Breaches in Professional Ethics

by Joanna Poppink, M.F.C.C.


A psychotherapist can only be psychotherapist to a client--nothing else-- not a landlord, sexual partner, business associate, employee or employer. A self-serving psychotherapist abandons and fails clients by actively using them to provide sexual gratification, money-making opportunities, social contacts, expensive gifts or personal or professional services.

These exploitative violations seem fairly straightforward and betray the client's trust. Psychotherapists have had their licenses suspended or revoked for such behavior.

Breaches in professional ethics that are sometimes more difficult to recognize involve the psychotherapist actively trying to be "nice" to clients. In general, this usually involves a psychotherapist's attempts to be responsible for client's obligations. Some examples are: talking to family, friends and co-workers in order to make the client's real world more considerate or understanding; allowing breaches in agreement concerning time and fee; introducing a lonely client to potential friends; calling to remind the client of anything; and physical touching to soothe a distressed client.

This kind of "helping" prevents clients from experiencing the concrete and emotional consequences of actions they took or did not take in life. To interfere in a client's life is to attempt to change the outer world while the client remains the same. This voids the possibility of understanding and growth.

There is a great variety of thought about specific actions among psychotherapies. There can also be great variety in one therapist's mind about what is appropriate in a particular situation.

Although situations change continually and must be evaluated on their own particulars, adherence to ethical principles remain the same. Keeping in mind that all efforts are in the interest of the client's psychotherapy in exchange for an agreed fee, and nothing else, puts many and varied situations in clear perspective.

Fortunately, psychotherapists don't have to be perfect. They just have to be good enough to recognize their limitations and continue to work to stay on course. Commitment to ethical principles is often the therapist's rudder in the sometimes stormy emotional seas of psychotherapy.


Joanna Poppink, M.F.C.C., psychotherapist, was ethics chair of the Los Angeles Chapter of Marriage, Family and Child Therapists. M.F.C.C. Psychotherapist/Workshop Leader, Los Angeles, CA U.S.A. (310) 474-4165 voice (310) 474-7248 fax

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