Last Updated on July 6, 2016 by Morris Green
How important is trust? Think about it. Really think about it. If you had to rate how important trust is in a generic relationship on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being most important, what numerical value would you assign it?
When it comes to relationships, some say trust is more important than love. Ask Google how important trust is and you’ll see everything from the role and importance of building trust to its importance within a team. If nothing else, trust is definitely important because so many topics highlight its significance. It’s also grouped with words like honesty and respect.
In the field of substance abuse, building and maintaining ethical relationships is a cornerstone of success. Counselors work with vulnerable people every day, and things like trust, honesty, and respect are critical elements. Boundaries are also key. And you can group all of this under an umbrella term: ethical.
The Dos and Don’ts for Substance Abuse Counselors
Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings, and it’s another important tool for counselors. It often creates the bridge that allows you and your client to connect. Chances are it is part of the foundation that your professional relationship will be built upon as bricks of honesty, respect, and trust are laid.
Trust is nurtured and maintained when boundaries are set and observed. What kind of boundaries does a substance abuse counselor need? Let’s take a look at the dos and don’ts you can swear by.
#1: Focus On the Client
Well, duh! You already know this one, but before you skip to the next point thinking you know it all, stop. Answer this question: do you have siblings?
You can follow this illustration whether you’re the oldest, youngest, monkey in the middle or an only child. But it’ll strike a deeper chord if you’re a middle child.
Tom has two sisters, one older and one younger. Sometimes it feels like his sisters get all the attention. He knows his parents care, and he knows they’re constantly doing what’s best for him. But man, sometimes he just doesn’t want to be the middle child because it feels like everyone else gets noticed instead of him.
Maybe you can relate to Tom exactingly. Maybe you can think of a time when you needed to be noticed but weren’t because all of the attention landed squarely on your best friend, sibling, or work colleague. That feeling sucks, doesn’t it? It can make your brain do crazy things, like quit what you’re doing because, you know, it’s just not being seen.
Substance abuse professionals need to focus on their client at all times. You’ll likely be in contact with your client’s immediate family—their spouse, child, sibling, parent, grandparent, grandchild, stepparent, stepchild, in-laws—and it can be easy to connect and build a professional relationship with these people. Don’t. Entering into a client or professional relationship with your client’s immediate family puts them in Tom’s shoes. Addiction counseling is complex enough without adding a less than ethical relationship.
#2: Don’t Fall In Love
Who doesn’t like a good love story? Even the Grinch came around at Christmas time. Love comes in many forms, and we all love to see it conquer. But love—falling in love—has no place in an ethical client relationship.
Remember those building blocks we mentioned? Empathy, respect, honesty, trust—these are also the building blocks of many enduring romantic relationships. Think about your perfect partner, and you envision someone who exudes these four qualities. It’s attractive.
Don’t fall in love with your client. If you start to feel yourself developing feelings, address it promptly. You might have to step back and let another counselor step up so you can maintain ethical boundaries. Don’t be afraid of taking action because it keeps your client in focus and in the right professional light.
#3: Don’t Fall In Like
Do you remember that jock or cheerleader from high school that you were just gaga over? Okay, maybe it was the resident nerd who caught your eye. Geek is the new chic! In any case, you probably look back at that time in your life and wonder what you were thinking. You were so in like with that person, but it was not love.
Infatuation can be just as strong as love, but it’s short-lived and intense. It leads to emotion, even hormone, driven reactions. You know where we’re going with this; don’t become sexually active with a client OR any of their immediate family. Just stop and think about how detrimental this could be. Keep it ethical by:
- Not engaging in or soliciting sexual activity or contact with a client you currently counsel. And uphold this boundary for five years after counseling or your consulting relationship has ended.
- Avoid a sexual relationship with any client who is currently in treatment. In other words, just because you aren’t counseling them doesn’t mean a non-professional relationship is acceptable. In fact, you should never become involved in a sexual relationship of any kind with any client who has been treated at or by your place of employment within the last five years.
#4: Looking Beyond the 5-Year Rule
An ethical client relationship should remain professional at all times. There isn’t room for romanticism, let alone sexual activity. But what if you have feelings for someone you either counseled, who received counseling where you work(ed), or was once a client who received substance abuse counseling help?
According to the Ethical Principles of Conduct for the Substance Abuse Professional, which you can view at NCSAPPB.org, “because sexual activity with a client is harmful…a substance abuse professional shall not engage in sexual activities with a former client even after a five-year interval unless [they bear] the burden of demonstrating that there has been no harm to the client in light of all relevant factors…”
Our everyday interactions aren’t with everyday people. We are building ethical relationships with people who need our professional help, and there is no place for romantic or physical relationships. Our role is to care within laid limits. Want to know more? Watch our 30-minute video about understanding professional boundaries in substance abuse counseling.