Clients will ask you personal questions. It's only a matter of how many personal questions you get asked. In addition, from time to time you'll feel the urge to disclose something about yourself—both appropriately and inappropriately— to a client. Consequently, the big questions to ask right now include:
• Is there anything basically wrong about self-disclosing personal information to clients?
• Are there any benefits associated with therapist self-disclosure?
• How much disclosure is too much?
• Is it possible that refusing to disclose anything about myself might damage my relationship with my client?
As with most therapy issues, therapists have widely differing opinions about self-disclosure, depending on their theoretical orientation, personality style, positive and negative personal experiences, and personal preferences. Here are a few distinct viewpoints.
Julia Segal, a counselor in Britain, is strongly opposed to self-disclosure. She summarizes her views in a book chapter titled "Against Self Disclosure." She states:
There are many reasons for counsellors not to disclose information about themselves. Discussion of the counsellor's experience takes the focus off the client. It can be a means of avoiding serious and painful issues, both for the client and for the counsellor. In particular, it can prevent confrontation of issues about the client's belief in the counsellor's competence and the difficulties of two people being different from each other. There is really no predicting what any disclosure will mean to a client, and it may simply confuse the issues and increase the client's protectiveness toward the counsellor. It also removes the possibility of uncovering and examining the client's assumptions about the counsellor, some of which may be false but very illuminating. Lastly, I maintain, it is important for the counsellor to retain privacy and clear boundaries in the relationship in order to be free to use . . . empathy in the full service of the client. (Segal, 1993, p. 14)
In somewhat surprising contrast, a psychoanalytic writer recently articulated the benefits of "Playing one's cards face up in analysis" (Renik, 1999, p. 521). Previously, Renik (1995) wrote:
Self-disclosure for the purposes of self-explanation facilitates the analysis of transference by establishing an atmosphere of authentic candor. Of course, therapeutic benefits are most extensive and enduring when based upon expansion of the patient's self-awareness. (p. 466)
If you find it hard to figure out whether and how much to self-disclose to clients, join the club. Both the empirical research and clinical anecdotes suggest that self-disclosure can be either facilitative or nonfacilitative of therapy (Stricker & Fisher, 1990).
In the end, whether and how much you self-disclose to clients is totally up to you. We tend to encourage a little therapist spontaneity from time to time—as long as you plan for it.
An important question for interviewers is: "How can I express or demonstrate unconditional positive regard toward my clients?" It's tempting to try expressing positive feelings directly to clients, either by touching or making statements such as "I like (or love) you," "I care about you," "I will accept you unconditionally," or "I won't judge you in here."
Expressing unconditional positive regard directly to clients is usually ineffective— or even dangerous. First, direct expressions of regard may be interpreted as phony or inappropriately intimate. Second, direct expressions of affection may imply that you want a friendship or loving relationship with your client. Third, even professional interviewers sometimes have negative feelings toward their clients. If you claim "unconditional acceptance," you are promising the impossible, because you cannot (and will not) always like your clients.
The question remains: How do you express positive regard, acceptance, and respect to clients indirectly? Here are some ideas: First, by keeping appointments, by asking how your clients like to be addressed and then remembering to address them that way, and by listening sensitively and compassionately, you establish a relationship characterized by affection and respect. Second, by allowing clients freedom to discuss themselves in their natural manner, you communicate respect and acceptance. Third, by demonstrating that you hear and remember specific parts of a client's story, you communicate respect. This usually involves using paraphrases, summaries, and sometimes interpretations. Fourth, by responding with compassion or empathy to clients' emotional pain and intellectual conflicts, you express concern and acceptance. This is what Othmer and Othmer (1994) mean when they say that finding the suffering and showing compassion are rapport-building strategies. Fifth, clinical experience and research both indicate that clients are sensitive to an interviewer's intentions. Thus, by clearly making an effort to accept and respect your clients, you are communicating a message that may be more powerful than any therapy technique (Strupp & Binder, 1984; Wright & Davis, 1994).
In the following example, the interviewer sensitively uses a feeling-oriented summary along with a gentle interpretation to express unconditional positive regard:
"Earlier, you mentioned feeling hurt when a woman you care about rejected you. Now you're talking about your mother and how you felt she abandoned you to take care of your father and his alcoholism. It seems like there might be a connection or pattern there."
Although this interviewer comment is designed to facilitate insight into relationship patterns (Luborsky, 1984), it also lets your client know how closely you are listening. As a result, your client may feel honored and respected, and the relationship may take on a greater intimacy. Remembering what your client says requires deliberate attentive-ness. Using intellect, intuition, and empathy to mirror the client's inner world communicates a deep respect that is the very essence of unconditional positive regard.
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