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Boundaries of Self Disclosure

How much do we tell our clients about our personal lives?

Brief Case

Have you been asked personal questions?

As a social worker at a family service centre, Amanda works with various clients. One of her clients, Susan revealed that her husband had been abusing her physically. Amanda has been empowering and working with Susan on her safety concerns.

At the end of one of their counselling sessions, Susan expressed her amazement at how much Amanda had been able to help her. “You seem to understand me so much,” Susan said. “Have you had personal experience with family violence?” The straightforward question took Amanda by surprise and she was unsure about how to respond. She had, in fact, been in an abusive relationship.

Responses by social workers:


There are a few factors to consider in deciding whether a social worker should self disclose. These can include timing of disclosure, motivation for disclosure as well as the impact of the disclosure on the client.

In this case, it appears that the sessions have progressed over a period of time. Self disclosure at the beginning of the session could be unhelpful if it compromises on meeting the needs of the client (that is, attention may become focused on the social worker if she or he self discloses too early in the therapeutic relationship). Self disclosure at this juncture in the case scenario appears appropriate as it normalizes the client's experiences and highlights similar struggles.

I believe the impact of self disclosure is positive if the social worker shares effective coping skills and empowers the client with protective measures. It can also instil hope in the client. In other words, the self disclosure should be client focused and clinically driven.

Hence, a possible response could be:
Yes, I too, like you have been in an abusive relationship. I had also felt scared and angry. Yet, I also knew how important it was for me to get help and protect myself. I feel more confident now knowing ways to keep myself safe. I am encouraged by your willingness to seek help amid your fears and concerns. You have been courageous and resilient and have taken many concrete steps to protect yourself.

​Angeline Voon

Full time student in Graduate Diploma in Social Work Programme

Amanda could say that her understanding of Susan’s issue comes from Amanda’s experience with working with other clients with similar issue. This would provide some comfort and encouragement to Susan that she was not the only one facing this issue and there were others who did and were able to overcome it. Amanda could add that she was able to empathise with clients due to her training as well. This would project professionalism on Amanda’s part.

​Shane Lim

Social Service Office @ Boon Lay
Ministry of Social and Family Development

The main objectives of sharing with Susan will be:

  • (i) to normalise the situation and let her know that she is not alone facing such issues;
  • (ii) touch-base on similar emotions experienced during the abusive relationship and in turn to empathise with her; and
  • (iii) to encourage and motivate her that recovery is possible. Hence, the focus will still be on Susan and not on myself.

So, if I were Amanda, I would tell Susan honestly that I had been through an abusive relationship. Reason being I believe that honesty and trust are the best measures to develop and maintain a relationship, thus I feel there is no harm to share. I would be open to share my own experiences pertaining to the abusive relationship, especially on the recovery process, but share with discretion and keep it short and sweet, bearing in mind that Susan is the real client.

​Jasmine Lee

Social Worker
SPD - serving people with disabilities

Amanda could say that her understanding of Susan’s issue comes from Amanda’s experience with working with other clients with similar issue. This would provide some comfort and encouragement to Susan that she was not the only one facing this issue and there were others who did and were able to overcome it. Amanda could add that she was able to empathise with clients due to her training as well. This would project professionalism on Amanda’s part.

​Shane Lim

Social Service Office @ Boon Lay
Ministry of Social and Family Development

Social workers in their daily work face a myriad of situations in which they have to make important decisions - decisions concerning clients and supervisees, decisions that concern with staff management, programs and casework. Our decisions influence the way in which we respond and the impact of our responses affects our clients. One such situation will be in the interactions that social workers have with clients in the counseling room. In the counseling room, the interactional process between social workers and clients is dynamic - clients’ responses are not scripted and social workers have to decide and react spontaneously. One process that frequently occurs in the counseling room is when social workers are asked by their clients questions that seek personal disclosure by the social workers. The case study given exemplifies one such possible scenario and the social worker Amanda has to decide on a response. However, there is an even more important question to ask: What will inform Amanda in how she will decide on what to respond?

Social workers usually turn to the following to inform their decisions: past personal experiences, past professional experiences, practice theories and models, empirical research and social work ethics. Many books have been written on the relationship between knowledge and practice and have also described the characteristics of each of these above sources of knowledge – one may refer to any of them to know more. However there is one important point I want to draw out that is useful for this case study discussion: Social work ethics which provide guidance to what is right or wrong in practice should serve in the final analysis as the rationale and justification for the decisions that social workers make in social work profession. Ethics can provide the answers as to what it means by the value-laden phrases “appropriately answer”, “remain professional” & “positive affirmation” as stated in the case study’s discussion question.

While experiences of workers (professional or personal), social work practice theories and models can provide social workers perspectives, understanding and skills in working with clients, they are not able to provide the philosophical basis for the justification of social workers’ professional decisions. We should realize that many daily decisions that social workers make are of value judgments and hence ethics is essential in guiding these decisions. Let’s refer back to the case study to understand this relationship between the Code of Ethics, Amanda’s professional knowledge and experiences, and how she can make decisions on her respond to Susan, the client.

Various practice theories and models, and even past work experiences inform social workers that personal disclosures of similar life experiences (in this case, Amanda’s personal experiences with domestic violence) with clients can be used as a bridge to establishing emotional connections with clients. In addition, clients may feel a lesser sense of alienation with their problems and be more hopeful about their problems knowing that someone else, what more their social worker, has experienced what they have gone through. Amanda the social worker in this case study will have to discern and decide what personal information will be useful for disclosure to the client so that professional responsibilities to the needs of the client is maintained as top priority. What does this mean for how Amanda will respond to Susan? Firstly it will mean that Amanda will have to ask the client Susan her purpose in asking Amanda about her experiences with domestic violence. Secondly, Amanda will further discuss with Susan how Amanda’s personal disclosures will be helpful for Susan. Thirdly, during and immediately after the disclosure, Amanda’s concern will be on how the client is experiencing the disclosure process and how the client is making meaning from the disclosure. All these will require skills and knowledge that Amanda’s past professional experiences, and practice theories and models can provide.

However, why is there an emphasis on the welfare of the client in Amanda’s intentions during the process of personal disclosure? Why is this important? While Amanda’s professional experiences and the practice theories and models can help her with the knowledge and skills in the process of personal disclosure, only the Code of Ethics can provide justification for the substantive emphasis of client welfare in the actions of the social worker. So what principles in the ethics code are relevant here?

I have identified two principles from the Code of Ethics that will be relevant: ‘The profession of social work is based upon a belief in the value and dignity of all human beings, and a concern for their social well being.’(Preamble/Guiding Principles)‘Social workers avoid discrimination and prejudice, respect individual differences and accept that professional responsibility must take precedence over personal aims and views.’ (Principle A1)

These principles will inform social workers that though they are disclosing personal information from their experiences and personal views, it is morally right for them to do it with the intention to benefit the well being of the clients. This means for example, Amanda should not personally disclose with the intention to boast about her experiences or to divulge any unnecessary information that will not be of benefit to the client. In addition because of the respect that social workers should have for individual differences, Amanda will also accept that her personal experiences may still differ from the client’s experiences and that client may not have to construct the same meanings of the experiences as her. Amanda’s professional impetus will be to help Susan to make sense of her own meanings gleamed from Amanda’s personal disclosure in order to benefit the client’s situation and well being.

In summary, social workers have to distinguish clearly the implications of the Code of Ethics and other sources of knowledge like professional experiences and practice theories and models for practice and decision-making. The former provides the moral justifications for why we do something in social work practice and the latter provides the knowledge and skills in working with clients.

​Gerard Chung

Full time student in Masters in Social Work programme


The following commentary is reprinted and adapted with the permission of Social Work Today ©. Great Valley Publishing, Co.

Many experienced clinical social workers, myself included, have been asked a fair share of personal questions from clients at some point throughout our careers. These can range from the common “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children?” to the inquisitive and much closer to home – as in my situation – “Were you in an abusive relationship too?”, and quite often too.

If the rules regarding how much to reveal to clients were always standardized, it would probably make the profession a lot simpler. Yet, unsurprisingly, the issue of self-disclosure in clinical social work is rarely as black and white as that.

Many of us social workers hesitate revealing our personal information to our clients as that might result in transference: the (re)direction of feelings and emotional entanglements between the client and counsellor, often unconsciously. For example, a social worker being open about going through a divorce while counselling a client with marital issues might cause the counterproductive effect of undermining the social workers’ advice in context. Sharing of information could also misconstrue the therapeutic relationship as a friendship, or in extreme cases, a prelude to a romantic and sexual engagement with the client. All of this blurs the distinct boundaries needed to ensure that the professional therapy has its intended effect. It can even damage the client’s trust by shifting the focus away from them.

On the other hand, if managed properly, self-disclosure can help clients feel more at ease and strengthen the relationship based on trust, and make their challenges feel less daunting by painting the therapist as a role model. Many social workers agree that this can in fact become a key turning point in the clients’ journey to recovery. Susan might find more meaning in her therapeutic relationship with me if she learns that I was a first-hand survivor of the experiences she is currently facing, and would thus be more comfortable explaining her perspective as she would know for sure that I could empathise and provide solutions that do work.

Ethical Considerations

In addition to the clinical repercussions, social workers should also note the ethical aspects of any potential self-disclosure. Being open about parts of your life might introduce uncomfortable avenues that blur the lines between a professional and personal relationship. A client may bring you an expensive present if they know your birthday, or request to join in a worship service if they know your religion. Those dual relationships are generally discouraged by the Social Work Professional Code of Ethics.

Thus, social workers should always be careful of three things: what they reveal i.e. the content of self-disclosure, how much they reveal i.e. the degree of intimacy of the self-disclosure, and how often they reveal it i.e. duration of the self-disclosure.

The Content of Self-Disclosure

  • Usually, the disclosure of a narrow range of superficial information, such as whether the social worker has children, or where they grew up, would be considered acceptable. However, heavier discussions such as health or career frustrations, personal relationships and marital affairs are risky and should be avoided as much as possible.
  • It is also notable that in some settings, certain types of disclosure can be possible. Self-disclosure about one’s recovery in a program that treats addictions would be encouraged but not if the client is from a traditional mental health facility.

The Intimacy of Self-Disclosure

  • The more intimate the disclosure, the more risky it usually is in terms of problematic boundaries created. Many experienced social workers acknowledge that some level of thought-out and modest information can help further the therapeutic process, making it ethically acceptable. A good example would be if a client is having problems with their teenage daughter’s mood swings, to mention "Oh, yes, I remember those years with my own daughter" but without elaborating further so as to keep the focus on the client and encourage her to continue.

The Duration of Self-Disclosure

  • If a social worker consistently engages with the client in conversations past the professional standpoint, they would likely be in danger of violating more ethical standards. It also paints the social worker as unprofessional as they are inadvertently displaying questionable judgement about appropriate boundaries between a client and therapist.t

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

If you are a social worker wondering about how much information to reveal to clients about yourself if at all, here are some questions you might want to ask to help yourself decide:

  • Why am I sharing this with my client?
    Before sharing personal information with clients, you should always carefully examine your motives first. Is the information purely for your clients’ benefit, or does it end up being a subtle way to fulfil your own need for relief?
  • In what ways would this self-disclosure potentially benefit my client?
  • Is there any risk that my client could be potentially harmed if I share this with them?
  • How would a panel of my peers view the self-disclosure?
    If your client files a complaint or lawsuit based on these perceived boundary violations in the self-disclosure, how would others in your field or an ethics committee interpret and respond to what you have shared?
  • If I decide to share personal information, how much would professionally be considered too much?
    It is best to make sure that the personal information is relatively superficial and generic such that it could be applied in other similar contexts without any negative effects.
  • Should I further discuss the reasons behind this self-disclosure with my client?
    If you decide to share personal information with clients sensibly, you should ideally also explain that it was a deliberate choice and directly acknowledge the rationale behind it. This has the benefit of enhancing clients’ understanding of the need to preserve clear boundaries.

Self-disclosure has become one of the most challenging issues faced by social workers in recent years as the profession’s perception of the complex boundaries have matured. It is our responsibility to skilfully manage self-disclosure in a way that upholds ethical guidelines and strengthens the client-counsellor relationship.