3 Times I have Allowed my Personal Ethics to come up in Session with Clients

Jeff Guenther on Nov 03, 2019

As therapists, it’s not uncommon for us to have lengthy conversations and multiple sessions about our client’s morals and ethics. Therapy is often about helping clients identity what they think is right and wrong and showing them ways to live an authentic life that is congruent with their beliefs and values. It’s also important that we therapists do the best we can to not project our own ethical standards on our clients. It would violate our own professional ethical standards if we tried to persuade our clients to have the same exact ethics that we personally have.

That being said, where is the line for therapists? Is there a line? As a therapist myself, could a client behave in such a way that would provoke me to speak up because what they are doing, or planning to do, goes against my own ethics? Is it irresponsible to self-disclose my own ethics? Therapy isn’t about the therapist, it’s about the client. And the client isn't coming in for an ethics lesson. But are there situations where allowing yourself to give voice to your own ethics in session can serve the client?

Historically, therapists have been taught to keep their personal stuff out of it, including their personal code of ethics. These days, its more of a gray area, and it’s not so uncommon for therapists to let their own opinions influence the therapy they are giving. So where is that line?

That’s something every therapist needs to figure out on their own and I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Here are three recent situations where I have had to consider my ethical boundaries.

Is it ethical to have kids?

The question of whether or not it’s ethically okay to have kids these days is super interesting to me. In fact, I just talked to a philosopher about this very subject on this week’s episode of Say More About That. If you want to hear what a philosopher thinks about this subject, click play below or check it out on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

More of my clients these days are talking about making a baby. Ethically, I personally won’t be having a baby right now because I feel pretty sure that the climate crisis is going to bring an end to this world. And having a baby leaves a massive carbon footprint that only brings us closer to world melting. Again, this is just my personal feeling. No judgement to people who choose to have children.

When a client brings up family planning, my ethical bells start to ring. But since questions of ethics and morality are rarely the main reason that people choose to start or expand their family, I keep my opinions on this one to myself. I would, however, consider gently introducing the topic of the ethical implications of having children with certain clients if it seemed like it would benefit them. For example, if I had a client struggling to come to terms with the decision to not have children, guiding them to look at it from an ethical point of view could help them to process.

Is it ethical to cheat on your partner and have unprotected sex?

I have had hundreds of conversations about affairs and infidelity in session. While I used to be a staunch supporter of thinking that cheating is wrong and unethical no matter what, my views have definitely evolved over the last 15 years being a therapist. I have softened on the issue and I no longer think cheating automatically equals unethical behavior. However, I have had some clients tell me that they are cheating on their partners while also engaging in unprotected sex and that’s where my ethical boundaries get pushed to the limit.

When clients tell me they are having a secret affair, I ask them every time if they are having safe sex. If they tell me they are not being safe, then I am direct and let them know that goes against my own ethics while also creating safety issues for their primary partner. It’s hard to say whether or not this has been good for therapy. Some clients feel judged by me and we process that. Other times, it provides the wake up call the client needs to start being safe.

If I don’t say something in this situation then I feel like I am being complicit with a behavior that could result in real harm. Personally, if my partner was cheating on me and talking to a therapist about it, I would want that mental health professional to have my safety in mind if my partner didn’t. This feels like an easy call in my book. But maybe there is more gray area that I’m not acknowledging?

Is it ethical to ask clients not to bring in food or drinks from problematic businesses?

There is a coffee shop here in Portland called Ristretto Roasters. They had a coffee shop just a couple blocks away from my office (it recently closed). When Ristretto’s owner started to publicly bemoan the outrage directed at people like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., who have been accused of multiple cases of sexual assault and misconduct, I started speaking up with my clients. It wasn’t uncommon that they’d grab a coffee from Ristretto before coming to see me. At the start of a session, I’d casually ask if they heard about what’s been happening. Most of the time they’d say no and I’d clue them in on the latest news. I felt good informing them. They seemed to feel grateful to be informed.

Was I allowing my own ethics to influence what I said in therapy? Yes. And I felt fine about it. While you may not have a problematic coffee shop nearby, you might have clients that bring in food or drink from a nearby Chik-Fil-A. Chik-Fil-A has been bankrolling organizations that support anti-LGBTQ causes. Would you speak up if a client brought in a soda from Chik-Fil-A? I think I might. But if the client decided to continue eating Chik-Fil-A, I would probably seek supervision for myself if I continued to feel uncomfortable with it.

I’m a therapist, but I’m also a person

From my view, I really like the direction therapy is trending these days. It seems like more and more counselors believe that we have a responsibility to bring up issues of social justice and equality with our clients. Not all therapists support this idea and I get that. But I think therapists that want to be authentic about their values and beliefs in session, and in their marketing, will become more of the norm.

I think therapist directories like Psychology Today are racist, sexist, sizeist, ageist and holding up the white supremacy. And that’s why I created an inclusive and progressive therapist directory at TherapyDen.com that counselors can sign up with for free. If you want to fight racism, homophobia and all other forms of hate while attracting ideal clients to your practice, then you should seriously consider creating a profile. And if you think something is missing then feel free to reach out and tell me. As you can tell from this article, I want to encourage therapists to speak up if they feel something isn’t right.

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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