Use of Self in Counselling
The therapeutic use of self in counselling is prevalent in the humanistic approach and relational approaches to counselling and psychotherapy.
The term use of self in therapy refers specifically to the ways in which the therapist draws upon their own feelings, experiences or personality to enhance the therapeutic process.
In her book, The Therapeutic Use of Self: Counselling Practice, Research and Supervision, Val Wosket helpfully explains:
“Use of self involves the operationalisation of personal characteristics so that they impact on the client in such a way as to become potentially significant determinants of the therapeutic process.” (Wosket, 2016)
In order to work ethically, and in the interests of the client, the therapist’s use of self in counselling is employed thoughtfully and with therapeutic intent. The therapist must be reflective and reflexive in their approach.
To consciously use ourselves in the therapeutic relationship, we must develop and nurture our self-awareness. If our responses and patterns remain outside of our awareness, we are unable to reflect on how they might be useful or detrimental to the therapeutic process.
"Authenticity and self-awareness go hand-in-hand... [they] allow for authentic and intuitive responses in our interactions with clients."
Personal therapy, counsellor supervision and other personal and professional development resources all contribute towards developing ourselves as reflective practitioners.
The Authentic Therapist
Carl Rogers emphasised the importance of a therapist’s authenticity in the therapeutic encounter, and indeed identified the therapist’s congruence as one of the six necessary and sufficient conditions for personality change. Authentic presence in the relationship is one of the most fundamental examples of use of self in counselling.
Authenticity and self-awareness go hand-in-hand; attunement to ourselves, our bodies and our experiencing allows for authentic and intuitive responses in our interactions with clients.
Examples of Use of Self in Counselling
Use of self in counselling may manifest in a number of ways. Here I consider and briefly explore some of the most prominent examples:
- Presence – As we have already explored, the therapist’s authentic presence is central to the therapeutic encounter, and according to Rogers, is a facilitative element for client movement. Authenticity can model a new way of being for a client who struggles to access their own authentic self, and provides a relationship free from pretence, where difficult material can be explored safely.
- Personal self-disclosure – The disclosure of personal information by the therapist can be a controversial issue. Some therapists prefer not to answer questions about themselves or their lives outside of the therapy room. Others argue that doing so can enhance the relationship and promote trust. There are no conclusive answers as to whether personal disclosure in the therapy room is helpful or detrimental to therapy. It is important that any disclosure is offered with the client’s needs in mind, and that the therapist asks themselves the question “Who does this disclosure serve?”. If there is no therapeutic benefit for the client, or there is a significant risk that the disclosure could be harmful, then it is likely to be better to refrain, and discuss the issue in supervision.
"Authenticity can model a new way of being for a client who struggles to access their own authentic self, and provides a relationship free from pretence."
- Relational self-disclosure – Relational self-disclosure refers to the therapist’s disclosure of feelings about what is occurring in the relationship in the here-and-now. For modalities which view the therapeutic relationship as central to the work, and even as a microcosm of what might be occurring for clients outside of the room, paying attention to what is happening in the relationship is especially important. When a therapist discloses their felt sense of the relationship, they are potentially offering a new perspective through which to view the process. Relational self-disclosure provides an opportunity for the therapist to reflect their sense of the client’s relational interactions whilst owning their own feelings and responses. This may be seen as less threatening than simply offering neutral observations or attempting to analyse the client. Wosket argues that relational self-disclosure can promote intimacy in the relationship, even where personal self-disclosure is kept to a minimum (Wosket, 2016).
- Immediacy – Relational self-disclosure is likely to employ the therapeutic skill of immediacy. When the therapist uses immediacy, they make an intervention based on their experiencing in the moment, often inviting the client to consider what is happening in the here-and-now. Immediacy will usually involve sharing a feeling or an inclination and exploring it together in a therapeutic context. This skill requires a degree of intuition on the part of the therapist and trust in their own experiencing. This is where self-awareness is particularly important.
- The therapist’s unconscious – Some of our feelings and experiences happen outside of our conscious awareness, and through self-reflection we can raise previously unacknowledged thoughts and feelings to our awareness. When it comes to our relationships with clients, this can happen in several different ways. Exploration of countertransference responses in supervision, work in personal therapy or even examining a timely dream could lead to a new insight about the therapeutic work. Whether or not these feelings and experiences are shared with a client (and it may not always be appropriate to directly share such experiences in the therapy room) engagement with our own unconscious material can be a very important part of how we use ourselves in the work.
Relational Depth and Use of Self
When working towards relational depth in therapy, Mearns and Cooper reason that the therapist’s willingness to be transparent in the relationship is key:
“...becoming more attentive to the whole of our clients, taking the risk of being transparent with them, inviting our clients to express themselves more fully and creating the kind of safe and containing environment in which clients may feel more willing to receive us.” (Mearns and Cooper, 2005)
From a relational perspective, ‘self’ as a tool for the therapeutic encounter enhances psychological contact between therapist and client, promotes trust and nourishes the therapeutic process.
Mearns, D. and Cooper, M. (2005) Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: SAGE.
Wosket, V. (2016) The Therapeutic Use of Self: Counselling practice, research and supervision. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.
Rowan, J. and Jacobs, M. (2002) The Therapist’s Use of Self (Core Concepts in Therapy). Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
This article was written for Counselling Tutor by Erin Stevens.