Email counselling (Part 2) - What is the disinhibition effect?
Updated: Mar 29
When meeting online, clients often feel able to be more open and are less inhibited – this is known as the 'disinhibition effect' (Suler, 2004).
Anyone who has studied online counselling will know that disinhibition is one of the biggest differences from face-to-face counselling.
This disinhibition can be quite different when using video call in comparison with email for sessions. One of the reasons for this is due to the difference in being seen vs unseen.
Disinhibition can be explained as having six types (Suler, 2004). The second 'You Can’t See Me (invisibility)' relates directly to text-based counselling giving clients 'courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't'.
This greater disinhibition also gives clients freedom to 'articulate emotions without fear of witnessing a judgmental response in the listener' (Dunn in Weitz (ed.) (2014) p83). This is very different from video counselling where instead facial expressions and body language can be seen and read into by both the therapist and the client, which can 'slam the breaks on what people are willing to express' (Suler, 2004).
However, not being able to see and hear each other is not always positive as the lack of social cues can provoke therapeutic uncertainty which Smithson (2008) in (Francis-Smith, C. (2014) p37) talks about as this 'probability/randomness' leaving the client wondering if/when a response will be sent. For this reason it’s essential, as a counsellor, to agree a time frame within which you will respond to the client’s email.
The ‘unseen nature’ present in email counselling can also enable clients to idealise their therapist which can be empowering, particularly if they have been let down in the past by professionals (Dunn in Weitz (ed.), 2014).
In addition, trust can be deepened by clients using email when they regard it as more anonymous and therefore safer (Fletcher-Tomenius and Vossler, 2009).
Another reason for disinhibition is due to the response being delayed, (asynchronous) as opposed to being instant (synchronous). This is one of the biggest differences between email and video counselling.
By not interacting in real time, email counselling can offer clients the opportunity to have counselling without having to cope with the immediate reaction of their counsellor. This can enable disinhibition as it can feel safer to let their thoughts and feelings out in an email and feel like they are leaving it behind for their counsellor to read (Suler, 2004). This can help clients be more open by offering them 'time to think', which takes away the fear of not knowing what to say or saying 'something stupid' which can be present in synchronous work such as video (Dunn in Weitz (ed.) (2014) p83).
It can also be said that with email sessions, counsellors 'meet the client where they are and how they are' (Rhodes, 2017) as the client writes at the time and on the day that suits them best each week. However, not communicating in real time does not suit all clients and counsellors as many feel frustrated and see asynchronous work as 'running away' from the possible difficult response (Suler, 2004).
In my experience I have found that for many people they don’t feel able to try email counselling. Other’s they find a mix of video call and email sessions helpful, choosing to switch when they feel what they have to explore would be better helped by an instant response from me, or to instead have time to reflect and process their words in an email in their own time. There are also many clients who choose to have all their sessions by email. Perhaps this is because they find it easier for their schedule, or perhaps because they feel it less uncomfortable especially if they want to work on an issue where they feel shame/embarrassment.
Either way, learning about disinhibition has been pivotal for me as I reflect on my counselling work online.
I wonder if you have tried email counselling and if not what has stopped you?
Do you want to learn more?
Do you want to learn more from me about email counselling?
I'm an experienced trainer and have been offering email counselling since 2018. I am planning to run CPD workshops for fellow counsellors in the near future.
If you'd like more info and to be notified of upcoming online CPD please get in touch. Email me on email@example.com
There is a growing need for more training in email counselling. I look forward to sharing experience with you as you set up your email counselling service.
This is Part 2 of my 4-part series on Email counselling.
Read Part 1 "What is Email Counselling?"
Read Part 3 "Boundaries in Email Counselling"
Read Part 4 "Misunderstandings in Email Counselling"
For more info on the email counselling service I offer click here.
Dunn, K. (2014) The Therapeutic Alliance Online in Weitz, P. (Ed.). (2014) Psychotherapy 2.0: Where Psychotherapy and Technology Meet. London: Karnac.
Fletcher–Tomenius, L. & Vossler, A. (2009) Trust in Online therapeutic relationships: The therapist’s experience. Counselling Psychology Review, 24: 24-34.
Rhodes, A. (2017) Musings on Online Therapy: speaking from their world, their space, in ways which they choose https://www.dr-julian.com/single-post/2017/06/22/Musings-on-Online-Therapy-speaking-from-their-world-their-space-in-ways-which-they-choose [last accessed 12 August 2018]
Smithson (2008) Psychology’s Ambivalent View of Uncertaintyin Francis-Smith, C. (2014) Email counselling and the therapeutic relationship: A grounded theory analysis of therapists’ experiences. DCounsPsych, University of the West of England. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/24554 [last accessed 12 August 2018]
Suler (2004) The Online Disinhibition Effect John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace August 04 (v3.0) http://www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html [last accessed 12 August 2018]