Psychology Primer: Ethics/Professional Objectivity

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Psychology Primer
By Clinton M. Williams, BA Psych

Tutorial 1: Theory

Tutorial 2: Application

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Professional Objectivity

The next most important issue ethically speaking, with regards to the counselor position would be professional objectivity.

Keeping a Professional Relationship

Although it may seem counterintuitive, given the desire to help the client, it is important that we as counselors maintain a professional distance from the client and their issues. In order to provide the most beneficial services possible, the counselor/ client relationship must be kept professional.

The counselor’s office is a place of implied intimacy, and the conversations that take place there can be highly charged emotionally. One of the things that we as counselors must guard against is becoming “enmeshed” with our clients emotionally. We are not there to help them because we “care”, we are there to help them because they need our help, we are trained to help them and most importantly it's our job.

Maintaining Boundaries

What does this mean? It means that we have to maintain boundaries. The ability to help others often can generate a strong feeling of attachment or bonding between counselor and client. While this is a normal reaction on the part of the client, it must never be encouraged or reciprocated by the counselor.

The reason for this is that while the client may feel better having the ability to share their innermost secrets with you, if you allow the relationship to become personal you can actually be detrimental to the success of their therapeutic outcome. If the client becomes emotionally involved with you and you reciprocate, your ability to make objective observations or confront the client’s maladaptive perceptions becomes compromised.

Empathy vs Sympathy

It is important to note that while empathy for your client is required, sympathy is absolutely to be avoided. What does this mean? It has been said that empathy allows you to acknowledge your understanding or more importantly lack of understanding of what it must be like to be in their shoes, metaphorically speaking. Sympathy, it has been said, is you taking the shoes off of their feet and walking around in them.

While it is perfectly acceptable to tell the client that you are concerned for their well being and that you desire for them to be well adjusted, productive members of the crew, this is entirely different from telling the client that you care for them, or care deeply about their situation. For this reason, you as a ship’s counselor should never have your character provide counsel to another character that your character is emotionally or romantically involved with.

In the RL world, a counselor would provide a referral to another colleague for such services. In the simming situation, this is an excellent opportunity for you to make use of the ACH program, another player's counselor PC or NPC, or your own second counselor NPC (perhaps an assistant counselor for instance).

Inappropriate Relations with Clients

Now, some may say, what if the counselor and client begin to have and acknowledge feelings for each other, can they pursue the relationship after the counseling sessions are concluded? The answer ethically is an emphatic “no”.

The problem is, once you allow for feelings to creep in, your effectiveness is compromised by the fact that both you and the client will be motivated to complete the therapy sessions not out of a desire to reach the appropriate outcome, but by the desire to pursue the relationship. This can cause you as a counselor to make poor judgements in assessments or rationalize that a client is actually doing better than they really are.

More disastrous is the tendency for you to try to “rescue” the client, to mitigate the necessary discomfort or pain that they may have to go through to make a breakthrough. This in turn leads to a deepening of the client’s reliance on you as their “savior” rather than taking the responsibility to “save themselves”.

On the part of the client, this can lead to superficial “progress” which is often the client adapting their responses to what they think the counselor wants to hear. It is not your job to fix the client. It is your job to help the clients become aware of the obstacles that are blocking them from achieving their emotional or psychological well being, and provide them with the tools to do the work themselves.

It is an old joke, but a profound one: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is “One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”

Inappropriate Attachment

Of course, in the real world, such laudable ethical rules are often bent or broken outright. If you manage to keep your professional distance, and have successfully discouraged any romantic transference on the part of the client towards you as the counselor, then after a period of maybe three or more sim adventures have played themselves out, perhaps you can explore a romantic relationship.

If, however, the first step in that exploration comes in the form of the former client telling you that they feel close to you because “you were there” for them, or “you were the only one who believed” in them, or they are attracted to you because you are such a caring person, and they greatly benefited from your help, you must immediately recognize that they still have an inappropriate attachment, and you cannot encourage it or reciprocate it.

Furthermore you must inform the client that any progress that they have made, they made themselves, and while it may seem somewhat mean spirited to do so, you must observe to them that maybe they haven’t progressed as far as they should have given their failure to understand this very basic point. It would be entirely appropriate for you to refer them for continued counseling, but you must make it clear that they will have to see someone else, because of their inappropriate attachment to you.

Likewise, if you feel yourself drawn to this character out of sympathy for all that they’ve gone through then you have succumbed to counter-transference and a red flag should go up in your mind. At this point it would be entirely appropriate, and ethically necessary for you to seek counseling for this lapse in judgement. In the parlance of modern twelve step programs, you have assumed the role of the co-dependent enabler at this point, and that is never beneficial to either party.

Guarding Against Bias

Another issue related to professional objectivity is guarding against bias, in your dealings with clients. It is a fact that some people are more or less likable than others. You cannot afford to let your personal feelings about this person sway your judgement. You are not there in the counseling session to be their buddy, nor their judge, jury and executioner.

As has been explained before, this can lead to transference or countertransference issues in the therapeutic relationship. When addressing behavior you must avoid making personal judgements about behavior in favor of observations about behavior.

An example would be telling someone that what they did was evil, or that you are disappointed with them, as opposed to observing that what they did was wrong, and giving rationales based in policy, procedure, law, or bringing to light how it violated someone else’s right to be respected, or free from harassment, or violence, etc.

Always get in the habit of providing rationales for expected behaviors as well as rationales for prohibitive or maladaptive behaviors. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the client to put themselves in the reverse situation and ask them how it would make them feel if they were put upon in the way that they put upon that person. This is an important step in developing empathy, which can open the client up to genuine feelings of remorse, which are beneficial to change, whereas guilt is not.

Cultural Biases

It is important to recognize that you may not agree with the client’s lifestyle or cultural moiré’s, but you must be careful not to let that influence your objectivity. Additionally, you should try to understand something about the client’s background and ethnobiology.

Klingons are notoriously confrontational, however unless you understand their cultural obsession with honor and their aversion to ever showing weakness, you will at best be putting a Band-Aid on a psychological sucking chest wound if you try to modify this behavioral trait without due consideration. Ferengi are often typecast as duplicitous and shady, but once you understand their culture and morality you can be of better use in helping them to adapt to Starfleet.

In all cases, culture or ethnobiology do not excuse socially maladaptive or sociopathic behaviors. You would do well in acknowledging the client’s background and your understanding of their world view, but in the same instance point out that they have chosen to serve within Starfleet voluntarily, and in so doing have taken an oath to abide by the rules and strictures of not only Starfleet regulations, but Federation principles as well. This once again puts the onus back on the client to modify their own behavior, or face the consequences of their actions.