Open, Closed or Somewhere In-Between? Self-Disclosure in Counselling

Baring it All?

For some of us who have never been for counselling before, the mere thought conjures up worries that we will find ourself in the “hot seat,” forced to reveal aspects of our personal lives that few, if any, people know about—details we don’t even like to think about. Philosophically, we may not even agree with counselling, and would never even consider therapy—indeed, a legitimate choice too.

Some of us are curious, but nervous. And others, who may have had a less than ideal counselling experience, want to try again with a different counsellor, but also have fears around what to expect,  perhaps the biggest being, will I be forced to bare it all emotionally?

Some research suggests that one of the biggest barriers to seeking counselling is the fear of self-disclosure: not simply, will I have to say too much but will I have to say E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G? Wow. The thought of that is even overwhelming for me and if I believed that to be true, I never would have considered counselling myself. Believe it or not, we do have rights as clients, one of those being the choice to decline answering any counsellor questions that you do not want to answer or divulge information that you are not comfortable discussing. Phew.

That being said, there is still such thing as finding a counsellor who is the right fit and for many of us, that means finding a counsellor who will respect your boundaries around what you want to talk about and what you don’t.

How do you do this?

Choosing a Counsellor Who is Right For You

Therapeutic fit is key and if you live in Metro Vancouver, the choices can be staggering. Counsellingbc.com lists over 750 counsellors on their directory, including 316 in the city of Vancouver alone; this list does not even represent all counsellors in BC! A Google search of “counselling Vancouver” yields more than 10 pages of local results. Several years ago, I wrote a guide to finding a therapist which covers many of the factors which go into selecting a counsellor; I won’t repeat myself again here.

Self-Disclosure: The Counsellor-Counsellee Balance

When you’re trying to make a decision around self-disclosure, choosing a counselling experience that addresses your needs and concerns around self-disclosure can be challenging. What might some of the issues be?

  • Understanding the counsellor’s philosophy around client disclosure. Ideally, arranging a free initial counselling consultation  with a counsellor who offers this option will give you an opportunity to ask about this.
  • Be clear about your expectations around self-disclosure. Are you in the camp that wants to “let it all out”—i.e. relieve a great emotional burden? Conversely, does revealing personal issues make you feel deeply uncomfortable? What are your ideals around self-disclosure long-term: do you wish to share more over time, for example, conditional on the development of trust in the therapeutic relationship? Certain life experiences may also influence your self-disclosure expectations; if trauma has been part of your history, the ability to self-disclose may be particularly challenging and may even feel impossible.
  • Ask about the counsellor’s therapeutic approach. Counselling methods differ in their guidelines around self-disclosure.
  • How structured the therapy is is another factor to consider. If the therapy follows a particular format, or involves in-session exercises, there may be less time devoted to disclosure, although this is not always the case.
  • Understanding your counselling rights can provide the confidence to ask the questions you need to or assert your rights around disclosure.
  • Reflecting on your goals for therapy can be particularly valuable: what role to you see self-disclosure playing when it comes to meeting your goals?
  • What is your comfort level with regard to identifying and expressing emotions? If this is difficult, is this an issue you would like to work on or avoid altogether?

When Self-Disclosure is Important

Now there are folks that want to let it all out. This is a perfectly honourable and legitimate position too. Maybe you have been holding it all in for too long, maybe you work through issues naturally by talking, maybe self-disclosure is a critical piece around feeling understood. You and your counsellor may have also come to a joint conclusion that self-disclosure may be a key part of your counselling journey – something that would be helpful in promoting emotional growth and reaching your counselling goals.

If self-disclosure is important to you, there is a role for honesty in this process. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not necessarily! Some of us want to disclose but fear that what we have to say is somehow unacceptable. In such situations it can be helpful to have a conversation with your counsellor around fears of judgement, providing you feel enough trust in your counsellor to have this conversation. Challenging conversations with a trusted professional can be good ‘practice’ for other conversations we may have been avoiding in our daily lives, particularly when we fear judgement, conflict or other emotionally difficult topics.

Inaccurate ‘disclosure’ or omissions may make it difficult for the counsellor to know what you are actually facing and as such, what the best options would be to enhance your therapeutic growth.

In Conclusion

Above all, disclosure is your choice and reflecting on whether it would further your counselling goals or stunt them, is equally important.