Recently, when supervising students, the topic of disclosure came up. As you might expect, the group was all over the place in thoughts on the value of disclosure, as well as the ethical implications that come along with it. Although I had my own thoughts on the appropriateness of vulnerability, I wanted the students to arrive at their own decisions. I gave them two instructions in this: 1) Determine their own limitations about sharing in counseling, understanding this may be a fluid boundary that is client-specific. What is safe territory from their own lives? 2) Be clear on the benefit of disclosure to clients: What would the student be doing to move counseling forward through disclosure? The topic of disclosure is one I’ve considered a lot over the years: as a post-operative transsexual woman who was working with pre-operative transsexuals who wanted to know about my process, a suicide survivor whose own grief experience may have offered value to grieving clients, and as a hate crime survivor in work with LGBT youth, my own experiences have been invited into the room on multiple occasions. What value are our own lived experiences as counselors? Do we occlude these in client work, believing that the introduction of heavy topics from our lives would consume the counseling session? Or do we use our experiences strategically, naming real-world elements from our own lives as a means of joining the client and moving the session into deeper connection. I’ve adopted a both/and strategy in my use of disclosure, one that I try to impart to my students. There are indeed times in which real value can be had by allowing ourselves to be seen by our clients, particularly when our experiences hold potent elements for client direction. I reflect now on grief work that I did with a client through his mother’s debilitating illness and eventual death. I remember a particularly potent moment when, in response to the client’s direct question about whether I thought he would “get over” the death of his mother, I shared that a thing I had to learn for my own life was to “get over” getting over anything, and used my own father’s suicide to illustrate this. This was a particularly valuable experience in work with this client, as it moved our counseling through his decision that he needed to find a means to keep her living memory. As important as this work was, I realized that I would not have been able to share my experience, had this been an earlier point in my own healing, or with a client with whom I had a more tenuous connection. At the same time, I have found that there are many examples from my own life that are simply of no value for the client. As I said earlier, many transgenders want to know about my experiences. Those who are early in their transitions tend to ask a lot of questions about how things worked with my family. Although this doesn’t feel particularly vulnerable for me to describe (my family was accepting), there is little value in sharing this information with a client, whose family experience is often very different from that of mine. In these instances, I work to explain to clients that my own family experience would not be anything like the client’s, as each coming out experience is one’s own, because she or he and I are unique. Disclosure is a moving, fluid experience in my counseling work. The further along I that I move, the clearer I get on what I use from my own life as tools for client success. I endeavor toward counselor authenticity in my own awareness of what is/is not available from my own life to use in counseling. In this, I also endeavor to communicate clearly with the client either when using disclosure, or when making a clear and client-centered statement that explains my choice not to disclose.
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.