The Power of Disclosure

Tuesday June 14, 2022

When a client described an experience that evoked not only familiarity but reactive physical sensations, it was not only a bit of a coincidence but a huge revelation.

When I was 12, I had a secret that nobody could know. It carried the risk of bringing loved ones down with me – as well as guilt and fear, the kind that eats from the inside out.  This went on for about 3 years. There was a grey cloud that seemed to be above or within me every day.

Processes

As my new client and I began our first meeting, I listened to the description of ‘some days or weeks being worse than others’. It took me back to when thoughts of the future were bleak and of loved ones suffering. How one week might be slightly lighter than the previous.  Thought processes such as convincing myself, ‘oh it will be ok’ one minute and then the next ‘but it must be serious. It hasn’t gone away yet.’ And then extremes to acceptance, and thoughts of what end of life might be like. Yes, that was acceptance for me. There were times I accepted I was going to die and that I had to plan ways of making it easier on my loved ones. 

My lived experience

A couple of decades ago this was my lived experience, of having symptoms of a serious chronic illness that I dare not speak of.  I developed strategies and patterns as a way of coping.  To hear a client describe similar or the same patterns immediately brought back familiar feelings, during and after the session. These feelings began to manifest themselves within my body as physical sensations. The sensation was in my chest, just below my throat, as if trying to scramble up my gullet and leap out of my mouth.

It was only the first session, and as a trainee, I held this feeling and let it sit heavy in my body, as thoughts of supervision and peer discussion started circling above me like I had been hit on the head with a big comedy cartoon mallet, all the while desperately trying to stay with the client. To add to the momentary chaos it also conjured up the thoughts of many occasions sitting with friends or a new partner and wanting to say all excitedly ‘No way! ME TOO!’. These thoughts were then dutifully quashed and sent away to their corner (to think about what they’d done…).

Should I?

I may go all studenty here but I will keep it contained.  Many theorists have given their take on the subject of disclosure (including our Freud) and taken a look into the depths of ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’. Taking many of these theories into account I think it boils down to congruence (thanks Carl (Rogers)). Perhaps with an element of my own narcissistic gratification, I knew I would have struggled with the feelings and sensations it evoked. To be truly empathic in the therapeutic setting, I HAD to disclose. How could I possibly expect my client to sit and tell me things about their experience when I couldn’t reciprocate? When I might be too distracted with my own process and what was happening to me, I could not possibly offer my full attention as a competent therapist.

So, I did. I disclosed. It was good.

Regrets? I had a few but…

Immediately wanting to rescue my client from any guilt the disclosure may have invoked, and of course not wanting to hijack this client’s space, I did feel the need to keep the discussion that followed contained to the here and now. This was where my own frame of reference wheedled its way into my otherwise carefully handled disclosure. I really wanted to avoid getting into my past experiences, which could inevitably lead to further questioning such as ‘so what was it?’ or ‘what happened then?’ or the dreaded ‘got any advice?’. These things were simply not relevant. It did not produce the perfect outcome as having to be somewhat directive as well as some momentary panic once the disclosure had been done (and could not be undone) set in.

The disclosure for me had done its job and I was able to BE with the client once more.  Having a sense of a shared experience (although in a completely different space and time) and recognising this as a therapist helped with the process of dealing with my own feelings. By acknowledging the transference and taking it to supervision, involving the client in the disclosure (as opposed to just offloading to the client) helped move the relationship forward. Perhaps even with some comfort, as our processes had been normalised. In other words, we were not alone.

I believe I took a healthy risk, which felt right and sincere, a good starting point. I now have an idea of the power disclosure can have on the therapeutic relationship and me as a therapist and a human being. Power being the optimal word here also, I would not have wanted to disclose to assert any of that!  In this case, the hindrance of not disclosing was taking me away from the client. 

So what was it and what happened you ask? Another blog for another time…perhaps….

This blog was written by Leila Tanner, a Clinical Placement with UK Counselling Network CIC. Her entry was the winning submission of the Blog competition held in May.

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