Self-disclosure refers to the verbal disclosure of personally sensitive information by client or counselor, and may involve disclosure about actions, thoughts, or feelings.
The necessity of client self-disclosure in counseling has a long tradition, beginning with Sigmund Freud, who asserted that clients should disclose everything that comes to mind. This expectation persists to the current day. Practitioners who follow a range of counseling approaches agree that counseling would not be successful without client self-disclosure, for healing occurs through the discussion of personally sensitive content and the resolution of concerns related to that content. This belief in the healing potential of disclosure is not universally supported, however, for some counselors believe that clients’ views of themselves suffer when they reveal shameful material.
Client self-disclosure has been the focus of extensive research, beginning with the work of Sidney Jourard, who investigated what information clients reveal, and to whom. The research evidence demonstrates that most clients reveal intensely personal material, and their disclosures focus on aspects of themselves or their parents that they dislike.
Nevertheless, half of all clients keep secrets from their counselor, often about sexual concerns, relationship problems, or a sense of failure. Both sexes disclose equally and in similar areas, and the longer clients are in counseling and the stronger they experience the counseling relationship, the more they disclose.
Although client self-disclosure is largely seen as necessary for successful counseling, counselor self-disclosure is viewed as a controversial, but potentially powerful, intervention. Some of this controversy reflects the different theoretical approaches to counseling.
Counselors following a psychodynamic approach limit their use of self-disclosure, believing that a neutral, abstinent, and anonymous counselor is necessary for resolving client transference. Humanistically and existentially oriented counselors evince stronger support for self-disclosure, viewing it as a way for counselors to demonstrate their genuineness and positive regard, show the counselor as human, and reassure clients that their concerns are normal. Counselors who follow behavioral, cognitive, or cognitive-behavioral approaches view self-disclosure positively when it is intended to model client self-disclosure. Feminist counselors assert that disclosures are helpful because they equalize power in the counseling relationship and allow clients to make informed decisions about whether to work with a counselor. Finally, those who follow a multicultural approach support self-disclosure as a means of earning clients’ trust, especially when working with clients from different sociocultural backgrounds.
Research regarding counselor self-disclosure has examined the frequency of and reasons for self-disclosures, and their immediate and longer-term effects. Regardless of theoretical orientation, counselors disclose infrequently and their disclosures focus mostly on professional background. Their goals are to give information to clients, reassure clients that their experiences are normal, model appropriate self-disclosure, and strengthen the counseling relationship. Counselors avoid disclosure when doing so would meet their own needs or shift the focus from clients. Nonclients (e.g., undergraduates) view counselor self-disclosure positively and like counselors who self-disclose neither too much nor too little. Clients perceive counselor self-disclosure as helpful with regard to immediate outcome, but the longer-term effects are unclear.
- Farber, B. A. (2003). Patient self-disclosure: A review of the research. Journal of Clinical Psychology/In Session, 59, 589-600.
- Hill, C. E., & Knox, S. (2002). Self-disclosure. In J. C. Norcross (Ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work: Therapist contributions and responsiveness to patients (pp. 255-265). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Jourard, S. M. (1971). Self-disclosure: An experimental analysis of the transparent self. New York: Wiley.