Monday, January 10, 2011

Therapy Issues: Discerning the Professional from the Personal

This is a useful and interesting look at boundary issues in the therapeutic relationship. Every therapist will at some point have to deal with these issues (hugs, gifts, self-disclosure, etc.) and sort through their own sense of ethical standards and how that squares with their licensing board's ethical standards.

Therapy Issues: Discerning the Professional from the Personal

December 24th, 2010

A News Summary

The role of a therapist or counselor is a unique one. Therapists are trained professionals: they are educated, licensed, and experienced in their area of practice. Their work is bordered by offices and structured by schedules. And it’s exactly that: their work. The client-therapist relationship is a professional one. But because therapy deals with such personal issues, it’s a unique field, even compared to others having to do with health and wellness. Trust is an important element of therapy, and good therapy involves compassion, respect, safety, and understanding. A good therapist truly cares about the well-being of his or her patients, and it’s fitting that compassion and empathy play a role in that work.

But that can make some conventions of the therapist-counselor relationship hard to define, especially when it comes to seemingly small, yet personal, exchanges, such as a hug or a holiday gift. A hug is a sign of comfort, a reminder that the person is not alone; a gift is a sign of gratitude and appreciation, a token of thanks. Both hugs and small gifts can make perfect sense in a therapeutic setting. Yet there are plenty of reasons to draw a line as a matter of policy, just to avoid the gray area that can lie not far beyond these small gestures. These are just two examples of how it can be difficult to navigate the unique professional-personal connection one feels with their therapist. Doctors on Facebook are another hot topic, and media portrayals of psychotherapists’ personal lives can be overdramatic and unrealistic, only furthering the confusion.

These are all complex situations, and all deserve careful consideration on the part of everyone involved. Ultimately, therapists are professionals who directly impact their clients’ interpersonal lives. It’s okay that that’s a connection that’s hard to define: what’s important is to keep the dialogue open regarding how that connection should, or should not, play out, and to address the boundaries ahead of time versus after the fact.

1 comment:

Jude said...

Right after I said something disparaging about smokers, I asked my therapist if he smoked. "Not around here," he replied. A year later when he told me about his experience quitting smoking, I asked him how long he'd been smoke-free. "Twenty years." I pointed out the earlier statement, and he laughed, but to me it was a sign of dishonesty, reinforcing other signs of dishonesty. If you don't want to self-disclose, no problem--explain why to your client--but don't outright lie.