let's look at your value system, and how it defines your behavior, and your relationship
with your clients. As you know, to effectively set boundaries you must avoid judging your clients' attitudes and behavior. These judgments are usually made according
to your own personal value system. However, this seemingly all too obvious statement,
about judging your clients, oftentimes creates a dichotomy and is easier said
then done. An example of this may be found in public assistance staff, that are
administering financial aid to people who they feel are less than needy or "deserving".
example of the personal values-versus-objectivity conflict is often found in the
controversy that continues to exist about the ultimate treatment goal for substance-using
clients. Some argue that it is not clear whether no use or controlled use should
be the treatment goal.
Here, if this area is one for which you have strong feelings,
maintaining the ethic of client self-determination, and maintaining a boundary
regarding your personal values can be a challenge. I have a colleague who has
become sober through 12 step programs. Thus this colleague feels strongly that
no use is the ultimate goal for him, personally. However, he periodically struggles
to avoid making personal judgments and maintaining a boundary with clients who
set a goal for controlled use.
Are You Imposing Your Own Middle-Class Values?
there is the frequently heard accusation that therapists tend to impose their
own middle-class values on their clients. These middle-class values are generally
seen as values related to cleanliness, conformity, hard work, and sexual behavior.
as you know, sometimes in order to survive, clients whose values run contrary
to those of the larger society need to adopt a different way of living. The effective
therapist, however, cannot force or impose changes that will result in embracing
middle-class values. However, society often imposes the need for change upon the
client. The therapist's role is to help the client assess the nature of this change
imposed by society. The therapist's role is also to help the client to decide
how to adapt these imposed changes in a way that is not self-destructive.
example, in child custody, there is a need to provide adequate child care. What
is "adequate" is sometimes determined between you and the court, and
the parents are left with adapting to perhaps the middle-class values that are
imposed. In the case of an elderly Alzheimer's patient who enters the hospital
with burns from a kitchen fire, society is left imposing a hard decision upon
the family as to relocation to a safer environment.
you know, the mental health professional must have sufficient self-awareness to
be able to differentiate between value changes that are essential for a client's
good social functioning, or merely value changes that are dictated by the therapist's
own personal value system. Those values are so internalized that you are often
unconscious of the reasons for adopting these values and using them as a basis
for judging effective behavior. A good example of this is found in old social
agency records that are filled with notations of home visits in the morning where
the mother is, "still in her nightgown with the breakfast dishes unwashed,
and is drinking coffee, smoking, and watching TV." The middle class value
imposed here is that she is sloppy, dirty, and a poor mother.
Four Ground Rules for Avoiding Judgements
to effectively set boundaries and avoid judgments, let's look at four basic ground
rules for avoiding judgments:
1. Just remember, you are a walking
system of values, so to speak, which is so much a part of you that you are probably
not aware of your value system's existence, even though you have considerable
feelings about the rightness of these values. For example, ask yourself: What
has been my personal experience with substance use and abuse in my family and
relationships? What has been my personal experience with physical abuse? With suicide? What are my biases and how does this effect violating a boundary with
a client regarding self determination and judgments?
2. A useful tool to avoid making judgments is to increase sensitivity to your self-talk and your
use of the term "they" or "them." By this I mean, for
example a statement like, "They always wear bright clothes and talk too loudly."
The use of "they" does not support the client's family values. In this
day and age when racial equality "is a given," I was shocked to overhear
two teachers talking in the school lounge at lunch. One stated, "Black parents
always give their children the oddest names." They proceeded to chuckle over
several examples. At that point the one black teacher in the lounge got up and
left. The teachers continued to talk with the use of "they" and "them."
However, the teachers were unaware of the racial separation they were creating.
They were also unaware of the significance of the black teacher leaving the lounge
and that anything could be amiss. Having a renewed awareness of your use of this
or other separation terms is having taken the first step toward renewing and re-examining
your biases. This renewed awareness should assist you in setting more effective
boundaries with your clients.
3. Regarding avoiding judgments,
evaluate yourself and your values as objectively and rationally as you can. Look
at the origins of your values and the purpose they service. Take the complex issue
of self disclosure for example. Therapists generally agree limited, superficial
self-disclosure can be therapeutically beneficial. However, think about the last
session in which you used self-disclosure. At what point would the information
to be shared have violated the boundary of meeting the client's needs, but
4. Differentiate between values which dictate personal
style of living and those which leave clients "freedom to step to the tune
of a different drummer." That is, if your client's "stepping to a different
drummer" meets his or her needs and is not destructive. If a client arrives
for the initial session or a subsequent session under the influence of alcohol
or other drugs, the session is usually rescheduled. But, what if the client threatens
harm to himself or others? Where do you set this boundary?
What is a good exercise to increase your self awareness of your values
system? To select and enter your answer go to .