Self-Disclosure: How Much is Too Much?

A reader asked me a while ago about the appropriate use of self-disclosure and I thought that was a great topic to write about more in depth. It can be a touchy subject, as I expect we have all met those who engage in too much self-disclosure with those we support. To completely avoid self-disclosure though is to not use our most valuable and powerful tool, our own story.

Self-disclosure has often been considered a key component of trusting relationships. Research has shown that self-disclosure by one often results in reciprocal disclosure in the other, increases trust and encourages positive feelings towards the other. Self-disclosure can backfire though, and can greatly impact and impede the relationship of the chaplain and the person being helped.

Self-disclosure is addressed in the professional competence area of ACPE’s standards for education. Standard 312.2 states that the minister should be able to serve a diverse group of people without “imposing one’s own perspectives.” Standard 312.6 states that the minister should also be able to demonstrate a “competent use of self” including self-disclosure and relating emotionally to others.  It can feel at times though that there can be conflict between providing self-disclosure and imposing our desires or experience on another.

Take for example a case where a cancer patient expresses their fear of losing control due to their illness. Imagine that the chaplain had a similar experience where they had a severe illness that required the care and support of others and, while it was humiliating at first, she found she learned a great deal about faith and grace during the process. Would it be appropriate to express this? This is a loaded question I know, and I expect the answer lies in how it is expressed as well as what is expressed.

A good rule of thumb regarding self-disclosure is to consider the purpose of it in each particular case. Appropriate and beneficial self-disclosure will always make the other feel heard and help the other tell their own story. It should never overshadow the story of the other or lead to moralizing or sermonizing. This can be hard to do, especially when we’ve been trained in seminary to use stories, including our own, as illustrations to point people in a direction we feel they should go.

Here’s a brief example of one story overshadowing another, involving Mrs. C who is in the hospital for cancer treatments:

  • Mrs C: “This diagnosis really has me scared. I’m going to be such a burden on my family because of all my needs. I’m used to being the caregiver, not the one needing it.”
  • Chaplain: “I know it will be hard. I had a time where I was recovering from surgery and was out for a long time. I felt like a burden at first, but I came much closer to God because of it.”
  • Mrs C: “I hope I can do that.”

As you can see, the Chaplain in trying to “join” with Mrs. C completely overshadowed her story. It was well meaning, but we could easily surmise how Mrs. C felt afterward.  Rather than feel accepted, she felt minimized and ineffective. The chaplain tried to be an example, but ended up probably not being that helpful.

So let’s try that again:

  • Mrs C: “This diagnosis really has me scared. I’m going to be such a burden on my family because of all my needs. I’m used to being the caregiver, not the one needing it.”
  • Chaplain: “I know it will be hard. I had a time where I was recovering from surgery and was out for a long time. I felt like a burden too. I felt guilty for causing problems for other people. Is that how you feel?”
  • Mrs C: “Exactly! It’s not just that I’m causing problems, I feel like I am a problem.”

The chaplain avoided trying to resolve Mrs. C’s distress and instead focused on normalizing that distress by use of self-disclosure. The chaplain’s open-ended question allows her to give voice to her feelings in an environment where those feelings can be expressed, primarily because the chaplain has already voiced them personally. Also note the use of “I” statements by the chaplain in the expression of feelings, and that the disclosure was brief. Both of these are hallmarks of helpful self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure should also never be therapeutic on our own behalf, as that reverses the relationship roles between the chaplain and those being helped. As chaplains we will come across cases and situations which hit us in painful areas and it may be tempting to give voice to that pain. This can backfire though and cause the other to feel sympathy for us rather than empathy with us. I’ve heard cases where professional caregivers unload their personal problems on patients and family members thinking that this is the same as building a trusting relationship with them. Unfortunately this can lead the individual to be more concerned about the caregiver than themselves.

To summarize:

  1. Consider the purpose of disclosure before speaking.
  2. Make “I” statements rather than broad generalities.
  3. Make disclosures brief and succinct.
  4. Always bring the focus of attention back to the person you are helping.

Finally, remember that self-disclosure is a skill that requires judgment and honing in professional settings. What and how we disclose to clients will be – and should be – different than what we disclose to our friends and colleagues. The fact that it doesn’t always “come naturally” in our professional encounters isn’t a flaw, it’s a feature.






One thought on “Self-Disclosure: How Much is Too Much?

  1. Thank You for sharing your thought in this professional issue that sometimes is misunderstood by many in counseling or ministries. Correct, asked yourself what for whom is the purpose of disclosure? Thank you.

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