As a therapist I learned early on to address controversial topics tactfully, succinctly and professionally. In a career where every session is potentially “rated R”, professionalism is paramount. I want to address an issue that seems relevant with all that’s happening in the United States. The issue is defending the barrier between professionalism and personal integrity, specifically regarding religion and politics. I could include countless other convoluted areas that may complicate professionalism, however with the contentious supreme court nomination in progress as I write, for now I’ll address professional boundaries.
As a graduate student in the field of psychology, the importance of boundaries is hammered home; separating personal values from professional conduct. When the boundaries are blurred, there is trouble. Freud called it transference and countertransference. Other theorists called it projection but I simply prefer to call it inappropriate. Without exposing my own personal opinions, I’ll simply say that I confronted this immediately upon entering the workforce. My internship alone provided a plethora of opportunities to challenge my inherent values and confront latent fears and biases. This confrontation with self was necessary for professional development.
How does one separate our core belief system from the professional interactions with clients? In mental health it’s called the therapeutic relationship. This therapeutic relationship is violated when the counselor injects his or her own values into the process because the process becomes about the therapist and not the client. It’s inappropriate and unethical. That being said, is it possible for one with strong personal philosophies and beliefs to engage in a therapeutic relationship and be unbiased and professional? Is it possible to counsel one that holds significantly differing opinions, values and core beliefs? My answer is yes, but it takes discipline and consistency in practice. Religion and political views provide abundant opportunities for potential violations of this fundamental boundary. Without violating the premise of my blog, I will say that as a professional in the mental health field for over 28 years, it is possible and necessary to be a blank slate for our clients regarding politics and religion. I’ve counseled numerous individuals and families that come from vastly diverse demographics and each time we have navigated this course together. My religious beliefs or political preferences do not distract the counseling relationship. It’s common for clients to create a battleground, attempting gamesmanship during the course of therapy, attempting to force my hand so to speak. Professional boundaries are not always easy but certainly necessary and quite honestly irresponsible to do otherwise.
The way we respect our profession is by demonstrating clear and consistent boundaries. Rigid at first, and with experience, increasingly natural. Secondly, we understand that the client expects a service free of manipulative agendas. Save the political postulating for Thanksgiving Dinner (or not). Lastly, the process will be damaged if our values distract from the client’s issues at hand. Also, therapists and professionals need to engage in their own work on self. Many times, the drive to influence others is compelled by one’s own disruption of ethos. Take care of yourself and keep growing, becoming increasingly confident that everyone has value and a right to personal convictions. This will increase one’s success in establishing and demonstrating healthy boundaries.