I have consulted counsellors at different stages of my adult life and one or two in my school years. I consider myself quite an empowered client and I think I am probably a little challenging to work with. My own work as a client has given me rise to ponder the role of self-disclosure in sessions.
Self Disclosure is when the counsellor raises their own opinions or even examples from their own experiences as part of the therapeutic intervention.
In my own training as a psychologist I was taught not to disclose, or if I do, to keep it brief and to minimise my emotional attachment to my own perspective. The idea is that the counsellor, in this model of counselling, is a blank canvas and the client is free to splash their colours and create their own images to ponder and reflect on without the intervention and judgements of another person. We keep our agendas out of the session, or at least try not to diminish the client’s right to determine their own opinions, perspectives, values.
So many clients come to counselling in the first place because they have been trying so hard to fulfil the expectations of parents, teachers, bosses, peers, partners …. the last thing they need is a new domineering presence taking them further from their own highest truths.
It is generally agreed that counsellors are an authoritative figure; that in sessions there is the potential of exercising influence and power. Keeping self disclosure to a minimum is a way of acknowledging the potential harm that that power can create and to offer an environment that is reasonably free of external expectations.
As a counsellor I know that I like to create a situation in which my client does not have to attend to my needs. I am not their friend or their work mate, their sister, lover or their child; they needn’t consider my feelings before attending to their own. They needn’t feel selfish if the conversation and focus is on them for a full 40-60 minutes per session. Counselling is not a round table discussion – it is THEIR space and THEIR time. That alone is a balm that heals. To be listened to and interrupted only by a new question or insight which opens another opportunity to explore a new thought or feeling is liberating.
For this to be an effective part of the counselling process, the client does need to know that it is true. They need to know that the counsellor is ok and looking after themselves; isn’t secretly taking on their trauma or hurt. This is again why counsellors’ self care is so important. It is important to the client to know that they are doing no harm in the process of seeking help.
I recently sought counselling for a problem I was dealing with and during the second session my therapist told me about her personal experience of the issue I was discussing with her. She seemed to feel that her experience and mine were similar and that I would learn from hearing what she had to say. It didn’t. I could actually feel myself taking in a breath and preparing myself to attend to her and her story. I felt that my time to explore was over and that someone had just told me what they thought the outcome of my own, precious story would be.
On another occasion, with another therapist, I was receiving some supervision. We had been discussing my career path and exploring possible options for the future. She made it clear, or I felt she made it clear, that I needed to leave my job and pursue another one elsewhere. On this occasion I ‘knew’ she was right but was not ready to take that enormous step. I felt so keenly that I was letting her down and felt that I was not accomplishing the task she was presenting me. I did not return to sessions and felt I had let her down.
But the third instance makes me laugh. I have a new supervisor. I took a long time to make my decision about who I wanted to work with. And in the first meeting we discussed our expectations for the sessions. I told him about the instances of self-disclosure which had upset and silenced me so much. I have now spoken to him for about three sessions and I feel so frustrated. I so want to hear what he has to say about my work and life and where I should go from here! I have come to respect him so much that I would love to hear some words of wisdom from him rather than my own opinions on my life. But true to form and true to my request – he is keeping my life well and truly in my hands.
A very funny dilemma for me to ponder and to perhaps share with him in the next session.
In truth, I am not a blank canvas and my attempts to be so often fall short. Denying my own humanity and my own presence in the counselling room are probably not conducive to true healing. I am beginning to learn this. I would love to hear any feedback or insights on this – so please feel free to comment…
Yours, from the other side of the couch,