I must admit that I wasn’t sure if it is a good idea to write about ethics regarding therapeutic work. In general, the topic of ethics is very wide and broad. However, I feel that professional ethics are absolutely crucial, especially in the field of psychotherapy. Every therapist is building their own style in therapy according to their knowledge, background, experience, and personality. And that is great because there are no two same therapists! However, regarding professional ethics we all should have the same or at least be very similar.
The different therapeutic approaches that we learned about, the theories, skills, and personal development (which I presume we all had!) are very significant to our work because it is making the framework of our work, BUT one of the important pillars of that framework SHOULD BE the professional code of ethics!
What is the professional code of ethics?
A code of ethics is a set of official standards of conduct that the members of a group are expected to uphold.
A code of ethics could also refer to an individual’s personal values or sense of right and wrong.
Every pre-accredited or accredited psychotherapist or counselor is obligated to combine with the code of ethics with their accredited body and work along within their practice. If a therapist’s work is not with the regards of those codes of ethics, the therapist is then in the breach! Simply because when they signed with the accredited body, they signed that they will comply with their code of ethics!
Let’s look at the preamble of the code of ethics from the Irish Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy (I.A.C.P). (At the end of this article I will enclose a link where you will be able to find the full content on IACP Code of Ethics).
The first paragraph of the preamble defines counseling and psychotherapy as professional activities involving Association Members, hereafter called practitioners, and their clients. The practitioner offers an impartial helping relationship that respects the client’s personal values and autonomy.
Recklessness, and lack of respect
So now that we have an idea of what the code of ethics is, I have a question… Why so many therapists are NOT complying with the professional code of ethics? It is so annoying and frustrating for me when I am hearing some of the experiences my clients have had with their previous therapists! I am very much aware that all therapists have different approaches but we all SHOULD act in the best interest of our clients, with very respectful, emphatic, understanding, and non-judgmental manner!
When I have a client who had the previous therapist but s/he is saying that it didn’t work I am always curious to hear the feedback of what wasn’t working and why. Here I will give you some of the reasons I heard:
- I felt I wasn’t heard. I wanted to talk about something important to me and I said it to the therapist, but the therapist said we need to work on something else…
- It felt that I was dismissed.
- The therapist didn’t see me. After 3 sessions she said that I am OK and that I can finish therapy.
- The therapist said I am cured, so I felt I couldn’t continue coming.
- My therapist started to work with my partner at the same time as she was working with me. (She was aware of it).
Those examples are only a few, I am sure there are many therapists who feel the same when they hear similar things from their clients.
Don’t be the expert!
It is NOT the job of a psychotherapist to become an expert on someone else’s lives! You can’t tell any client what to do, you cannot lead his or her life! You need to allow your client to make those decisions for themselves. It’s not your call to judge whether it is a good or a bad decision. Don’t step out of your area of work.
You as a psychotherapist is an expert on mental health, but NOT an expert on someone else’s life! Remember that! If you are not sure where to go with the session, don’t be afraid to ask your client, what s/he needs from the session. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, ask your clients why they are coming to therapy, ask your clients what they are expecting from therapy. Let the client tell you what s/he wants. Allow your clients to lead the sessions! Listen carefully to what they are telling you, listening to their body language, listen to what they are not telling you! Listen with your ears, eyes, senses, and with your body! Just listen!
Your client is communicating with you on so many levels, your job is to be with that client, listen to him or her, make sure s/he knows and feels seen and heard by you. If you are confused or unsure ask your client, s/he will tell you! You need to start to communicate with your clients more effectively! Stop presuming that you know how they might be feeling! Presume nothing!
By doing this, you simply are showing your clients that they can decide for themselves, you are teaching them that they know, more then they think they do. You are showing them that they can trust themselves. When you are allowing your clients to make decisions without judging them, you are showing them their ability, you are empowering them. But at the same time, you are giving them a frame of a healthy relationship! Moreover, when you are allowing and encouraging your clients to make decisions or choices for themselves importantly, you are showing them that they can take responsibility for their lives! This is so important in therapy!
If you can’t offer your client, the best therapy they could possibly have, if you can’t show them empathy, be respectful and understanding, if you can’t provide a safe, objective, and non- judgmental space.. then there is clearly something wrong. There could be many different reasons for you to feel this way:
- There is a counter-transference going on that you might not be aware of.
- The client triggers something in you.
- You are not qualified or experienced enough.
- You are burned out of this work.
- Lost a sense of professional ethics.
- Simply you don’t like the client as s/he shares different values.
- You have a difficult time in your personal life.
What steps to take next?
For whatever reason you feel like you don’t act in the best interest of your client, you should admit it to yourself and try to change it. Again, there are also many things that you could consider doing in order to improve the quality of the work you are offering:
- Talk to your Supervisor.
- Refer your client to someone else.
- Take fewer clients on.
- Take a career break.
- Do some CPD hours on the topic that interests you.
- Familiarize yourself with the code of ethics. If you haven’t done so before or you think you might have forgotten it.
- Start doing more self-care!