Trust is the foundation on which relationships of any kind are built. Think about how much we depend on trust in our everyday lives. We trust that our teachers are telling us the truth. We trust that a check from someone won’t bounce. Even the cash we exchange requires trust in the value of the currency in our hands. We trust that the products we buy will function properly and feel betrayed when they don’t.
And with every secret we share in confidence with another person — no matter how big or small the secret — we trust that it will be protected.
Trust comes easily for children in almost all relationships. Whether it’s with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches or sometimes even with counselors, children generally are quick to trust. “My teacher said …” “Coach told me …” “My dad told me …”
Sexual perpetrators take advantage of the ease with which children trust by “courting” — pushing boundaries a little at a time so their victims don’t ask too many questions. Con artists do the same thing to adults, preying on our natural human instinct to believe in one another. But once trust is violated, it will never come naturally again. A violation of trust compromises not only that relationship, but all relationships.
So, to protect ourselves, we must learn, by necessity, that not all people are equally worthy of trust.
In the field of ethnography, the term incorrigible propositions refers to beliefs that are so fundamental to our existence that we don’t even question them. The most serious violations of trust involve incorrigible propositions. When these beliefs are called into question, it shakes all of our beliefs. In a way, we say, “If I can’t trust in this, then what can I trust?”
For example, most people are familiar with statistics on divorce, but upon getting married, almost no one assumes that they will experience divorce themselves. They trust their spouses. But when the belief that they will always stay together is shattered — by infidelity, for example — their entire world is shaken. The incorrigible proposition that people are trustworthy comes into question. Distrust can generalize to all spouses, everyone of a given gender, or to people in general.
Marriage and family therapists see this kind of shaken trust almost every day. The abused children who come through my office have had their trust violated as well, and I have to work hard to prove myself worthy of their trust. This is often a monumental task. Their childlike gullibility is long gone by the time they come through my office doorway.
I have written before in this column that confidentiality is the foundation on which most of our ethics are built as counselors. This is so important because it relies on a client’s trust that we won’t betray secrets.
Sometimes, however, trust must be betrayed. We must act, for example, if clients are a threat to themselves or to others. Mandated reporters have no choice but to violate confidentiality when they suspect abuse or neglect. Even the sharing of therapeutic information with parents or guardians can potentially compromise our clients’ trust in us. These violations of trust cannot always be avoided.
But perhaps most damaging is when counselors — those of us entrusted with the scariest and most embarrassing secrets carried by clients — violate that trust in an unethical manner.
Unethical violations of trust can come in many forms. Unfortunately, carelessly using a client’s name while talking to a colleague or failing to adequately disguise a client’s identity in consultation with a supervisor are not uncommon occurrences.
Most serious is the violation of trust that takes place when a therapist engages in blatant boundary violations with a client. Inappropriate touching, inappropriate social relationships and other egregious boundary violations with clients always destroy trust in the long run.
Those of you who have been in the counseling profession very long have likely seen your share of clients who have had bad experiences with previous therapists. Therefore, you have almost certainly experienced the painstaking job of trying to prove that you are trustworthy (and that the profession as a whole is worthy of trust) to someone whose personal experience has taught them otherwise.
Even more painful to me is the knowledge of all of the clients who will never risk going to a counselor again. These clients will not seek help because of a violation of the trust-based relationship that is at the heart of our profession. Whether these violations were careless or intentional, the effects are the same. These are the people we have lost.
An ethical “oopsie” that violates trust might never be known to anyone else. But then again, it might. Even the slightest breach might damage a client’s trust to the point that they will never seek counseling again. And that, my dear colleagues, is unforgivable.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.