Therapist self-disclosure

Letters following our June article.

I found the article, ‘Opening up to disclosure’ by Anna Ruddle and Sarah Dilks (June 2015) a refreshing reminder of the complex issue of how much, if at all, a therapist might choose to reveal about themselves to a client.

Of course, therapists self-disclose the minute a client walks into the consulting room. The therapist’s wedding ring, for example, might have particular significance for a client struggling with divorce or sexual identity. But, it is the purposeful act of self-disclosure that is at the heart of the matter.

In my own early clinical training self-disclosure was discouraged because it supposedly negated a potential useful source of information, i.e. the client’s phantasies about the therapist. Storr (1990) offered a clear example of this issue in what he saw as a calamitous episode of self-disclosure by himself. A client, wracked with guilt over masturbation, asked Storr whether he, the therapist, had ever masturbated. He replied in the affirmative, the client never came back, and Storr saw it as missed opportunity to explore the deeper meaning and phantasies of the client’s inner world. He concluded that his self-disclosure had been anti-therapeutic; it served no purpose.

Therapists sometimes talk about self-disclosure in binary terms; you either do or you don’t. But, as Spinelli (2002) has commented, the issue is probably not about whether or not a therapist should self-disclose but when should a therapist self-disclose. In short, in what circumstances might self-disclosure offer a potential benefit to a client? This change of focus moves away from any sense of a structured approach to self-disclosure and requires the therapist to sense the uniqueness of each individual client when considering the possibilities for self-disclosure. And, at times, perhaps timing may be more important than content.

Whilst self-discourse can undoubtedly serve as a positive therapeutic factor, it also offers the therapist an unhelpful avenue to self-indulgence cloaked in a belief that it is really for the good of clients. As Storr (1990) noted, therapists, just like clients want acceptance and understanding but a psychotherapy session is not the place to fulfill such needs.

Dr Alistair McBeath
Edinburgh

References
Spinelli, E. (2002). On disclosure. In S. du Plock (Ed.) Further existential challenges to psychotherapeutic theory and practice (pp.52–67). London: Society for Existential Analysis.
Storr, A. (1990). The art of psychotherapy (2nd edn). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

 

I was most interested to read the article on self-disclosure by Ruddle and Dilks (June 2015). Although this phenomenon (formerly with SD as its abbreviation but seemingly now growing an extra letter as TSD) has been researched quite extensively over the years, its roots in humanistic psychology have perhaps led to it being regarded as somehow non-mainstream. In my years of practice as a clinical psychologist it has neither featured in training curricula nor in academic lectures.

The article did not mention the central, if now rather historical, role of the Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard (www.sidneyjourard.com), who until his untimely death in 1974 in a freak accident was a, perhaps the, leading researcher and academic in the field. He was a charismatic figure and a member of that quite rare species, a successful left-wing American academic.

As an inky-fingered undergraduate I was introduced to his work by John Davis, then at Sheffield University, and under his supervision undertook a research project that attempted to investigate some of the components of SD by attempting to distinguish between modelling and social exchange interpretations.We found that experimenter SD tended to increase both subjects’ disclosure and their rating of the experience.

Once I advanced into clinical practice and later clinical supervision, I found that the lack of ‘official’ interest in SD was not reflected by numerous trainees over the years who, especially during their early clinical placements, tended to be both curious and anxious about how much of themselves to bring to the therapy session. They were aware of the value of the ‘therapeutic alliance’ but were always interested to learn more about some of the methods they could use to foster it.

So, having now retired from NHS practice, it is nice to watch the world turn and see my long-term interest hit the headlines in The Psychologist!

Dr Adrian Skinner
Harrogate

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber