Using Self-Disclosing or Self-Involving Counselor Statements 
when Treating Substance Use Disorders

While corresponding with a former student who is in her first professional position post-bachelor's degree, the topic of using self-disclosure came up. Although discussed in classes, the issue took on greater significance for the student given her personal recovery from a substance use disorder, her position in a SUD treatment program, and a recent experience with a client. I thought that sharing the gist of this correspondence as a post might be of interest to followers of this blog.

Congratulations on the offer to go full-time.This speaks to both the quality of your work as a practitioner and your valueto the program as a “member of the team”; I am not surprised. My experience hasalways been that as individuals with substance use disorders recover, they donot just get well, they get really, REALLY well :) Over the years as Ihave come to watch those individuals who find recovery in 12-step programs,some of whom really seem to thrive and truly blossom, I have come to realizethat people with addictive disorders tend to be among the more sensitive andtherefore empathetic people I have met—when using, that was a big part of theproblem. As you know, this is not, in and of itself, sufficient to make aneffective counselor, but when it is harnessed, in tandem with training andeducation in counseling technique and practice, these individuals can matureinto, to quote folks of your generation, “awesome” practitioners.

Your comment about the young gentleman who seems to have opened up to you whenlearning that you have “walked the walk” is not uncommon. The challenge for youas a professional contemplating the use of this type of disclosure, however, is to be sureyou know: (1) why you are self-disclosing and to what purpose, and (2) realize that for self-disclosureto be useful, it must be employed to benefit the client and not the counselor. This is whyit is generally a good idea to self-disclose “later” rather than “sooner” inthe counseling relationship, perhaps as the response to a client’s inquiry if you are in recovery after having watched you and come to suspect you may be by your actions rather than to simply “put it out there,” wearing it like a badge of honor. Asthe old saying goes, let your action do the speaking for you. When you “actlike” a recovering person, people will notice, and one “acts like” a recoveringperson by doing what he or she needs to do to to stay clean and sober “one dayat a time." As the slogan in the program suggests, just “do the next rightthing.”

Remember from our classes about the difference between self-involving andself-disclosing statements a counselor can make. Both may be able to convey apersonal connection and allow the client to relate more easily to thecounselor. The self-disclosing statement, however, necessitates having to placethe focus on you in order to enter the client’s space and demonstrate theability to connect. The self-involving statement, however, maintains the focuson the client and still allows the counselor to meet the client on a personallevel and demonstrate the ability to empathize. A self-disclosing statement issomething like, “I know what you mean because in my early recovery I felt aloneand afraid most of the time too” notice all the “I” statements...the focus ison the counselor and not the client. 

The self-involving statement goes, “Youreally seem to be struggling with the fear that feeling isolated and alonetends to create - (this is empathic reflection as you learned in class). Thefact that you are willing to share this with me, in our session, and accept mysuggestion to take it to group really shows the progress you have made in yourrecovery. 6-weeks ago, you would have just said ‘screw it’ and gotten high;today, you shared it with me and are ready to work on it; I am proud of you” -(this is the self-involving part of the statement).

Remember, “you do best what you do most.” The more you do what you learned inschool and continue to learn on the job and in supervision, the better you willbecome at doing it.
You are a better counselor today, "student's name," than you were yesterday; you arenowhere near the counselor today you will become tomorrow :)

Self-disclosure is easy and seem like an effective way to help someone feel comfortable and trusting; but it can be a double-edged sword. Perhaps better to engage the client by entering her or his experience, as a parent might do with a young child, than by expecting she/he enter yours.

What do you think?

Dr. Robert


Blog archive