On Self-Disclosure and why I choose it, as a therapist

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I feel compelled to write about an issue that was raised in a recent supervision session of mine – the highly contentious counselling issue of ‘self-disclosure’ (in other words – giving the client any of our own personal information) It is an issue of great debate amongst counsellors and psychotherapists, and raises some very strong opinions –mostly negative. After all, original Freudian psychotherapy required the therapist to provide a blank canvas and space for the client to fill with the workings of their unconscious mind. For many years, clients lay down on a couch facing away from the therapist to facilitate this process, whist the therapist said little or nothing throughout the session, but took copious quantities of notes – giving us our therapy stereotype that we all know and (maybe) love, or (sometimes) fear.

I didn’t realise I felt quite as passionately I do about the subject until quite recently, when I started to realise that I was self disclosing reasonably frequently. So with trepidation I cautiously mentioned it to my supervisor, knowing that it was something I had to revisit and explore. I was right to be nervous, as my therapist met my confession  – yes, that was how it felt – with a look of concerned shock and the response that she would never recommend this usually.

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Here is where one of my character flaws kicked in before I could control it (yes, I own this), and my rebellious streak took over. Seeing her response, I couldn’t stop myself from pushing the envelope, and (maybe exaggerating some) I blurted out “Oh yes, I self-disclose all the time these days!”

Did I say that just to see the look on her face, and make her eyes widen? Did I want to play the disobedient child in order to test her ‘mothering’ skills (she is a relatively new supervisor to me – so it is possible) Am I so used to being provocative, and posing alternative ways of thinking, that I wanted to show her how competent I actually am? Or did I simply want to be completely congruent and own the fact that I am wholly myself in the therapy room – the exact same person as I am whilst out and about in the world?

Of course, she questioned me further on my statement (after all – what kind of therapist or supervisor wouldn’t?) and I found both all of the above, whilst going along on a train of thought that I hadn’t expected, and that my younger therapist self would have been quite surprised to hear. It took me back to my training;

 

One of my clearest memories of my first counselling placement as a trainee was of the final session I had with my very first long-term client. As you can imagine, this being my first proper job in the field, I was very keen to get things right, and wanted to make sure I did everything properly every step of the way, to the point where my self-awareness was often painful, and often extremely rigorous and perhaps heavy-handed at times. Although I had explicitly mentioned to him (whilst preparing for our ending) that the organisation I worked for did not allow us to accept any gifts, he had brought me one anyway. It was a lump of cheese –  and an extremely nice one too. I was surprised – taken aback, even, and I told him so.

 Why had he brought me a gift when I had clearly told him that he mustn’t, and how on earth did he know that I was such a lover of cheeses? He laughed, and told me that our therapy sessions hadn’t just been about me getting to know him – it had been just as important for him to get to know me, so that he could trust me properly.

He said that he had noticed my eyes widening every time he mentioned cheese in a recipe (he was a real food-lover, and had often discussed what he planned to cook that weekend) and that it had felt important to him knowing that I shared his enthusiasm for this. He explained that he knew that I was not supposed to give too much away about myself, but that he also sensed that I was a bit of a maverick, and that I would probably not mind him breaking the rules on this one harmless instance. That too was an important quality for him to find in a therapist, as he wanted therapy to be a place where he could find his own way in his life from now on, and not be encouraged to necessarily tow the line and keep the status quo.

What had I learned from this experience?

Firstly, that I have clearly got an extremely expressive face (!) and that I am not always aware of what it is doing. (You can take the girl out of drama training but you can’t take the drama training out of the girl, it seems)

Secondly, sometimes things come out sideways for a reason, and that may be because the client finds it important to know certain things about their therapist. Sure, it is most definitely THEIR space, and the disclosure should be kept to a minimum, but it is often important for the client to know they are working with a human being. Even if that human being is a bit (ok, a LOT) of a cheese fan.

Thirdly, when information isn’t given, sometimes the client will fantasize about their therapist, and make up stuff. Ok, so on this occasion my client was right. But, more importantly – there was relevance to his imaginings. He had needed me to be this non conformist for a really good reason, and thank goodness we got a chance to discuss it – albeit in his final session. I would have liked to have spent more time with it, but these things sometimes go like this.

 

I had learned all right. This experience had stayed with me, and (thankfully) helped me to ease up on myself a little. I stopped feeling quite so self-conscious, and a more natural ‘Katrina-type’ counselling style evolved, and continues to do so to this day.

In fact, when I look back on the period between now and then, there have been many, many, factors  and opinions that have contributed towards my therapeutic style, and my way of being with my clients. Discussion, work and experience  with many other therapists: colleagues, trainers, organisations,  clients and supervisors have all helped me to have confidence and belief in myself and both my skills and intuition. They have helped me to understand that I am the tool to be used in the process of change, and that I should trust how effective I am in it, in that moment. Usually if it feels right, there is a reason.

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Which brings me right back to being present, and the here and now in my own private practice. ME working in the way that feels most right for me and the client. My client, who has chosen me from a vast selection of other private therapists in the area, and who is paying quite a lot of money to make use of ME. So what do I give them, for their money? What else? ME. The real me. Sure, the fifty minutes paid for is their time, and is completely about them, but I do make it clear to them that I am ME in the room with them. I  intermittently choose to share little snippets of information about myself that allow my clients to know I am really human, that I have lived a life that provides me with a broad frame of reference, and if I feel that snippet helps them I am happy to give it.  I do feel that I am working with them for them.  I always have empathy for them. I feel other feelings with them, sure – sometimes for them, about them, always for the benefit of THEIR process. I work humanistically, primarily. This means I am a human being working from the present moment using feelings to understand experience.

So this is where my supervision session led me, and where I led my supervisor. I explained to her that I do put myself out there for the purpose of my therapy practice. That I have a regularly updated website, that I use social media regularly, as I feel it is extremely important for me to do so. That I blog about my experiences and disclose on here. That this is how I run my practise, and that it seems to work for me and my clients. She listened, and we agreed it seems that the clients I attract choose me for who I am, and respond to this way of working – in fact, that this is almost certainly why they have been drawn to me in their choosing of their therapist. It can only be, after all – I don’t advertise anywhere else, it’s either online or word of mouth.

Yes, we agreed that maybe it is a little unorthodox in comparison to a traditional way of conducting therapy, but that times are moving on, and that we have to move with them. Modern as the concept seems, I knew that it wasn’t really as new as we thought. When I got home, I found myself revisiting the great Carl Rogers (founder of person centred therapy), and his core conditions, written in 1957 and 1958.

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He stated that there are six necessary and sufficient conditions required for therapeutic change:

  1. Therapist–client psychological contact: a relationship between client and therapist must exist, and it must be a relationship in which each person’s perception of the other is important.
  2. Client incongruence: that incongruence exists between the client’s experience and awareness.
  3. Therapist congruence, or genuineness: the therapist is congruent within the therapeutic relationship. The therapist is deeply involved him or herself — they are not “acting”—and they can draw on their own experiences (self-disclosure) to facilitate the relationship.
  4. Therapist unconditional positive regard (UPR): the therapist accepts the client unconditionally, without judgment, disapproval or approval. This facilitates increased self-regard in the client, as they can begin to become aware of experiences in which their view of self-worth was distorted by others.
  5. Therapist empathic understanding: the therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference. Accurate empathy on the part of the therapist helps the client believe the therapist’s unconditional love for them.
  6. Client perception: that the client perceives, to at least a minimal degree, the therapist’s UPR and empathic understanding.

 

Of course, he summed up succinctly, in 6 phrases, what it has taken me 1500 words and a jam-packed hour of supervision (plus processing time afterwards), to say. But I think he says it quite perfectly, so I have repeated it on here for you to read. It’s how I work, and why I choose to self disclose from time to time.

Because I’m me.

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