is this important to know?).

As trainees, we get told a lot about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be doing. I’ve been told that ANY self-disclosure is wrong, and also, that the right amount of self-disclosure for the right reason at the right time is ok. Both by qualified counsellors (the second one by Fred my supervisor. I’ll take his judgement on this issue). I think that what we need to be aware of most is a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a question, and I also think that we need to have thought through issues such as self-disclosure before we are faced with it, so that we have some idea on what we might do/how we might react. For me it feels akin to a shame reaction: society dictates the norm, and those who operate within it do not have to ‘out’ themselves. For those of us who wish to out ourselves as NOT being part of the norm, suddenly, we must justify our responses: ‘why would you want to tell someone you were a lesbian?’ ‘why would you want to let someone know you used to self-injure?’. It’s not a question for me of ‘want to’; it just is. I can never remove those parts of me and they are present in the room as I am. Do I want to make those explicit at times? Absolutely.


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6 thoughts on “Self-disclosure

  1. What an interesting post…

    Being in a long term therapeutic relationship, I feel like we know our therapist very, very well. Thinking about it, though, we know very little about her life outwith the therapy room other than the places she goes on holiday, her pastimes, a little about her pets and her partners name.

    For us, it is important to know * her *, but not important to know * about * her if that makes sense? For example, her emotional honesty when a few tears rolled down her cheeks when none of me were capable of crying, but were sharing the reality of some very vulnerable parts of me…that openness and honesty meant so much and is appreciated so much by those of me involved.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you feel comfortable wearing short sleeves and you are confident that the client will be, too then go for it. I think you should be able to wear anything (well, maybe not a onesie! ) in your work environment.

    Something I wonder, is how you feel about colleagues [who may not be aware of your history] asking questions regarding the scars? Often, the reaction of peers is the one of most concern from what I’ve experienced.

    Hope our digressions have made sense, thinking of you.

  2. kotukutuku says:

    Wow, I am so excited to have found this post, thank you for writing it! I am a social work student and have just finished my second placement, which I did in a child and adolescent health service. It is an area I have been interested in, and I absolutely loved the work with clients, but as someone who has been a service user in that field being within that environment was challenging in someways, particularly in terms of feeling wary around colleagues (about how they would judge me if they knew about my personal experiences).

    The issue of self-disclosure came up a lot. I too was questioned about being open about my sexuality, and in the end I wasn’t. As a student I felt I had enough to deal with without having to justify being open about it, even though I felt there was a double standard when no one questioned others who wore wedding rings or mentioned even mentioned a husband or wife. After a conversation in supervision where it was suggested that it might make someone feel uncomfortable I noticed one of my supervisors wearing a cross necklace, which I thought could make some LGBTIQ clients feel uncomfortable and uncertain about disclosing.

    I also have scars on my arms, and while I was not explicitly told “you must wear long sleeves or else” I was certainly left with the feeling that wearing short sleeves would be wrong. I felt quite isolated, as someone who has personally experienced serious mental illness working in a general service (as opposed to a peer lead organisation). After a while though I had a conversation with a colleague who mentioned having some personal experience, and knowing I wasn’t alone helped immensely. Still, therapists with self harm scars seems to be an area that is seldom talked about. I have spent ages searching article databases and Google, and so far I have come up with an interview with Marsha Lineham and now your blog post. I’m sure we can’t be that unusual.

    At the end of my placement I was talking to the colleague who had been open with me about her experience, and I told her about how I felt that in supervision the focus had been very much on the risks of self disclosure and the potential for harm, which left me feeling that my very body was dangerous, just by being in the room. My colleague said to me that people bring all kinds of things into the room, which might have a harmful effect on the therapeutic relationship, but the issues are not usually visible. She pointed out that actually having awareness and exploring the issue was less dangerous than people with a lack of self awareness about their own issues. I found that a helpful perspective.

    Eventually I’ll get on to writing something myself. For now I am meant to be doing my research project, but I just wanted to say hi, and thank you!

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