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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On how we sometimes use long complicated words to describe ideas that we all understand and think about

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Existential.

That’s the word I’m talking about.

When I was young, it was a word I used to sometimes hear floating around in ‘adult conversation’. To my childish ears it sounded terribly grand and intelligent, and the kind of word that glamorous sophisticates used. It was a word that described something I knew nothing about. I simply knew that I didn’t have a clue what it meant, and hoped that one day, when I was a ‘proper grown up’, I would. In fact, I hoped to not just comprehend it’s meaning, I wanted to be one of those adults that was clever and refined enough to throw it around carelessly, with the ease of a word as well integrated and understood as ‘crayon’ or ‘cat’ (bear in mind my tender age when thinking these thoughts).

Of course, there is a vast difference between a word describing an abstract philosophical concept, and a simple noun.  I knew that, and I knew that I had a long road to travel before I really ’had’ it in my wordbank. As such I didn’t really stress myself too much, or make any huge efforts to try to understand it (the internet did not exist in those days, don’t forget)

I have no witty story culminating in a hilarious calamitous event that caused me to suddenly realise that I was an adult who didn’t really know what it meant. To be honest, when getting engrossed in life, work, family, living, there isn’t a whole lot of time left for contemplating the concept of ‘existential’?

It really wasn’t something that my conscious thought had a lot of time for until I started spending a lot of time really examining my own thought process, in therapy. But that’s what therapy does. It gives us the time and space to look at our memories, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations and so much more besides– our consciousness.

So somewhere along my journey of looking at myself, of looking at all the events and micro-events, and seminal events, and inconsequential events, and ‘wished for’ events and ‘thankfully dodged’ events…and making senses of how all these pieces have contributed, impacted, made me who I am, and how I work, I came across the word again. Existential.  Now is probably a good moment  to introduce the dictionary definition of it.

Existential ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃ(ə)l/2770380

Adjective adjective: existential

relating to existence.

 

 

I know. That’s it. That’s all it means. It means it is.  My long introduction to it…my youthful apprehension of it… the generally fearful and (a little dismissive) public perception of it as a word suddenly all seem a bit laughable. It is a word that describes a very simple concept indeed. One which every single one of us knows and is intimately familiar with. What it is to be.

By giving it an adjective, it makes an incredible internal process (a process so deep within that it is mostly unconscious to us) the ability to be looked at externally. I guess that is where the concept of it becomes a bit high brow. ‘Objectively looking at the existential’ is traditionally the realm of philosophers, and for me the very word ‘philosophy’ has always oozed intellectualism. But the truth is, we all have the capacity to be a philosopher. By that I mean that, given the time and space to consider, we all have thoughts and views on what is to be.

Which leads us on to the term ‘existentialism’ –  an intimidating word on first impression. I think it has a scholarly reputation because of it’s association with the philosophical movement associated with Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the like, and the(often) lengthy, wordy tomes they wrote about it. Well, let me tell you – since making friends with the term, and dissolving my fear of it, I have made it my mission to read most of those books. They are complicated, and for a good reason. Because life, being, existence, is complicated. (Do the words used need to be so complex? Hmmm. That is definitely up for debate, but another time for that…)

The existentialists posed the idea that in order to fully look at life, and understand it, we have to break it into smaller chunks. They call this concept ‘the four givens’, and these are;2

Death

Isolation

Freedom

Meaningless

Now, for me – personally – I very much like this and wholeheartedly appreciate that they came up with this great framework for me to use when I consider what it is to be. After all, ‘being’ is the heftiest subject I can think of (and I challenge you to think of one bigger!), and to have it broken into these (still extremely hefty) sub sections makes it feel much less daunting for me.  When considering the double edged swords that they can all present, and noticing our own feelings about them, what it means for our values, our spirituality, our morals and our entire way of being – it certainly does seem that it gives us a very deep insight into ourselves.

For me, when training as a psychotherapist, learning about the four givens gave me my ‘a-ha’ moment. It illuminated a road that I wanted to travel along, and it excited me so much that I knew I would always want to encourage and accompany anybody else who chose to walk down that road with me.  It was a crazy, unexpected by- product of that epiphany, to realise that this meant I understood what ‘existential’ meant; that I was finally that elusive idealised adult that I used to fantasize about being when I was a child. A wonderful by-product, I hasten to add, one that boosted my confidence enormously on one level, and dissolved a myth on another.

On reflection, I feel it is healthier to have that myth dissolved. I guess that is why I am writing about it, and trying to convey how simple yet complicated the concept of existentialism is.

Because life, being, existence, is something we ALL do. We all cope with. We don’t always understand it, and we don’t always feel that we are necessarily managing it well, or with the agile dexterity we would like at times, but we all do it, and think about it on some level or another.

Counselling gives us space and time to contemplate the existential. That is, to look at what it is for us to be. For some it makes more sense to go for smaller bite size and more easily digestible chunks. Perhaps six weeks of therapy is enough to work with, for a few years.  Whereas others prefer to make a long term commitment to it, and go for a long term deep analytical type approach. (A deep hefty Sarte book vs a web page that just seems to hit the spot that resonates, perhaps?)

Both are fine. Neither approach is right nor wrong. We are all individuals with differing capacities for concentration, absorption, ways of learning and being. But one thing we all have in common, is that we all are, therefore we all have the capacity to look at the existential. We just have to find the approach that suits us, and in therapy – it is the therapist’s job to help us do that.

Please visit my main website to find out more about my work as a counsellor psychotherapist, and how I apply this existential approach to my work.