Counselors talking about themselves? Additional thoughts


Last week I described some research supporting counselor self-disclosures, research that suggests clients appreciate disclosures revealing (a) similarities between counselor and client, and (b) vulnerabilities or personal emotions. While this research flies in the face of conventional wisdom in most counselor training programs, I cautioned counselors to ask some questions first before talking too much about self. With this post, I would like to press the caution just a bit more.

Why do counselors talk about themselves?

Why do counselors talk about their personal life with clients? Read the following numbered list to see some of the main reasons (and the sub-points in italics as illustrations of that reason). Then, consider the bracketed sub point as an alternative to self-disclosure.

  1. We want to put clients at ease and we think knowing something about ourselves might help
    • I can see you are anxious about whether taking antidepressants is appropriate for faithful Christians. I take them and it has only helped my faith.
      • [You’re not alone with that question so let’s explore the pros and cons to taking an antidepressant. Why don’t you start by telling me the reasons you’ve heard or thought about for not taking Prozac?]
  2. We believe our personal history will help a client understand, accept, or challenge something about their struggle
    • I know this treatment for panic disorder is difficult for you but I can tell you it works. It worked for me.
  3. We want to please an inquiring client
    • Yes, I am married and I have 2 children.
      • [Sure, I don’t mind telling you who is in my family, but could you first tell me why that is an important question for you?]
  4. We want to earn their respect and believe that our history will help
    • Well, for starters, I want you to read my book. It is now in its second edition and has been translated into 4 languages. I think you will find it very helpful for your problem.
      • [I’d like for you to start reading about your problem. There are a couple of books out there that I think you might find helpful, including one I wrote. But, feel free to look these over on Amazon and choose the one that seems right for you.]
  5. We like talking about ourselves; our personal stories seem difficult to avoid
    • You and I have a lot in common. My wife has the same problems as your husband. So, I know how lonely you must feel. We’ve tried…
      • [Though you are not saying so, I wonder if you feel lonely in your marriage.]
  6. We see the relationship more like a friendship with mutual sharing
    • I’m so glad to see you today. You are a bright light in a dull day. I look forward to our stimulating conversations. Just yesterday I was thinking about you and wishing to have coffee with you to discuss your career future.
  7. We want to be seen as human rather than just professional
    • Yes, it has been a stressful day. I could use a back rub after all these sessions today.
      • [You know, some days are harder than others, but I’m curious why you asked this today?]
  8. We want the client to help us in some way
    • I was thinking about your need to work and my need to have someone edit my website. Or, I’m headed out on a mission trip next month. Well, I am if I can get enough donations. I’m about $1000 short thus far but I know God will come through.
      • [neither of these need to be said!]

Is it necessary? Is it helpful?

While self-disclosures may improve client perceptions of counselors, I suspect that empathic, client-centered therapists evoke these same feelings by asking good questions making observant reflections yet still minimizing disclosures, especially those where we initiate them and those that force the conversation to our personal history. There are some disclosures that are in response to client questions (e.g., have you ever struggled with addictions? Are you married? Do you believe in medications? Are you angry with me?) that warrant an answer. When giving this answer, work hard at keeping it brief and returning to the client’s story.

Don’t forget about social media self-disclosures

Clients sometimes “hear” our disclosures through social media. Imagine a client reading, “Well, that was a difficult session, glad I’m done for the day” having been that counselor’s last appointment! Blogs (like this!), Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can be forms of self-disclosure. Be wary of these. Conventional wisdom says to avoid social media contacts with most clients so as to avoid harm to the counseling relationship. While we need not require an outright ban of these connections, a thoughtful counselor will review connections via social media for potential harm.

Be human

Despite these efforts to avoid letting our selves intrude too far into the session, sometimes life gets in the way. A counselor has a health or a family crisis. Clients have ways of finding this out and often want to ask how things are going. Here it is appropriate to say something brief, thank them for their concern and then start the session. In other situations a client discovers a shared passion for food, a sporting team, a connection through mutual friends. Enjoy these connections, acknowledge them, but be sure not to linger there during the session proper. We are, after all human. Don’t be surprised when counselor and client humanness come into contact.


Filed under christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Counselors talking about themselves? Additional thoughts

  1. Yeah…I only like the things in the brackets. 🙂

  2. Interesting post, Phil. I like your bracket comments and I’m not sure how many of the other “self-disclosure” comments I would make. That said, what is the biblical, theological, relational principle that would drive such concern about self-disclosure? What Trinitarian relational principle would suggest that self would be intruding into the counseling relationship or that counselee/counselor common humanness should not come into contact? I “get” that the “professional” model (some of them) suggest distance. But what does a pastoral model look like? And, yes, I understand the need for careful ethical boundaries. But can we also frame the counselor/counselee relationship in positive ways that reinforce biblical Trinitarian, shepherding models–incarnational models like Christ’s ministry where he connected (John 4) and empathized (Hebrews 2 and 4) with those he ministered to?

  3. Bob, I think we can empathize without being about ourselves. so I don’t think my not talking about myself fails to reinforce shepherding models. Over and over I hear from students that good questions, kindness, empathy, loving confrontations are features of great shepherds. I also hear folks remember that those who talked a lot didn’t listen well.

  4. Pauly, One more blogger that I follow that is a member of AACC and I from all I have read I would say you would be safe posting a link this will help with the professional piece I was talking about until I have more time. Thx.

    Sent from my iPhone


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