TMI: Why Do I Know So Much About My Counselor’s Personal Life?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Self-disclosure by addiction treatment counselors has a long and illustrious history. The original alcohol and drug counselors were people in recovery themselves and their primary methodology was based on the 12-Step model. Essentially paid sponsors, they shared “experience, strength, and hope” with new clients as they worked their way through the 30-day program. In fact, for decades, the only credential a counselor needed was his or her own (abstinence-based) recovery (indeed, currently, many states do not require a GED to become an addiction counselor).

Of those listed, deliberate self-disclosure is the most controversial and carries the most risk. It involves an intentional decision by the counselor to reveal something personal and otherwise unknown to the client.-Ian McLoone

Without a doubt, plenty of people have been helped within this system. However, exclusive reliance on personal experience and positive behavior modeling has also led to some very sloppy “therapy.”

It opens the door to all kinds of boundary violations, questionable treatment practices and, at its worst, a situation where clients never get their own needs addressed, while counselors go on and on about their personal lives.

In the therapeutic setting, there have been identified several different types of self-disclosure most frequently engaged in by counselors. Ofer Zur, PhD, for instance, has delineated the following four: deliberate, unavoidable, accidental, and client-initiated. Each of these have different implications and attendant benefits and risks.

Of those listed, deliberate self-disclosure is the most controversial and carries the most risk. It involves an intentional decision by the counselor to reveal something personal and otherwise unknown to the client. Below, I will deconstruct several concrete examples of deliberate self-disclosure.

Counselors and Deliberate Self-Disclosure

At my very first job in the field, I once watched a counselor use this technique successfully in the following way: at the end of a very difficult intake evaluation, he said, “Wow, that was a very touching story. I am amazed you have overcome such adversity in your life.” Here, the counselor reflected on what was shared in the session and then provided validation in an authentic and empathetic way. Appropriate deliberate self-disclosure is usually focused on “here-and-now” topics and consideration of the material discussed in session.

Conversely, a client recently told me about his experience at a local opioid treatment program: “We only get about 30-45 minutes of individual time, but the first half of each session he spends talking about his personal life – his health problems, his medications, his divorce.” When I asked what he thought about this, my client told me it was infuriating, and not helpful at all because it took away from the time that otherwise would have been focused on the issues he wanted to discuss. Professional literature is consistent in its treatment of this this practice and almost always includes a caution against disclosures that are self-serving and are made without careful consideration about the impact on the client.

The above disclosure, perhaps made with the intention of building rapport (the client and the counselor were both taking the same medication for a shared diagnosis), ultimately made the client feel burdened by the needs of the therapist.

What about more therapeutically-minded deliberate self-disclosure – for example, sharing the fact that you are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction? Even this is highly risky and usually not advisable. Just think: your counselor tells you she is in recovery from a long battle with heroin addiction. At the beginning of treatment, you feel a strong kinship with her, and gain strength from knowing that recovery is truly possible. As long as everything is going well, this might be a good thing. However, what if you begin to struggle and maybe even experience a relapse or find that her approach is no longer working for you? Wouldn’t it be possible that you’d feel guilt, shame or like something was wrong with you because what worked for her doesn’t work for you? Or worse, what if your problem was alcohol? Now her recovery seems much less applicable to yours (especially if, like a good therapist would, she starts to push you to work hard in therapy, pushing you outside of your comfort zone). This added complication in the therapeutic relationship is totally unnecessary and avoidable. It is easy to imagine a scenario where any possible benefits are far outweighed by the consequences.

Now, what about counselors who are not in recovery? Turns out, a culture of self-disclosure at an agency can make the lives of those not in recovery very difficult. I remember a situation where clients would actually refuse to work with a specific staff member because she was not in recovery. Unfortunately, she was probably the most talented clinician in the agency, while the guy who was most vocal about his recovery was easily the worst at his job. In a worst-case scenario, counselors feeling they have to overcompensate for the fact they are not in recovery themselves spend time discussing their family members’ addiction histories or other personal problems which are totally irrelevant to the person seeking therapy.

The Potential for a Negative Impact

I can certainly understand the desire to use frequent self-disclosure. It can be a fast, immediate way to build rapport and show empathy. It is even seen by some patients as a requirement that their counselor “knows what it’s like” to experience addiction in order to even have the capacity to help them. Sadly, most clients (and even counselors, for that matter) have rarely considered the ethical dilemma created by poorly planned self-disclosures. The potential for a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship is vast.

Self-disclosure in other areas of mental health is usually viewed with some suspicion. When it occurs too often, the result looks something like what my supervisor, Dr Mark Willenbring, calls “Rent-A-Friend Therapy”.-Ian McLoone

Interestingly, I used to be asked whether or not I am in recovery (assuming they hadn’t already Googled me) all the time at previous agencies. However, once I started practicing at a clinic where self-disclosure was no longer an expected part of my job, people stopped asking as frequently. I have found this has allowed me to build truly trusting, deep relationships that depend on mutual respect and trust that took time to develop.

Self-disclosure in other areas of mental health is usually viewed with some suspicion. When it occurs too often, the result looks something like what my supervisor, Dr Mark Willenbring, calls “Rent-A-Friend Therapy”. For most practitioners in addiction and mental health treatment, the general rule of thumb is: use sparingly, after much thought, and only when in the best interest of the client.

If your counselor or therapist is talking about themselves too much, it might be time to tell them: “Shut up – I’m the one paying for therapy!”


Images Courtesy of iStock

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