There are lots of “what ifs” that come with being a professional counselor.
What if a client invites you to his or her wedding or graduation party? Should you go?
What if you’re one of only a few counselors in a rural area, and a client turns out to be your child’s schoolteacher? What if a client wants to hug at the conclusion of a particularly emotional session?
“Multiple relationship issues exist throughout our profession and affect virtually all counselors, regardless of their work setting or the client populations they serve,” write Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey in the third edition of their book Boundary Issues in Counseling. “No professional remains untouched by the potential difficulties inherent in dual or multiple relationships.”
When it comes to relationship boundary issues, there is never a definitive or one-size-fits-all answer, say Herlihy and Corey. The solution will vary with each client and each situation. For counselors, the key is to have a method of thinking through each decision, from reading the latest professional literature to brainstorming with colleagues.
“We make no claim to having discovered the answers to many complex and difficult questions,” Herlihy and Corey write in the book’s preface. “Rather, it is our aim to raise issues, present a range of viewpoints and discuss our own position. Our hope is that you will use this material as a springboard for further reflection and discussion. We invite you to think about the issues that are raised, apply them to your own work and discuss them with colleagues.”
Q+A: Boundary Issues in Counseling
Responses written by co-authors Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey
In the book, you mention that multiple relationship issues “affect virtually all counselors, regardless of their work setting or the client populations they serve.” With this in mind, what are some key takeaways you feel counselors should be aware of?
We expect that ethically conscientious professionals will continue to struggle with the multiple relationship dilemmas that they face and the multiple roles they will be expected to balance in their work. Because there are often not clear answers to questions about personal and professional boundaries, we must rely on our reasoned professional judgment, openness to discussing issues with clients who are equally affected by the decisions made, and consultation with colleagues. Rather than searching for definitive answers to many of the multiple roles and responsibilities associated with counseling practice, the real challenge is for counselors to learn a process of thinking about such dilemmas and to have a rationale for the decisions they make.
What advice would you give to a newly graduated counselor who is starting out in the profession?
Students and new professionals would do well to err on the side of caution when they think about crossing a boundary with a client and to consult with seasoned colleagues before making exceptions to their customary boundaries. Newly graduated counselors can realize that they do not have to make ethical decisions about boundaries by themselves. They can always seek consultation with peers, colleagues and supervisors. Involving the client in a discussion about establishing and managing boundaries is a good idea since this fosters a collaborative spirit. Rather than making decisions about the client and for the client, counselors can promote dialogue with their clients about how boundaries are important and how best to manage them.
Do you feel this topic is covered enough in counseling graduate programs and continuing education?
We recognize the constraints of trying to teach a wide range of issues, including those related to boundaries, in a single ethics course. Yet some of the topics that we address in our book are probably not covered as fully as they could be if time were not so limited. A few of these topics that we suspect may be given short shrift include:
- Deciding when to accept or refuse a gift from a client
- Learning how to engage in appropriate and timely self-disclosure
- Managing sexual attractions in the counseling relationship
- Determining when touching might be appropriate (and even therapeutic)
- Learning how to keep boundary crossings from becoming boundary violations
- Considering the culture of clients in deciding when to cross boundaries
- Learning when it is appropriate to engage in multiple roles and relationships
- Acquiring a personal ethical decision-making model that can be applied to addressing boundary and relationship considerations
- Establishing guidelines for effectively managing multiple roles and relationships
Although most counseling professionals are required to participate in continuing education in law and ethics as a part of the licensure renewal process, it seems that many of these continuing education workshops focus on legal matters and do not give a great deal of attention to ethics. On matters such as accepting gifts, meeting clients outside of the office, engaging in nonerotic touching and going to a special event of a client, the advice is typically to use a risk management approach and avoid deviating from a strictly professional context. We hope our book will invite readers to reflect on matters such as these and examine what might be the best practice for clients.
When it comes to boundary considerations, it is essential that counselors are able to live with some ambiguity. There are often no single best answers, and the best course of action could vary with circumstances, client needs and counselors’ styles and preferences. We hope that readers will see the importance of reaching out to colleagues and supervisors when they have any doubts about how to address situations involving boundaries.
What prompted you to release a third edition of this book? Please talk about the updates and changes readers will see in the new edition.
The third edition of Boundary Issues in Counseling is based on the assumption that counseling professionals must learn how to manage multiple roles and responsibilities effectively, rather than always attempting to avoid them. We wanted to update the book to capture how the thinking of our profession has evolved over the decades — particularly over the past few years.
At one time, practitioners were advised to avoid dual relationships and be wary of any kind of boundary crossing. This rigid stance has been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of dual relationship issues. Most professionals now realize that they must balance and carry out multiple roles in various situations. In this edition, as co-authors we still maintain our personal voice and express our views in most of the chapters. We have invited even more colleagues with various specializations, and also graduate students and new professionals, to express their perspectives on a wide range of topics that fall within the scope of boundary concerns. There are now 40 contributors who offer essays and examples from their practices, most of which (30) are new to this edition.
A number of new topic areas address various specializations. For example, Chapter 10 focuses on disaster mental health, private practice, addictions counseling and rehabilitation counseling. In Chapter 11, there is a focus on unique boundary issues that arise in rural practice, counseling in the military, working with clients with end-of-life concerns, in-home service provision and working in forensic settings. Boundary issues impact not only the counseling relationship but also pervade supervision and consultation, counselor education, training of group counselors and couples and family counselors. All these areas are addressed in this new edition.
As a whole, do you feel the counseling profession handles boundary and relationship issues well, or it something that could be improved on?
Although it is difficult to make generalizations about such a broad area, we believe the vast majority of counseling professionals take boundary issues very seriously and strive to maintain the integrity of the therapeutic relationship. That said, however, we think that even the most competent counselors could probably find ways to improve when it comes to making decisions about boundaries and managing roles in the counseling process. The complexities can be difficult to sort through, particularly when cultural differences are taken into account. As the counseling profession continues to become more global, this will be an ongoing challenge. Also, counselors seem to blur boundaries in inappropriate ways when their own needs get mixed into situations. Some counselors could be more diligent in practicing self-monitoring and self-care, and counselor education programs could emphasize more strongly the importance of these practices.
Finally, we urge counselors to invite their clients to provide them with ongoing feedback about how they are experiencing their counseling. To increase their effectiveness, counselors must be willing to take risks of listening carefully to what their clients tell them and be willing to modify their practices based on what clients say they need. Perhaps the best way for counselors to improve is to be open to feedback on a systematic basis from their clients and to engage in personal reflection. The process of reflection is vital to producing positive outcomes, which means that counselors must be willing to spend time thinking about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they can be functioning more effectively in meeting their clients’ needs.
In addition to your book and the ACA Code of Ethics, what resources do you recommend counselors turn to with questions about relationship and boundary issues?
Most professional organizations have consultants who are available for discussion on ethical, legal and professional matters. In addition to guidance provided by one’s professional organization, reading can be a useful adjunct to developing an ethical perspective. Keeping up to date with the professional journals is an excellent practice for staying current.
Here are a few books that can be of value in keeping abreast of the changes in ethics and professional practice:
- Herlihy, B., & Corey, G. (2015). ACA ethical standards casebook (7th ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
- Barnett, J. E., & Johnson, W. B. (2015). Ethics desk reference for counselors (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
- Remley, T. P., & Herlihy, B. (2014). Ethical, legal, and professional issues in counseling (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
- Corey, G., Corey, M. S., Corey, C., & Callanan, P. (2015). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (9th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Cengage Learning.
- Zur, O. (2007). Boundaries in psychotherapy: Ethical and clinical explorations. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Yalom, I. D. (1997). Lying on the couch: A novel. New York: Perennial.
Your book mentions that dual relationships can be positive, even furthering the therapeutic alliance in some cases. Do you think counselors have misconceptions about this and end up avoiding dual relationships?
It is certainly possible that some counselors, particularly those who received their training decades ago, have the misconception that dual relationships should be avoided in all circumstances. Not all multiple relationships (and boundary crossings) can be avoided, nor are they necessarily always harmful, and they can be beneficial. The challenge is to determine when crossing boundaries can be beneficial. A few suggestions we offer in our book include:
- Decisions whether to enter into dual or multiple relationships should be for the benefit of our clients (or others served) rather than to protect ourselves from censure.
- In determining whether to proceed with a dual or multiple relationship, or to cross a boundary, consider whether the potential benefit of the relationship outweighs the potential for harm. A good question to ask is “What could go wrong?”
- Whenever we consider becoming involved in a dual or multiple relationship, it is wise to seek consultation from trusted colleagues or a supervisor.
- Boundary issues must be considered within their cultural contexts.
- Recognize that the problem is not engaging in multiple relationships, but is rather abusing power and thus exploiting and harming clients. Consultation and supervision are routes to monitoring our motivations and reducing the risk of abusing power and harming clients.
About the authors
Barbara Herlihy is a licensed professional counselor and university research professor in the counselor education graduate program at the University of New Orleans.
Gerald Corey is a national certified counselor (NCC) and professor emeritus of human services and counseling at California State University at Fullerton.
Boundary Issues in Counseling is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222.
Published this year, the new edition updates previous editions published in 1992 and 1997.
Herlihy and Corey will be at the 2015 ACA Conference & Expo in Orlando to give a talk on both Boundary Issues in Counseling and the ACA Ethical Standards Casebook, another that they co-authored for ACA.
They will be speaking Friday, March 13, at 4 p.m. and signing books Thursday, March 12, at 4:30 p.m. For more information, see counseling.org/conference
Interested in learning more? ACA recently produced a webinar with Herlihy and Corey about boundary issues, ethics and their two books, Boundary Issues in Counseling and the ACA Ethical Standards Casebook. More information here: counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org