Why Your Counsellor Is Not Your Friend

I really hummed and hawed before writing this article because the topic, and the title for that matter, just sound so unfriendly.

After that initial discomfort passed, I made the distinction that friend and friendly are not the same thing. You can have a friendly therapist who is also not your friend (and I hope you do!)

If this still sounds a little harsh to you, it’s perhaps easy to see why.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines friend as “A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.”  Sounds almost like a counsellor-client relationship. Being human, therapists commonly feel significant caring or platonic affection towards their clients and clients may feel similarly towards their therapists.  I can honestly say that my clients are phenomenal human beings — I tear up sometimes thinking about this– and I have been known to inadvertently embarrass people by persistently pointing out their strengths.

In a similar vein, the BC College of Social Workers, of which I am a registrant, states in the Standards of Practice that a social worker, when acting as therapist or counsellor, “builds a strong relationship with the client.”

Friend, Therapist: What’s The Difference?

You may now be asking what the difference is, then, between friend and therapist.  Let’s look at a few key differences:

Therapists, counsellors or other mental health professionals engaged in ethical practice do not:

…socialize with clients outside of the office

…engage in dual relationships with their clients

…share their problems with their clients

…seek specific information from their clients for the counsellor’s own personal gain

…socialize or “chat” with their clients during a session where there is no therapeutic purpose for doing so

…share their home phone number, address, personal email; accept or initiate Facebook friend requests

…communicate with clients via Twitter or Instagram or other forms of social media

…engage in physical or financial boundary violations

…gossip or otherwise speak about their clients to anyone else, except in emergency situations where there is a risk of harm to self or others, or if they have been subpoenaed

…And if your definition of friendship includes a “friends with benefits” scenario, counsellors do not have sex with their clients

Key Principles

Still, you might think that kiboshing some of these friend activities is overly harsh. Let’s look then at three key principles which help to clarify the counsellor-client relationship. Because of my registration in the BC College of Social Workers, I adhere to a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, which inform my understanding of such principles.

Dual relationships

According to my Code of Ethics, the concept of dual relationship is defined as a situation in which the social worker, in addition to her/his professional relationship,has one or more other relationships with the client, regardless of whether this occurs prior to, during, or following the provision of professional services. A dual relationship does not necessarily constitute a conflict of interest; however, where dual relationships exist, there is a strong potential for conflict of interest and there may be an actual or perceived conflict of interest.”

For example, I would not provide counselling services for anyone I know in a different capacity.  This could include, but is not limited to, a person I have hired in the past, or currently, to provide a professional service; acquaintances; family members; students or friends. If a counsellor engages in relationships of this nature with their clients, all have a high possibility for resulting in a conflict of interest.

Boundaries

While I pride myself in working collaboratively with my clients, it must be underscored that the therapist, whatever their approach or philosophy of practice, is in a position of power with their clients.  My Standards of Practice explain it thus:

“Social workers are in a position of power and responsibility with respect to all clients. This necessitates that care be taken to ensure that all clients are protected from the abuse of such power during and after the provision of professional services.

Social workers establish and maintain clear and appropriate boundaries in professional relationships for the protection of clients (emphasis added). Boundary violations include sexual misconduct and other misuse and abuse of the social worker’s power. Non-sexual boundary violations may include emotional, physical, social and financial violations. Social workers are responsible for ensuring that appropriate boundaries are maintained in all aspects of professional relationships and exploitive situations do not occur.”

When reflecting on a personal friendship, ideally there is no need to protect against power imbalances, as at it’s heart, friendship should be egalitarian.

Confidentiality

In a friendship, it is common to discuss details about friends to others.  In a counsellor-client relationship, confidentiality is sacred. This means that all information about clients is held in the strictest confidence, unless the therapist is required to release client information by law (in situations of harm to self or others) or if the client has consented to, or requested release of personal information.

Client Focus

Two related principles, again from the Code of Ethics:

  1. A social worker shall maintain the best interest of the client as the primary professional obligation. 
  2. A social worker shall not exploit the relationship with a client for personal benefit, gain or gratification. 

Unlike a personal friendship where you may share tips on the stock market, ask for advice with your favourite hobby or seek to develop a skill set by asking your friend’s advice or knowledge, anything that is asked by the counsellor that does not directly benefit the client is in opposition to these principles.

And yes, counsellors are human, not perfect. But being aware of such principles can help you to start a conversation with your counsellor if you perceive that any principles have been violated, or alternatively, to file a complaint with your therapist’s professional college or association, if she or he has one. Choosing a regulated and preferably, a legislated mental health professional, adds a additional layer of client protection.