A (small) ethical question

I’m in the midst of a lot of professional training, both for work and for my side hustle (“clinical supervision” doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely “side hustle”). I love continuing education: I love being with other social workers; I love reading case studies; I love doing exercises about theoretical framework. (It turns out I kind of miss being in graduate school). Because clinical social workers are required to have ethics training every two years, a lot of my recent continuing ed programming has involved some ethics credits. We start, always, with the most egregious examples of social work ethical dilemmas: stealing from your workplace (BAD); falsifying documentation (PRETTY BAD); having sex with a client (SO VERY BAD). Those ethical questions have straightforward answers: don’t do that shit. It’s the grayer stuff that I like to turn over. And today I’d like to turn a personal one over with you.

Don’t freak out! I am not involved in any egregiously bad activities! It’s definitely one of the gray ones.

I have a patient I really like: she’s bright and funny and interesting. She has a fascinating career. I’m sure that if we met in a different setting, I would strive to be her friend. But we haven’t met in a different setting; I’m offering her counseling, not friendship. And sometimes I find myself forgetting that.

I write often about use of self and counter-transference but I don’t think I’ve yet touched on this: what happens when we really like our clients? Obviously we like most of them; social workers typically like people. I’m talking about the unique problem of liking a client personally, the way you would like a new friend for instance, and how to manage that.

In my current job, I’ve met almost 300 different patients. Of those, there are maybe 3 that I’ve bent the rules for: seen them for a whole hour instead of the usual 30 minutes, provided a few more personal details than I normally do with my patients. See? Nothing egregious. But definitely gray.

I had a colleague once who told me, when I worked in hospice, that if you get attached to one out of every one hundred patients, you’re ok. Any more than that and you should take a good hard look at your practice. I’ve passed that advice along a dozen times, at least; it makes sense to me. I’m not causing any harm here, to my patients or to myself. I won’t overstep any boundaries: we won’t meet for coffee or see each other outside of this professional setting. But I do want to pause and consider what it means that these people get a little more from me than my other patients get. Being mindful of how much of ourselves we give is one of my favorite ethical questions. Do I give less to the patients that make my skin crawl? Do I give more to the ones that are pleasant and friendly? Do I give too much or too little based on my own feelings? And, ethically speaking, is it ok if there are (small) differences in the care I provide?

The cool and also deeply frustrating thing about ethics is that there are often no clear answers; there are multiple scenarios and variables to walk through. In this case, I lean towards the side of giving myself permission to be a human person who sometimes gives a little less or a little more, depending on the circumstance. Of course I’ll always examine my practice and look closely for signs of trouble. But I also want to allow myself that one in a hundred; it’s part of what makes the work worth doing.

Photo by  Dil  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dil on Unsplash

The body knows

I had a tricky interaction with a patient a couple of weeks ago. A patient of mine (who has an extensive trauma history) made some comments about my children not being safe in daycare. She knows I have kids because she asked once and it’s such an innocuous question, I didn’t even think about answering it. In fact, I don’t generally have strong feelings around self-disclosure; sometimes I think it can be helpful to build rapport and trust so I don’t worry about answering mild questions from patients. This is all to say, I had no problem with this particular patient knowing a little personal information about me. That is, until she hit me with this nonsense about my kids being in danger because I’m not at home with them full-time. This is a touchy subject for me, because it’s a deeply personal choice that has several variables and the judgement around it feels absurdly sexist. When she said that I should be careful, that bad things could happen to them because they’re with strangers most of the day, I had to work very hard to be still and not let my face betray my internal, white-hot rage.

In the actual moment, it passed fairly quickly. I squashed it down and told myself that this woman thought she was being helpful; she wasn’t intentionally being cruel. (She even told me that she was being grandmotherly with her concern. Ok, lady). It was later, when I brought it up in supervision, that I realized just how very upset it made me. Telling my co-workers about the experience, my hands started to shake; I felt my breath quicken and my face get hot. And I realized, I was still really worked up about those few minutes!

It got me thinking about how we listen (or don’t) to our bodies when we’re working. I’ve written before about working with frustrating patients and suddenly becoming aware that my shoulders are up by my ears and my fists are clenched. How does it sneak up on me? Because I’m not really paying attention to my own body. There’s a lot we have to do when we’re with clients: listen actively, reflect back, read their body language, etc. But we also have to listen to what our bodies are telling us; often we react physically before we’re able to name what we’re feeling.


Personally, I especially struggle with being in touch with my physical self when I’m uncomfortable with the energy in the room. Give me someone on a crying jag any day; I can sit with that heaviness and have no problem being in my body: breathing deeply, being still, creating a space for vulnerability. But when a patient touches a nerve (usually unknowingly), my fear or discomfort or anger arrive first in my body, try though I may to ignore those feelings. In those moments, I’m trying so hard to reserve judgement and be still and present that I ignore the warning signals that I’m about to emotionally check out. When I feel my toes curl in my shoes and my hands grip the sides of my chair, it’s usually a sign that I’m not going to be at my best, clinically. In those moments, I have to recenter: I take deep breaths; I practice stillness. Then I take my ass to supervision, because clearly I have some things to work out!

The body knows; we do better when we remember that and listen to what we’re being told: to slow down, to reflect, to breathe. And to utilize supervision!

Use of Self

I am kind of an over sharer. I have a tendency to spill out my life story when someone asks me a fairly benign question. For instance, a question about what brought me back to Philadelphia after going to school out of state sends me into a long, complicated tale with details about a protracted break up and a deep sense of homesickness (in case you were interested). I will tell almost anyone almost anything. My co-workers know far more details about my personal life than I think they want to, but that's just the way I am. 

Photo by  Matteo Vistocco  on  Unsplash

With my patients though, I often wonder how much to divulge. I want to recognize and respect that I'm meeting people in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, in their intimate spaces, and asking them deeply personal questions. It's only natural that the boundaries between us are a little blurrier than they would be in an office setting. I don't mind answering a few personal questions: am I married, do I have children? I ask these of my patients; they're fairly benign. What gives me pause is when people hit a nerve they don't realize they're hitting. 

Now I have to give you a little more information--I'll try not to overdo it but it's important to this particular post. My mom died on hospice two years ago. She was comfortable and we had an enormous amount of support from the staff and from our friends and family. All that being said, I am still grieving and maybe will be for the rest of my life. 

I'm sure it's clear to you how this effects my clinical work, in this particular field. I frequently meet families that struggle with making end of life decisions. They hesitate to give medication or sign a do-not-resuscitate order or choose hospice at all. I have been asked sometimes, "What would you do, if it was your mom?" That's the nerve they (unknowingly) hit.

This is where I struggle with use of self. I have to ask myself, in the brief moment I can pause before it becomes too pregnant a pause, what am I willing to divulge? What will be therapeutic? What does this family need to hear? Sometimes I simply say, "If it was my mom, I would want her to be comfortable." Only recently have I been able to say, "I have been through this and I know it is incredibly difficult." And you know what? I don't know if that's the right thing to say. That's the thing about use of self, or about any part of therapy: one size does not fit all. There are so many variables.

This work has a science to it, of course. We use evidence-based theories to help people. But there is also a true use of instinct and intuition. We would not have become social workers if we weren't sensitive to other people's moods and body language. And so, when faced with this question that tugs at my heart in a very profound way, I must rely not only on my training about use of self and the therapeutic benefit, but also what my gut tells me. Sometimes it's wrong. Sometimes people's compassion for me derails the conversation and it's hard to get it back on track. But sometimes they are able to see the bridge I've laid out in front of them and thank me; they can trust what I'm telling them.

As always, I end this with no real answers. (Notice a theme here?) But I do believe it's an interesting question: how much do we divulge? How sharp should our boundaries be? What is self-serving and what is client-centered? Food for thought. Or, better yet, tell me your answers! I love to hear your feedback and look forward to it. Until next time, let's keep talking.