In the realm of psychotherapy, the personality of the counselor and its subsequent effect on the course of therapy and the therapeutic relationship is often an overlooked variable in the process. In essence, along with the theoretical knowledge and practical training, the counselor unavoidably brings his/her humanness to the therapy sessions. The individual strengths of the counselor can serve as therapeutic tool to assist the client in the process of change. Conversely, depending upon the personal dynamics of the interactions and the characteristics of the client, aspects of the therapist’s personality can also hinder the progress of therapy.
Clearly, the counselor is a strong and directive influence in the course of therapy, for better or for worse. As human beings, all therapists naturally have their own psychological needs and unresolved conflicts, as well as their own personal strengths and sensitivities. Before they can expect to facilitate change and growth in others, they must fully examine these aspects of themselves in order to distinguish a client’s real issues from their own. As Corey, Corey and Callanan (2002) indicate, “Without a high level of self-awareness, counselors will most likely obstruct the progress of their clients as the focus of therapy shifts from meeting the client’s needs to meeting the needs of the therapist” (p. 36). The challenge then, for the therapist, becomes maintaining the focus upon the client and separating out any personal biases and issues for later examination and working-through.
Issues of unresolved conflicts in counselors can range from relatively common incidences of empathy, fatigue, and burnout, to more serious issues of addiction and/or mental illness. Burnout, a phrase first coined by Freudenberger (1974), has been described as “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion whereby the affected persons have negative feelings of themselves, the other professionals with whom they work with, and the clients they serve” (Stebnicki, 2000, p. 2). Consequently, practitioners may respond with less compassion, genuineness, or unconditional positive regard for the clients they serve if the experience of burnout goes unrecognized or ignored. The effects on a client’s course of therapy can range from a single relatively unproductive session to more significant setbacks in progress. Therapists experiencing more serious emotional disturbances pose a risk of doing actual harm to clients and even, in severe cases, represent a danger to themselves, others, and the general public (Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1998).
One of the great challenges of this facet of counseling ethics is the difficulty in recognizing a problem in the early, and thus least harmful, stages. Even trained diagnosticians often fail to detect symptoms and accurately assess the severity of impairment in themselves (Keith-Spiegel & Koocher, 1998). Furthermore, even when counselors are aware of their personal problems, they may be reluctant to make these issues known to others, fearing a negative impact upon their professional life. Thus, an important aspect of ethics is a willingness to acknowledge and address a personal problem that may affect one’s clients.
As is true with many problems, the best approach is prevention. Therapists should be aware of the potential risks of the profession and seek ways to minimize them. Commitment to self-awareness, professional consultation and stress reduction techniques are some examples for reducing the likelihood of burnout. Attending to their own psychological health makes professionals better able to adequately focus on the needs of their clients when conducting therapy.
Corey, G., Corey, M. and Callahan, P. (2002). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (6th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Freudenberger, H.J. (1974). Staff burnout. Journal of Social Issues, 30 (1), 159-165.
Keith-Spiegel, P. & Koocher, G. (1998). Ethics in psychology: Professional standards and cases. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stebnicki, M. A. (Jan-Mar 2000). Stress and grief reactions among rehabilitation professionals: Dealing effectively with empathy fatigue. Journal of Rehab
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