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Ethical vulnerability in the therapeutic space

January 31, 2020

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This month, I have had two interviews for graduate school. I am planning to begin my studies in the fall, in hopes of becoming a licensed professional counselor. All of the programs I am applying to adhere to the ACA, the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics. This is a clearly laid out set of ethical principles that all therapists agree to abide by. The code includes information on relational boundaries with clients and respecting clients’ privacy, social media policies, professionalism and competency (working within one’s scope of practice and knowledge), and relationships with supervisors and colleagues. I love the code of ethics because it protects the clients. It also is infused with multiculturalism and social justice aspects that encourage therapists to practice service to humanity in an ethical manner.

One thing that I am curious about is self-disclosure: how do therapists navigate vulnerability in an ethical manner? We all want to feel connected to others and to have those “me too” moments that remind us that we aren’t alone. Brené Brown, PhD researcher in the field of social work, talks a lot about how vulnerability is courage and strength, and vital for human connection. The therapeutic space, however, is a unique one because of the important role of professionalism on behalf of the therapist. Some emerging therapists have begun to encourage the visibility of recovered clinicians as an asset because of their narratives. 

One part of the ethics code is that therapists must not impose their values onto the client. This is a key part of the therapeutic process: therapy is for the client, not for the therapist. It can be tricky to navigate, then, when it is helpful to use the tool of self-disclosure or not. Some people like to know as little about their therapists as possible; for them, therapy is all about their own grappling and experiences. Others crave more knowledge about their sometimes-ominous therapists. These things are for sure: we all want our experiences to be normalized and named, and we are made for connection and belonging.

How do therapists show up in an authentic matter without oversharing? The first rule of thumb is to consider how the disclosure would either benefit or negatively affect the client. What is the purpose of sharing the information? Is it for the therapist or the client? What even is authenticity? Authenticity, to me, is showing up as ourselves in a way that is true to our values and our unique voices. This is not to be confused with flooding people with our stuff and doesn’t necessarily mean sharing a whole lot about ourselves. For the therapist, authenticity is thoughtful and intentional. It looks like recognition that the therapist has a unique voice in their own practice that is different than other therapists. Authenticity helps us to see the good in one and other and in ourselves, without negatively comparing ourselves to others. Showing up vulnerably and authentically looks different for everyone, but some examples can look like:

  • Disclosing that the therapist has been through the same or a similar experience that allows a client not to feel alone in what they are experiencing
  • Naming traumas for a client who is not able to name it or see it for themselves
  • Asking questions that are well thought out and that show the therapist is presently engaged with their client, paying attention, and listening well to their narratives

What will my own practice look like in terms of authenticity and vulnerability? The truth is, it is a scary realm to navigate, and I am not wholly sure. I am eager to learn more about the ethical boundaries in terms of social media, disclosure, etc. in graduate school and to begin my training. There has been a wave, it feels like to me, of clinicians beginning to bravely share their stories using their platforms, and I believe that this is powerful. It helps decrease the stigma around mental illness, and seeing professionals share vulnerably and accurately about the experiences of mental illness allows individuals to feel seen and heard.

Practicing ethical vulnerability in the therapeutic space most of all requires self-reflection, individual healing work on the part of the therapist, and training/practice.

Self-reflection and individual healing work: therapists need their own therapists, too. As they carry the stories of so many traumas and other people, therapists also need people to confide in. Therapists practice self-care and setting boundaries with those in their lives so that they can show up for their clients and for themselves each and every day. Effective therapists will do their own healing work in order to avoid imposing their own issues and internalized beliefs onto their clients.

Therapists also receive lots of trainings, and ought to continue to stay up to date with best, evidence based practices. Therapists are compassionate and willing to learn. I hope these thoughts from an lpc-to-be are helpful for you in thinking about ethical vulnerability.

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