The role of self-disclosure as a helper

17 Oct 2014 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

A helper's self-disclosure can serve a useful purpose - but can also be problematic.

Self-disclosure is sharing information about yourself with others that they would not normally know or discover. What is unknown will be different for different people depending on their relationship to you and the context in which you meet.

Self-disclosure involves risk and vulnerability on the part of the person disclosing, but can also, when used appropriately, increase rapport and deepen our relationships with others.

As friendships and other close relationships develop, there is normally a series of small mutual acts of self-disclosure over time. When our sense of safety is increased, the rate of disclosure or the size of disclosures may tend to increase.

Some examples of situations where accelerated rates of disclosure take place are where there is contracted confidentiality, such as in counselling sessions, or where anonymity can be preserved, such as on internet forums.

When using interpersonal skills to develop strong rapport, increasing the rate at which you self-disclose can sometimes increase the rate at which the other person discloses, and therefore the rate at which the relationship develops, as long as the other person still experiences this as safe and comfortable. When two people fall in love a strong sense of mutual rapport can also lead to this kind of rapid self-disclosure.

Self disclosure also carries risks, for example that the other person will be judgmental about what we disclose. Another risk is that the other person might use the information unethically or carelessly, for example to exploit our vulnerabilities or to make public that which we wish to remain private. For this reason, an attitude of acceptance and a commitment to confidentiality are important aspects of an ethically-based helping relationship, and without those the person being helped might feel unable to open up and talk.

In counselling, a practitioner's therapeutic self-disclosure in most ways of working tends to be used sparingly, and only when it is more beneficial to disclose than not to. In this context, therapist self-disclosure is normally restricted to how they are experiencing the relationship (their feelings and perceptions in the here-and-now).

Some dangers of self-disclosure are:
  • It can move the focus from the other person to you
  • It can create a pressure to support or protect you.
  • It can be mistaken for advice. For example, a counsellor who remarried her ex-husband didnít disclose this to a client who was thinking about doing the same thing, in case it was interpreted as advice to proceed.

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