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Therapy Issues: Discerning the Professional from the Personal


The role of a therapist or counselor is a unique one. Therapists are trained professionals: they are educated, licensed, and experienced in their area of practice. Their work is bordered by offices and structured by schedules. And it’s exactly that: their work. The client-therapist relationship is a professional one. But because therapy deals with such personal issues, it’s a unique field, even compared to others having to do with health and wellness. Trust is an important element of therapy, and good therapy involves compassion, respect, safety, and understanding. A good therapist truly cares about the well-being of his or her patients, and it’s fitting that compassion and empathy play a role in that work.

But that can make some conventions of the therapist-counselor relationship hard to define, especially when it comes to seemingly small, yet personal, exchanges, such as a hug or a holiday gift. A hug is a sign of comfort, a reminder that the person is not alone; a gift is a sign of gratitude and appreciation, a token of thanks. Both hugs and small gifts can make perfect sense in a therapeutic setting. Yet there are plenty of reasons to draw a line as a matter of policy, just to avoid the gray area that can lie not far beyond these small gestures. These are just two examples of how it can be difficult to navigate the unique professional-personal connection one feels with their therapist. Doctors on Facebook are another hot topic, and media portrayals of psychotherapists’ personal lives can be overdramatic and unrealistic, only furthering the confusion.

These are all complex situations, and all deserve careful consideration on the part of everyone involved. Ultimately, therapists are professionals who directly impact their clients’ interpersonal lives. It’s okay that that’s a connection that’s hard to define: what’s important is to keep the dialogue open regarding how that connection should, or should not, play out, and to address the boundaries ahead of time versus after the fact.

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  • Clarence December 24th, 2010 at 12:34 PM #1

    Well if you are comfortable with your therapist then by all means,show the appreciate,give a hug. But for those who still are not too comfortable doing it,simply don’t do it! Simple isn’t it? :)

  • Howard December 24th, 2010 at 3:50 PM #2

    I don’t think therapists should accept gifts in any form from their patients, small or otherwise. To me that changes the boundary from professional to personal. I don’t agree with that at all.

  • Lucy December 24th, 2010 at 6:42 PM #3

    The word “client” should tip off potential gift givers that therapy is grounded in a more business-like approach than a buddy type one. I wouldn’t give a therapist a gift. That’s overstepping the professional mark.

  • Constantine December 24th, 2010 at 8:31 PM #4

    But if a client insists on bringing one to the therapist’s office and turns up unexpectedly with it, what then? It would be heartless to turn them away, particularly if they have issues with rejection.

  • ronald December 24th, 2010 at 11:53 PM #5

    the level of comfort between a therapist and client is never the same…it differs from people to people…so if the relationship is cordial and has been old then there is no harm in giving a gift whatsoever…

  • beth December 25th, 2010 at 5:24 AM #6

    strict professionalism in professions such as these is both almost impossible and uncalled for.you need not become close friends with your therapist or client but a certain level of closeness is required which goes beyond the conventional professional relationships.

  • TY December 25th, 2010 at 11:00 AM #7

    There always is a line between professionalism and being personal and this line should never be crossed,in whatever profession. treating your client more than just what he is(a client) can lead to him having unwarranted high expectations from you or he may not follow the procedures of treatments effectively.Wherever there is personalization there is room for mistakes(professional) to occur and thus it needs to be prevented.

  • Georgia December 25th, 2010 at 4:24 PM #8

    Very fine line that therapists and clients alike need to stay waay from. Gifting in this kind of situation seems like it could be pretty dangerous.

  • william December 26th, 2010 at 11:21 AM #9

    @Constantine: It wouldn’t be heartless. It would be the proper thing for the therapist to do in my opinion. When that gift is accepted, there’s immediately a closer tie between them. That tie may only be in the mind of the client but it’s there. Like it or not, it’s human nature to expect something in return. The client may not expect a physical gift. However unconsciously they may look for concessions of some kind or granting of privileges. The therapist would pay for that one way or another further down the line IMHO. It’s not worth it.

  • Lisa December 26th, 2010 at 11:58 AM #10

    Heck! So you can’t show your appreciation in the season of giving? That sucks. I give everybody that it does me good to have in my life a gift at Christmas. There’s no ulterior motive either!

  • Meredith December 26th, 2010 at 1:01 PM #11

    If the therapist didn’t want gifts, couldn’t they simply put up a sign in their waiting room saying all gifts received will be donated to charity in the spirit of “Paying it Forward” and to spread seasonal goodwill? That eases any awkwardness, gives the client the chance to keep it in their purse and also importantly lets clients know not to read anything into a gift’s acceptance. I think that would work.

  • Sally December 26th, 2010 at 3:38 PM #12

    I’m positive that my ulcer is a direct result of keeping my stress and anxiety inside. The mind-body connection is strong. Anyone who thinks that their emotions don’t affect them physically is wrong.

  • Sally December 26th, 2010 at 3:43 PM #13

    I was referring to the Address Your Stress: It’s Essential blog post there. Apologies, I posted the above comment in the wrong place. Please remove it. I’ve posted it in the correct blog post now.

  • Timothy December 26th, 2010 at 4:18 PM #14

    Send them a Christmas card and be done with it instead, geesh. You can say thank you in that just the same and it’s not overly personal.

  • Maddie December 27th, 2010 at 11:14 AM #15

    Therapists and clients should not be friends. . . period.

  • elizabeth December 28th, 2010 at 9:55 AM #16

    Hugs? I didn’t think a therapist would be allowed to physically touch a client outside of a handshake. That caught me off-guard to read hugs “can make perfect sense in a therapeutic setting.”

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