Using Spiritual Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy

By Denney, Ryan M.; Aten, Jamie D. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Using Spiritual Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy


Denney, Ryan M., Aten, Jamie D., Gingrich, Fred C., Journal of Psychology and Theology


The purpose of this article is to outline a series of recommendations to aid therapists in developing and integrating spiritual self-disclosure into the therapeutic process. The authors introduce six categories of spiritual self-disclosure by adapting Well's (1994) and Kottler's (2003) categories of self-disclosure. Arguments for and against therapist self-disclosure are offered, along with underlying assumptions inherent to the use of self-disclosures that incorporate spiritual themes. Assumptions and recommendations for therapists that may facilitate clinically relevant, culturally sensitive, and ethical implementation of spiritual self-disclosure are offered. Case examples highlighting how therapists can integrate spiritual self-disclosures into clinical practice are also provided.

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Self-disclosure can be broadly defined as "statements that reveal something personal about the therapist" (Hill & Knox, 2001). The disclosure of personal information by therapists in the course of their work with clients has been a topic of serious deliberation among psychotherapists (e.g., Hill & Knox, 2002; Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997). Furthermore, when, what, and how much to disclose has been the subject of additional debate, as well as whether self-disclosure is appropriate at all. Many therapists agree, however, that self-disclosure can be a powerful intervention if used properly (Kottler, 2003).

Despite the on-going debate among clinicians over therapist self-disclosure, there is a striking dearth of literature on therapeutic disclosures that are spiritual in nature. Spiritual self-disclosure has been defined as a spiritual intervention in which the therapist shares "aspects of his or her own spiritual experience" (Richards & Bergin, 2005, p. 287) with the client. To date, the literature has previously addressed spiritual self-disclosure only in abstract, non-precise terms, and most often as a vague intervention strategy (e.g., Richards & Bergin, 2005). Thus, the purpose of this article is to integrate spirituality into the discussion surrounding therapist self-disclosure and to provide recommendations for the clinically relevant, culturally sensitive, and, ethical use of spiritual self-disclosure. Our goal for this article is to demonstrate how therapists might utilize spiritual self-disclosure to normalize client experience, offer encouragement, provide modeling, or convey a message or information without imposing their beliefs on clients.

ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST SELF-DISCLOSURE

Arguments have been made both for and against the practice of therapist self-disclosure. One of the most salient arguments in favor of therapist self-disclosure postulates that this practice humanized therapists and increases the intimacy of the therapeutic interaction (Kramer, 2000). Guy (1987) addressed therapist self-disclosure within the context of significant events in the life of the psychotherapist (e. g., marriage, divorce, retirement), stating:

Regardless of the theoretical orientation employed, patients need to know that the therapist is alive, vulnerable, and affected by life events, and yet able to survive and live a meaningful life. If this is not the case, there is no reason to hope that the labors of the psychotherapist, and participation in psychotherapy, will result in the desired change. (p. 195)

Therapists are models of interpersonal interaction and clients often respond to therapist self-disclosure with increased disclosure of their own experiences (e. g, Kottler, 2003). Further, appropriate self-disclosure may serve to: (a) convey respect and facilitate the therapeutic relationship, (b) provide feedback about the impact of the client on others, (d) expand the repertoire of experience and possibilities for clients, (e) reassure clients or normalize their experiences, and (f) facilitate hope. Kramer (2000) argued that therapist self-disclosure also serves to decrease client transference.

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