Self-Disclosure – Concepts and Applications

Are you a very important person? Sure you are. The reason for this answer is the same for almost everyone: we like talking about ourselves, we enjoy being listened to, we praise our achievements, and we are very much into introspection. Although we are ultimately social beings, most humans are both consciously and subconsciously determined to improve themselves, and to derive meaning to their existence.

In this context, we are faced with the everyday challenge of balancing our own needs for fulfilment and recognition with the need to co-relate with others, to promote altruism and to help people in need. This paradox takes centre stage in counselling sessions in the form of self-disclosure – as a counsellor, how much of yourself should you reveal to your clients?

Human Behaviour and Effective Counselling

It is undeniable that many people are more interested in themselves than things happening with others. Generally, people like to talk about themselves (thus listening is such an important part in interpersonal communication), to listen to topics which have relevance to their lives, to participate in groups they can derive benefit from, and to be part of a system which values them. It is the basic need for belonging that drives people to behave in this way.

Most people also strongly defend their opinions and perspectives. We like to make sure that once we believe in something, we are able to reasonably explain that way of thinking, and possibly prove to the other person that we are correct in our opinions. Think about it: who likes to be incorrect? So when we talk about ourselves or about issues which are pertinent to our lives, we like to explain each aspect of that topic and by doing so, validate our opinion or experience. Self-denial occurs when we give up that right in order to focus the attention to someone else’s problem, issue or situation. The capacity for self-denial is one of the most important characteristics of a good counsellor.

Curiosity, comfort with conversation, empathy and understanding play a major role in creating a safe environment which allows a client’s emotional expression. Emotional insightfulness, introspection, tolerance of intimacy and comfort with power are characteristics which help the counsellor maintain a clear perspective of the situation and at the same time, not prejudice the relationship by being judgemental or condescending. Energy, flexibility and self-awareness facilitate the counsellor’s drive and focus in the relationship’s objectives and outcomes.

The Word: Self-Disclosure

We’ve briefly discussed some of the underpinnings of human behaviour and the characteristics which define an effective counsellor. The importance of understanding such concepts is that, on many occasions, self-disclosure requires counsellors to act in a paradoxical manner – that is, communicate a common message in a tailored way, with a different objective, and an external focus. Self-disclosure can be a challenging technique because it defies our natural ‘self-centred’ dialogue.

Self-disclosure is defined as “a conscious, intentional technique in which clinicians share information about their lives outside the counseling relationship” (Simone, McCarthy, & Skay, 1998, p.174). The role of this process is to “facilitate client disclosure through modeling and the establishment of trust” (the dyadic effect; Jourard, 1968). In other words, the counsellor discloses information about him/herself in order to establish a connection with the client, thus creating rapport, trust and improving interpersonal communication.

Self-disclosure is a useful strategy used by the majority of counsellors, regardless of theoretical orientation. In many instances this process is almost a requirement to obtain valuable information from a client in order to help them see through a situation. It is often perceived as an ethical and valuable technique.

A Two-Edged Sword

Self-disclosure can be as helpful as it can be damaging if not properly conducted. Why? Primarily because the act of self-disclosure exposes the counsellor and it could undermine the balance of power in the relationship with a client. If the client sees vulnerability in the counsellor, the trust could fall apart. At the same time, this vulnerability could improve the relationship between the counsellor and client by creating more intimacy as the client ‘sees’ the counsellor in the ‘same level’ of him or her.

Therefore, the outcomes of using self-disclosure as a strategy to build trust and rapport will depend on the counsellor’s actions and how those actions will reflect from the client’s perspective (based on the client’s personality variables). It is important for counselling professionals to observe these issues and adjust their approach accordingly.

The benefits or advantages of self-disclosure include: helping the client to not feel alone, decreasing client anxiety, improving the client’s awareness to different viewpoints, and increasing counsellor genuineness. Some disadvantages of applying self-disclosure include: moving focus from the client, taking too much counselling time (and thus reducing client disclosure), creating role confusion (who is helping who?), possibly trivialising the client’s issue by implying everyone goes through it, and interfering with transference.

Guidelines for Use of Self-Disclosure

According to Gladding (2006) there are some guidelines which can help counsellors to effectively implement self-disclosure strategies. Such guidelines are basically communication skills which can be used to avoid common pitfalls of this process, such as losing rapport or focus in the situation.

Primarily, the counsellor should be direct, brief, focused and relevant. This will ensure the self-disclosure process does not lead to time wastage and loss of focus in the client’s situation. Self-disclosure should also not be used frequently (more self-disclosure is not necessarily better) and should not add to the client’s problems and negative outcomes in a situation.

In essence, the purpose of self-disclosure should be clear to both counsellor and client and the process should only be used after considering other options, envisaging that there is a risk of miscommunication and an effect on the balance of power. But as stated before: if used in an effective manner, self-disclosure can be a useful strategy and a common process in the counselling setting.

Case Study: A Briefing of the Technique

A young man wishes to move out of his family home and seeks a counsellor for help. The young man is very distressed by the possible change and the effect it could have on both his parent’s and his own life. In the counselling setting, he briefly describes his motives for moving out; however, he attests that he does not want to cause emotional strife to his parents. In that context, he asks the counsellor to help him come up with a way to tell his parents without hurting them. A solution to that situation would relieve the young man from his personal anxiety.

The counsellor and the client explored all available options and at the end of the counselling session, the young man is still very emotionally affected by his decision and its possible outcomes. At that point, self-disclosure was used as a strategy to help the client move into a positive frame of reference. The counsellor disclosed that her son left the family home only last year, and even though it was a very emotional situation for the family, they understood his decision and moved forward.

Nowadays, they regularly meet and have a very positive relationship. At the end of the counselling relationship, the client felt comfortable with the knowledge that a similar situation had ended with a positive outcome, and was able to move forward with his decision without distress.

This example showed the effective use of self-disclosure and how this technique can be beneficial to clients. It was observable that in that scenario, the following benefits were achieved: helping the client to not feel alone, decreasing client anxiety and increasing counsellor genuineness.


  • Gladding, S.T. (2006). Counseling: A Comprehensive Profession. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Jourard, S.M. (1968). Disclosing Man to Himself. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand.
  • Simone, D. H., McCarthy, P., & Skay, C. (1998). An investigation of client and counselor variables that influence likelihood of counselor self-disclosure. Journal of Counseling and Development. 76: 174-182.