The ethical framework in counseling and psychotherapy talks about “prohibition” of dual relationships between counselors and their clients. This primarily comes from the acknowledgement of power located within the role of the counselor and the potential harm this power can impinge upon people that come to see us, if we were to open up the relationship to be anything but a professional ‘in-the-office-room-of-a-counselor” thing.
In mainstream psychology education, the ethics code is often taught to young, keen buddying therapists in master’s programs with the terror of “prevention is better than cure’. I remember sitting in one of the oldest buildings of Columbia University, being taught that ethical dilemmas will often come up but it is the therapist’s responsibility that harm is not being done. Hence what was taught to us was to document, seek supervision and keep transparent all the process of work done in therapy in order to “do no harm” and to also “save your own ass”. I remember noting this down in my head as “treat dual relationships as the bubonic plague”.
Cut to chase 19 years after this class, as a psychotherapist, counselor educator and supervisor today, I wonder what I was so afraid of? I wonder what was taught to me of my role as a budding therapist? and I wonder what parts of this dual relationship ‘prohibition’ I hold true for me and my team and students and what parts do I want to let go off? If I do have power, then how do I use it to influence lives rather than steer away from my role and its usefulness?
As Mental Health Professionals we must bring ourselves to question our education, our frames of identity and why we say what we say and how we hold space for ourselves and others. This work is not easy if we wish to hold both love and accountability in this space where we practice, much like in all of our lives, I suppose.
Sitting on a variety of couches through the years, sitting across many lives that open in pain and wonderment, I know that a therapist is not an objective, neutral figure who is seeing another’s life from a “third person’s perspective”, and using her “expertise” to “help” another.
I have teared up, lost my shit about systemic unfairness (in client’s presence many times) and laughed out loud and also said I have an incredible amount of love, for the people I see in therapy. If you ask me, I want to be safe to love, in friendship, allyship and solidarity. I also will never fail to remember what a therapist once wrote “We are most dangerous when we are unaware of our capacity for harm”.
What is the stance then, of a therapist? Who are you being when you say you are a therapist? Are you an expert, who knows it all? Are you a “doctor” treating a “patient”? are you a person who likes to stay in the confines of your room and not certain what advocacy looks like? Are you a therapist who feels no spirit of friendship and allyship when you see and hear people’s stories? Have you not had the thought that you’d have been great friends if not for this therapy space with a certain client?
As therapists the training in “doing no harm” does not automatically help us see what “doing good” means. It’s like the admonishing of a child “don’t touch this”, “don’t put this in your mouth”, have you ever wondered if the child thinks well, what can I do, instead?
Ethics is a continual life conversation; if you are a human person. We live in a world that is normative- cis gendered, heterogenous, ableist, neurotypical, casteist, classist, capitalist and trauma-uninformed, knowing this should help us as therapists, and people who love, to chance upon intentional ways of being present for one another. It is often understandable for a cis straight woman who has had complex trauma in her life to feel threatened by a cis straight man who appears forceful of his love, or desire for friendship. It may seem nonconsensual, whether the woman is a therapist or not. It is but natural for a queer therapist to find a natural allyship to the life of a queer person they are seeing in therapy. It is imperative and ethical for people to talk about the role of power, seek and express friendship and enjoy support and allyship, whether they are therapists or not. But especially if they are therapists.
The training for therapists is to take caution, assess if they are “safe to love” as it were. I do believe that we need to have conversations with people we see in therapy, as well as with our supervisors (a collective of diverse MH professionals coming together in solidarity to support one another’s work as a therapist), to build support and clarity for allyship, friendship and presence. The bond therapists share is best defined and redefined constantly along with the people that consult them, to ensure allyship, friendship and solidarity. The stance of a therapist, hence, is one of social justice and care.
Take a look at some of the lovely conversations ensuing from our post on this topic, from other therapists who work in different spaces. Let us know how friendships have grown from within your work as a therapist and ways in which you establish care for these friendships.
This article was written by our founder Aarathi Selvan