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).