The Principles of Good Practice: Self-Respect

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Being an ethical practitioner of counselling requires us as therapists to take care of our own needs for nourishment so that we are able to offer a nourishing therapeutic relationship to clients. The risks of not doing so are potentially damaging to all of us.

During my training as a counsellor, we studied a module on aspects of professional practice, including the importance of working ethically with clients. As students on a course accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (one of the UK’s professional organising bodies in this field), our guidance came from the BACP’s Ethical Framework, which is intended as a set of guidelines or ‘ways of working’ for therapists. The Framework has 6 elements: Fidelity, Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-maleficence, Justice and Self-respect. Each element is equally important, and as members of BACP, counsellors must adhere to all of them in their work with clients, even though it’s recognised that at times, there will be conflicts between them.

Part of the assessment for the module was a group presentation on one element of the ethical framework and our understanding of how it might influence or affect our future work with clients. The group I worked with addressed the sixth principle, Self-respect:

The principle of self-respect means that the practitioner appropriately applies all the above principles as entitlements for self. This includes seeking counselling or therapy and other opportunities for personal development as required. There is an ethical responsibility to use supervision for appropriate personal and professional support and development, and to seek training and other opportunities for continuing professional development. Guarding against financial liabilities arising from work undertaken usually requires obtaining appropriate insurance. The principle of self-respect encourages active engagement in life-enhancing activities and relationships that are independent of relationships in counselling or psychotherapy.

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As our group talked it through, I remember we came to the conclusion that although it was the last of the principles and one directly relating to how the counsellor acts toward himself or herself rather than toward the client, Self-respect nevertheless seemed the most important. Without caring for ourselves, respecting ourselves, and treating ourselves as human beings worthy and deserving of nourishment — in all its forms — how can we give of ourselves to our clients or to other people in our lives?

Again during my training, as I started to prepare for seeing clients for the first time, I well recall my therapist talking to me about the importance of ‘bringing my whole self’ into the counselling room with me and into the work with clients. What did she mean by that, I wondered? As I learned more about the work, I came to realise that more than just a set of skills, counselling is as much about ‘being’ as it is about ‘doing’, if not more so. If you believe, as I do, that the ‘healing’ in therapy comes from the experience of a trusting and compassionate relationship between counsellor and client, then it follows that the person of the counsellor must, in themselves, be trustworthy and compassionate.

Taking ‘myself’ into the therapy room means — for me — that I bring all of my life experience, all of my relationships, all of my knowledge and skills, all of my beliefs and values, all of my hopes and fears, my regrets and delights into the session with the client. Not that I’m going to sit there for 50 minutes and share them with the client — no, but these are some of the things that make me who I am, that have shaped my personality and character, and this person is the one who will ‘be’ with the client throughout our time together.

But if this person — me or you or whoever — is tired and irritable, or hasn’t had enough to eat, or has spent too much time working and not enough time doing pleasurable or challenging things away from work, then it’s going to be that much harder to find the inner resources to be fully present with clients — to give them the full benefit of our stores of compassion, honesty and trustworthiness.

However much fulfilment we get from giving nourishment (however you define it) to others, we must give nourishment back to ourselves as well — to replenish our stocks of energy and compassion and enthusiasm for the job we do. Otherwise we will burn out and lose the will or the desire to continue — and before we reach that point, we may well do harm, albeit unintentionally, to clients or loved ones, and that would be a disservice to them all.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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