Sharon K. Anderson

Sharon K. Anderson

The Ethical Therapist

Is This Therapy or Something Else?

Professional boundaries are important and need to be honored

Posted Aug 28, 2013

Some months ago, I was asked by an acquaintance, “Should I be concerned? My friend’s there at his office at  late into the evening, and I am not sure what’s going on is therapy. One time I even think she took him dinner. I mean she fixed a meal and took it to his office. Is this therapy or something else? I have tried to say something to her, that I'm concerned, but she just doesn't want to talk about it.”

It’s not every day someone shares information like this with me and asks the question, “Should I be concerned?” But it does happen. Knowing that I am a psychologist and have a practice, people seek out my opinion on the behaviors of my colleagues. People wonder if what they see happening with a family member or friend, or what they are experiencing themselves with a therapist is professionally appropriate. It’s disheartening when the behaviors people ask about are what we call “red flags.”

The following is a list of behaviors people have asked about.

Whether they are appropriate (ethical—green flag behaviors) 

Or inappropriate (unethical—red flag behaviors):

–Taking or joining the therapist on a trip

–Meeting the therapist for coffee

–Inviting the therapist to the wedding

–Meeting at the therapist’s home

–Living temporarily in the therapist’s home

–Receiving free services from the therapist

–Working for the therapist

–Getting into a business deal with the therapist

–Sharing information with others (family members, other professionals, other clients)

Psychotherapy offers the opportunity to establish a trusting, nonjudgmental, nurturing relationship. Yet, the relationship is meant to be one sided. The therapist is there for the client’s good and well-being—to meet the client’s needs. The relationship is not meant to be reciprocal. If the client is a friend, sexual partner, or business partner of the therapist, then professional boundaries have been extended, crossed and/or violated. Extended boundaries can be for the benefit of the client and result in some good. Crossing boundaries can erode the professional relationship and hinder the work. Violating boundaries (like having a romantic or sexual relationship) is disrespectful of the client, it negates the professional trust between client and therapist, and it has great potential to cause harm.

I answered that there was some reason for concern. From his description of current behaviors, it sounded like professional boundaries were being crossed. If there is more than therapy going on and professional boundaries are being violated, the friend needs to fire her therapist and shop for another professional.

Mitch Handelsman (author of “The Ethical Professor”) offered helpful points for this blog post…thanks Mitch.