B is for Behind (Already!) or Boundaries

I decided a few days ago that B was going to be for Boundaries—a relevant topic now that I am a counselor and caregiver (see A is for Alzheimer’s). But then life intervened in unexpected ways and while I should be cranking out my C is for . . . blog, I’ve still not gotten around to B. Also, there’s the little matter of a poem to go along with. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I get interrupted. Poetry is challenging enough without constant interference. I wrote one the other night, but I’m not sure it is suitable for public consumption—in fact, I know it isn’t. So, back to the drawing board.

A few words about Boundaries. Boundaries are those imaginary lines that we draw in the sand between us and the rest of the world. The word “no” is a boundary, as in “No, I cannot help you move this weekend (or ever).” Boundaries are personal bubbles, as in “if there are 90 empty seats in the movie theater, don’t sit right next to me if you don’t know me.” I am continually amazed at how often this boundary gets violated (especially in Bellingham). Boundaries can be fences, hedges, the edge of the lawn, a strategically placed flowerbed, or (if you are Cheeto Satan) a $65 billion wall between countries. What all of these borders, imaginary or actual, have in common, is they separate me from the rest of you in some way, or us from them, or my yard from your yard, or my body from your body, or my time from your time. Stepping across the line means I am choosing to merge some part of myself with you.

As a counselor, having boundaries means that I must keep our relationship confined to the counseling setting. It’s a bit odd, this particular boundary because while you (the counselee) may chose to tell me (the counselor) many intimate details about your life, I will not reciprocate with intimate details of my own. Normal relationships (friendships, intimate partners) rely on the mutual sharing of such information across boundaries to create a sense of closeness. You tell me an intimate detail, a secret, something you’ve not shared before, and I reward you with a secret/intimate detail of my own, our friendship grows, intimacy flourishes, the exchange is reciprocal.

Not so in counseling or therapy, which works differently. You tell me (the counselor) a secret, and I reflect it back to you, usually with a question. Something like “what meaning might you assign to the anger you have for your father?” or “what would it mean to you if she asked you out on a date?” or “how has being abused as a child affected your parenting of your own children?” Or maybe even (if I’m feeling stuck) “how do you feel about that?”

As a counselor, I have to have Boundaries because how helpful would it be if you disclosed your traumatic childhood to me, expecting insight and healing, and I said to you “Wow! My childhood was traumatic too”? Or, even if I did determine that some level of self-disclosure might be warranted (a quick rule of thumb re: self-disclosure: it can be ok if it helps the client, but not if it’s only for my own sake, i.e. to make me feel better), how helpful would it be if I confused you by having loose boundaries in the therapy room but then ignored you when I ran into you at the supermarket? If I took your money (or insurance payment) under the auspices of helping you but came to rely on your feedback and your insights? If you leave a counseling session knowing more about your therapist or counselor than he/she knows about you, somebody’s Boundaries are too loose.

Therapy is a very specific sort of exchange, one that depends on firm Boundaries. Less than firm Boundaries create all sorts of havoc and may result in the counselor or therapist losing their license. Lapses in ethics often result from lapses in Boundaries and can be a very slippery slope. Loose Boundaries can lead to inappropriate friendships and perhaps even sexual liaisons between therapists and clients. Sleeping with a client is never a good way to help them heal. It might make the client feel special initially, but will eventually destroy them (and probably the counselor as well).

Even something as seemingly benign as a friendship can become problematic between a therapist and client. As your friend, I have a vested interest in telling you things you want to hear, things that will keep you as a friend. As your therapist, I have a duty to tell you things that you might not want to hear but need to, things that will help you heal and move forward, things that a friend wouldn’t tell you. Boundaries make it possible for me to be your counselor.

Confused yet? It’s tricky, I know. But trust me, this is one lesson you’re better off NOT learning directly.

Related Haiku (this is an old one, but relevant)

Please do not invite
me in and then abandon
me at the threshold

E is for (what else?) Ethics

 

EDon’t have sex with your clients. Just. Don’t.

Washington State law forbids it and even goes so far as to outlaw intimate relationships with former clients. Forever. The American Counseling Association (ACA), in section A.5 of its 2014 Code of Ethics prohibits sex with current clients as well, as do all of the other professional organizations, but they don’t put a complete ban on sexual relationships with former clients forever, instead imposing a five year moratorium on sex with former clients.

And still. Therapists have the dubious distinction of being disciplined most often for violating this particular ethical code. In fact, they (we) outpace all other helping professions in this area, leaving lawyers, doctors, and even massage therapists in the dust.mother

But say your aspirational ethics around this issue are intact. Say you are really clear that you would never, ever engage in a sexual relationship with a client or former client, or with their family members. There are still a thousand different ways to violate client trust or for a counseling relationship to go off the rails.

The ACA’s code of ethics state that the primary responsibility of the counselor is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of the clients (Section A.1). The document goes on to say that counselors must act in such a way as to avoid harming their clients (Section A.4). It’s a lot like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

But what causes harm, exactly?

Consider the following scenario (borrowed from my Ethics textbook): You are the only counselor in a small town. Another therapist is a two-hour drive away. When you moved here, you became good friends with the school principal, and her son and your son are best friends. She asks if you would see her son professionally. His grades are slipping. He has started acting out at home. He’s defiant and surly. She doesn’t have time to drive two hours each way to take him to a different therapist. Could you just talk to him a few times? You want to help.

What to do? What to do? What could possibly go wrong?

How about this situation: You’re seeing a client who is a writer. You, too, dabble in the written arts. The client mentions his blog during a session, and as soon as he leaves you Google his name, find his blog, and settle in to read it. Your curiosity piqued, you search for him on Facebook. Research, you tell yourself. What you find out will help you understand him better. The next time he comes in you say, “Great blog! I have one too. You should check it out. And if you have any feedback on my writing, I’d love to hear it.”

ethics cartoonWhat’s wrong here? Why not bond with a client over a shared passion? Maybe trade a few sessions for a critique of the novel you’ve been working on. After all, the writer doesn’t have a surplus of cash. It would be a win-win. Right?

No. To borrow a phrase from Cheryl Strayed’s book of quotes Brave Enough: “The short answer is No. The long answer is No.”

You are the therapist. He is the client. It is a one-way street. You must consider all the ways in which your actions could possibly harm the client. You are not friends, buddies, colleagues. You are the keeper of deep secrets, a confidant, a compassionate listener, a mirror. Just in asking, you’ve violated the trust implicit in the counseling relationship. And the client is paying you for a service. Asking for a personal favor, for feedback places an extra burden on the client, a burden he did not sign up for.

Okay. One more. How about this? You are seeing a client who struggles with self-esteem, with feeling heard and being seen. She shares with you some of the poetry she has written. You tell her it is beautiful and moving and wonderful. You email her a couple of poems from your favorite poets and hope they resonate with her the way the do with you. She sends you more of her poetry. It really is beautiful, full of amazing metaphors and gorgeous imagery. You tell her as much. She should be published, you say. She glows in your effusive praise.

What? Is there a problem?

The short answer is Yes. The long answer is Yes. Now the client is seen. Now the client is heard. But by you. Instead of helping her gather her inner resources and find her intrinsic value, you’ve taken a short cut. Basically, you have given her the needle and the spoon and pushed the plunger down, mainlining self-esteem. You are now her source, her dealer, her heroin. Congratulations, you’ve created an addict.boundary issues

There are so many other things to consider here as well. What is poetry? Who sends poems? Poetry is the language of love. People in love send poetry. Poetry is metaphor—a word can have a thousand meanings in a poem. What you read and what the client meant might be vastly different.

What would an ethical counselor do in any of these situations? And why? An ethical counselor must always consider the needs of the clients first. In some respects, a therapist has to see the future and ask herself, “How will my actions and words now impact my client down the road?” “Will I be helping or hurting my client by taking this action?” “What is my motivation?” “Am I getting my own needs met or am I meeting my client’s needs?”

Instead of praising a client’s poetry, ask them what writing poetry does for them? What do they get when they create? How do they feel when they are writing? What’s their process? Explore. Ask questions. Help the client find her own meaning in her work.

I could write for days on this topic. But the bottom line is this: There is a power differential in the therapeutic relationship. The ethical therapist uses her power for the good of the client. Never for herself.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the scenarios I’ve presented. What could possibly go wrong in each of these situations? Let me know what you think!