Opening up to disclosure

Anna Ruddle and Sarah Dilks consider whether therapists should talk about themselves in therapy.

As with any therapy skill, guidelines on TSD would need to be used flexibly. Use of TSD is likely to vary according to the therapeutic approach, stage of therapy, therapist’s professional experience, personal preference, therapy process issues and the interaction between all these factors. While some guidance about staff self-disclosure exists in the recovery literature (e.g. Scottish Recovery Network, 2007) and some NHS Trusts are developing guidance (e.g. Dorset Wellbeing and Recovery Partnership, 2013), we are not aware of any specific to therapy. Henretty and Levitt (2010) do provide some detail in their helpful recommendations about ‘what’, ‘when’, why’ and ‘how’ to self-disclose in therapy, based on their literature review. For example, they recommend that therapists ‘self-disclose infrequently’ and ‘take into account the client’s possible reactions’ (p.73). However, their recommendations make clear there are no hard-and-fast rules for TSD. Rather, TSD requires careful consideration in relation to each specific client and their individual context. We would therefore encourage therapists to bear these what, when, why and how questions in mind whenever considering the use of TSD.

In addition it is also worth thinking about when not to self-disclose as a therapist (e.g. when a negative consequence is possible or likely). 
For instance, when the TSD may:

I    invoke envy in a client (e.g. ‘I’m off to the Bahamas’); 
I    involve a personal experience the therapist has not overcome sufficiently to remain objective;
I    open up areas of questioning the therapist is not comfortable with;
I    inappropriately shift the focus of therapy to the therapist (as one client put it, ‘It almost felt like a parent–child relationship… like I was the therapist and she was the patient getting everything off her chest’: Audet & Everall, 2010, p.335); or
I    encourage confusion about the nature of the relationship (e.g. TSD for some may imply that a more intimate personal relationship is possible).

With regard to ‘how’ to disclose, the therapist could consider informing a client that they might occasionally do this, or could seek permission in advance of a disclosure they think may have particular impact. They may also want to ask the client what their experience was of the TSD and possibly return to it later in therapy. Finally, therapists might consider rehearsing a warm but clear way of saying they are not comfortable continuing with a particular topic.

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