Keeping “Professional Distance”

Some schools actually instruct therapists not to “insert their own personalities” into the counseling process and discourage them from sharing anything at all about themselves with counselees. Yet. I believe that it is possible to maintain a balance between over-involvement and being so objective that those we work with never see our “human” side.

A. The benefits of “self-revelation” in the counseling process
There are many good reasons to share our own spiritual journeys with those we seek to help, especially if we ourselves have overcome an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

  • Knowing I’ve done many of the same things can help clients to trust me more. Because I have struggled with some of the same issues, it helps them to feel that I am more fully able to understand what they are experiencing in the early days of sobriety. This type of sharing can be a real source of encouragement. Hearing my story conveys the hope that they too can overcome the obstacles they face and can find truly satisfying, sober lives
  • Knowing that I struggle currently with a number of issues, too, can help to reduce the discouraging type of shame that many newly sober people feel. Knowing that I am not perfect can help them to avoid feeling that their issues are “terminally unique.” They need to know that they are not alone in their struggles. There are others (ourselves include) who have felt the same feelings, made the some mistakes, and still end up doing many things they regret.
  • Thoughtful self-revelation is an important tool for the Christian counselor. The Bible encourages to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3 NIV) When we work with wounded people, there’s much to be gained by letting them see us as “fellow travelers” that are walking the road to recovery with them.

B. A few words of caution

    The rescue mission long-term residential program creates a somewhat unique environment for those working in them. Not only do people actually live in the facilities where the staff members work, they also remain in the programs for a longer period of time -often for a year or more. This situation allows us to get to know our clients and to develop more significant relationships with them. On the “plus” side, this allows us to work with them on a deeper level and can potentially create an environment for some powerful discipling and mentoring. In another sense, though, this setup also has some unique dangers where a proper understanding of “professional distance” and maintaining proper personal boundaries are absolutely essential.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • It is important to always remember who is “staff” and who is “client” and to keep those roles very separate. And, at the same time, it’s important to remember which of these roles belongs to you. This can be especially tricky for people who have joined the staff after completing the program themselves.
  • In the arena of emotional involvement the “wall” between staff members and clients must be very definite. One rule that must be in place and enforced rigorously is the prohibition of staff members developing relationships with clients outside of the working environment. This is especially important when in regard to those situations where there is an opportunity for romantic involvement. These types of situations always result in problems that run the gamut from favoritism all the way to sexual compromise.
  • In light of this, it is absolutely critical that staff members have regular weekly meetings where they can discuss the residents and their needs -and share their own needs and gain support from one another. If workers are not doing this, it’s easy to feel alienated from one another and some may actually end up leaning inappropriately on the residents for emotional support and companionship while at work. Additionally, there must be an atmosphere where workers feel the freedom to discuss their own issues with the residents with whom they work.
  • While every resident should have one staff members as their primary counselor/mentor, our work with them ought always to be a team approach. It should be clearly understood by all clients that what is shared with their primary counselor may also be shared with the counseling team members. Not only does this practice provide insights from other team members, it also keeps clients from forming an exclusive relationship with a staff member who is “the only one I can talk to here.”
  • It is important to avoid sharing too much about your current on-going personal struggles with clients. This could result in them losing respect for you. In light of this, members who are in recovery themselves should never participate in a support group in which their clients are in attendance.

    Working with hurting people can be a very rewarding endeavor. We grow in our own faith as we see God work in their lives. But, anyone who works in this field must have their own support network firmly in place in order to avoid these pitfalls.