It is stated by Freud as early as 1912 that “The physician should be impenetrable to the patient, and like a mirror, reflect nothing but what is shown to him” (Petersen, 2002, p. 21); In many cases this is true and necessary, though in reflection the amount of self-disclosure provided should be entirely up to the counsellor; as argued in the sixties there is value and therapeutic benefit to self-disclosure (Jourard, 1971a). The topic of self-disclosure has been discussed for many years, and will continue to be; including its relationship to professional and personal boundaries in a clinical environment. While critically analysing the implications involved, it will be recognised that there are many conflicting situations, and fine lines that can be crossed that can hinder or help a client; and realising that no two situations are the same, and what may help one client can be of a detriment to another.
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Therapeutic practices are founded on professional protocols and code of ethics, with a foundation that outlines acceptable and unacceptable conduct that embraces the principle of ‘do no harm’, this beneficence is the focus for acting in the best interest for the client (Geldard & Geldard, 2012; Gutheil, 2010). In Australia these ethical outlines are provided by two main associations: the Australian Counselling Association (2017) and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (2013); these associations are the basis of regulating a therapeutic practice, and they state that when it comes to dilemmas associated with crossing boundaries, there are varying degrees that range from major violations to unintentional crossings.
Disclosure can cause a dilemma in any counselling situation, recognising and understanding why it is occurring can effectively prevent any harm resulting from that experience.
A scenario was brought to my attention where a counsellor was working in the city, and on a weekend would go to the bars. This is their normal behaviour, however, one day a client came for their session, and not long after starting proceeded to question the counsellor on their knowledge of particular bars in the city and the atmospheres in them, the counsellor replied to the questions not comprehending the significance, at the time the counsellor thought they were building rapport. The next weekend the client saw the counsellor at a bar, and without hesitation went and spoke to counsellor and offered to buy them a drink. The counsellor was reluctant, but agreed to the drink which then lead to further conversations that evening, which were unrelated to anything professional.
Simply, therapist self-disclosure may be defined as personal information which is disclosed about the therapist to the client; this information is usually not of a professional nature, and can be both relevant or irrelevant in helping the clients in their current situation. Self-disclosure can occur in numerous forms: verbally, where the therapist tells the client; non-verbally, through the therapist’s gestures and actions, or reflected in the environment if the therapist has added personal touches to their office environment (Barnett, 1998; Gutheil & Gabbard, 1998; Mahalik, Van Ormer & Simi, 2000; Zur, 2007; PACFA, 2013). There is the deliberate self-disclosure, where the therapist can be self-revealing, disclosing information about themselves; or self-involving, which involves the therapist’s personal reactions to the clients situation while being discussed (Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997). There is also the unavoidable self-disclosure, which basically comes down to the therapist’s personal characteristics, appearance, mannerisms, and habits (Barnett, 1998; Tillman, 1998 ; Zur, 2007), including geographical location, physical location, and office décor all provide personal information to the client about the therapist (Brown, 1984; Campbell & Gordon, 2003; Gutheil & Brodsky, 2008; Hargrove, 1986; Nickel, 2004; Schank & Skovholt, 1997; Stockman, 1990 ; Zur, 2006, 2007). Everything the therapist does and does not do provides unavoidable self-disclosure, and reveals information for the client to process (Aron, 1991; Gutheil & Brodsky, 2008). There is also accidental self-disclosure, these usually occur during an unplanned encounter, outside of an appointment, where other personal information is divulged; this can appear contrary or consistent with the image portrayed in the professional setting (Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997; Stricker & Fisher, 1990). Then there is the client’s deliberate actions, where the client initiates queries about the therapist; this could be during a session, or a private search at home on the internet (Zur, 2007, 2008; Aur & Donnor, 2009); This deliberate investigating by the client can reveal significant details about the therapist that they have no control over.
The important thing for the counsellor to always remember is, their intent, anything that is said or done should be focused on the best interests for the welfare of the client; At no time should the counsellor be motivated to change the focus onto themselves, for gratitude, pity or any other attention or desire (Barnett, 1998; Bridges, 2001; Mallow, 1998 ; Zur, 2007). Whenever a situation occurs that involves any form of self-disclosure an ethical dilemma emerges, this is due to the questionable approach the counsellor must take in order to determine if the action being taken which has any impact on the client’s situation (Freegard and Iste, 2012). Counsellors must be constantly aware and observant, in order to determine if any situations which arise are going to obscure their own impartiality; therefore they are obligated to separate their issues, desires and objectives from the situation, so as not to effect the client but focus only on the client’s best interests (Parsons, 2001; Gutheil & Gabbard, 1993).
Counsellors need to be mindful of self-disclosure, and approach it as a skill that needs to be recognised and monitored, constantly acknowledging the reason why they wish to self-disclose; Whether intentional or unintentional, excessive or inappropriate self-disclosure will impact a client, and could possibly cause irreparable harm (Bridges, 2001; Remley & Herlily, 2010); However the correct type of self-disclosure will enable a client to feel understood, by implying the counsellor can empathize and recognise the clients situation, thus resulting in a beneficial result (Ivey & Ivey, 2007).
Remembering that clients are currently involved with their own circumstances that brought them to counselling for the first time, they are expecting to talk about themselves; it is unexpected for the counsellor to talk about themselves, and may cause embarrassment or confusion for the client (Patterson & Hidore, ????). It is recognised that if a counsellor self-discloses in order to create focus or comparison to themselves, this can create an adverse effect, whereby the client can feel inadequate and distancing themselves; the clients evaluation of themselves can then cause harmful effects influencing their self-esteem, the severity of their problem, or even the validity of their ideas; this is caused due to the counsellor focusing on their own ideas or circumstances, leading the client to believe theirs are situation is not serious, decreasing the clients motivation and desire for change (Strong, 1978).
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When therapy has progressed, and the client becomes more resolved in their situation and don’t feel their own issues require as much of their attention or they are trying to avoid a particular trigger, their focus can change toward that of the counsellor as an individual, asking more questions of the counsellor; this is the indication the counsellor must use to either point out the sessions are nearing an end, or the client needs to focus more on the particular situation (Carkhuff, 1969; Patterson & Hidore, ????)
In the before mentioned scenario the circumstance originated due to the counsellors deliberate self disclosure, regarding their opinion of the local city bars and their atmosphere. During the conversation, it is likely that the counsellor may have accidently mentioned a place they prefer to go, or a particular activity or event that happens that they particularly enjoy. Taking this conversation into account, the counsellor needs to be especially mindful, the intent the counsellor has for continuing with this conversation is of utmost importance; did the counsellor get excited that someone was interested in their interests or opinion; or did they lose focus and control of the guidance required to keep the session on track. Was this a ploy by the client to avoid discussing their own situation, changing the subject to the counsellor; or was the client genuinely interested in the counsellor, wanting to discover more about them, for either evaluation purposes, or more interactive personal reasons. The counsellor should of been more aware at the time, and even more so at the interaction at the bar; given also that the counsellor’s state of mind at that moment is also unknown, not knowing if they go there for a quick drink before going home, or if they had had a few and were becoming cognitively impaired. This circumstance gives a great opportunity for the counsellor to discuss the situation with their professional supervisor.
Professional supervision is a compulsory obligation in order to provide continuing support, as well as personal development to the counsellor; this allows situations to be discussed with a supervisor, to allow opportunities to manage and deal with different circumstances or dilemmas when they arise (PACFA, 2012). Supervision is an important practice to incorporate into the counselling profession; the support supervisor is an experienced practitioner that provides guidance and assistance in the process of maintaining standards of a professional level (Freegard & Isted, 2012). As counsellors have a ethical responsibility to the client, the supervisor holds a higher standard to both the counsellor and their clients; prioritizing the welfare of the client above all else (Parsons, 2001). The supervisors role is to provide an unbiased view, clarifying how the counsellor’s behaviour influences their clients and the resulting situations that occur.
Reflecting on the before mentioned dilemma, the scenario provides an ideal situation for the counsellor to discuss the actions that occurred; thus providing clarity and understanding from the supervisor, which allows the counsellor to recognise indicators that will allow them to avoid or at least suspend discussions that may result in inappropriate disclosure. Since it is believed that this ‘slippery slope phenomenon’, which displays how apparently harmless situations can result in more serious boundary violations, thus leaving the client exploited and vulnerable (Gutheil & Brodsky, 2008). Additional negative consequences could arise if the counsellor does not learn to recognise potentially harmful scenarios; the scenario outlined, if left on the current course could escalate into a situation which could jeopardise the clients welfare and or the counsellors professional future.
In conclusion, the counsellor’s ability to regulate self-disclosure is of paramount importance; not only for the welfare of the client, but also for the future of the counsellor. Having the capacity to evaluate the effects of any amount of self-disclosure, even if unavoidable due to location or situation, evaluating the affects and benefits that could arise is of major importance. While applying principles that maintain a professionally driven and client-focused environment in order to provide a therapeutic practice that best enables a positive result for the client.