Without proper boundaries and awareness, mental health professionals become vulnerable to burnout and vicarious traumatization. This can result in a risk of therapeutic effectiveness, loss of trust with clients, and possible ethical crossings or violations. This course supports professionals practicing competence, while utilizing self-care and boundaries to minimize burnout while practicing compassion for the clients that they serve.

Education Category: Ethics - Human Rights
Release Date: 11/01/2023
Expiration Date: 10/31/2026

Table of Contents


This course is designed for social workers, counselors, and marriage and family therapists in all practice settings.

Accreditations & Approvals

NetCE has been approved by NBCC as an Approved Continuing Education Provider, ACEP No. 6361. Programs that do not qualify for NBCC credit are clearly identified. NetCE is solely responsible for all aspects of the programs. As a Jointly Accredited Organization, NetCE is approved to offer social work continuing education by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Approved Continuing Education (ACE) program. Organizations, not individual courses, are approved under this program. Regulatory boards are the final authority on courses accepted for continuing education credit. Continuing Education (CE) credits for psychologists are provided through the co-sponsorship of the American Psychological Association (APA) Office of Continuing Education in Psychology (CEP). The APA CEP Office maintains responsibility for the content of the programs. NetCE is accredited by the International Accreditors for Continuing Education and Training (IACET). NetCE complies with the ANSI/IACET Standard, which is recognized internationally as a standard of excellence in instructional practices. As a result of this accreditation, NetCE is authorized to issue the IACET CEU. NetCE is recognized by the New York State Education Department's State Board for Social Work as an approved provider of continuing education for licensed social workers #SW-0033. This course is considered self-study, as defined by the New York State Board for Social Work. NetCE is recognized by the New York State Education Department's State Board for Mental Health Practitioners as an approved provider of continuing education for licensed marriage and family therapists. #MFT-0015.This course is considered self-study by the New York State Board of Marriage and Family Therapy. Materials that are included in this course may include interventions and modalities that are beyond the authorized practice of licensed master social work and licensed clinical social work in New York. As a licensed professional, you are responsible for reviewing the scope of practice, including activities that are defined in law as beyond the boundaries of practice for an LMSW and LCSW. A licensee who practices beyond the authorized scope of practice could be charged with unprofessional conduct under the Education Law and Regents Rules.

Designations of Credit

NetCE designates this continuing education activity for 1.5 NBCC clock hour(s). Social workers participating in this intermediate to advanced course will receive 3 Ethics continuing education clock hours. NetCE is authorized by IACET to offer 0.3 CEU(s) for this program. NetCE designates this continuing education activity for 3 credit(s).

Individual State Behavioral Health Approvals

In addition to states that accept ASWB, NetCE is approved as a provider of continuing education by the following state boards: Alabama State Board of Social Work Examiners, Provider #0515; Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy and Mental Health Counseling, CE Broker Provider #50-2405; Illinois Division of Professional Regulation for Social Workers, License #159.001094; Illinois Division of Professional Regulation for Licensed Professional and Clinical Counselors, License #197.000185; Illinois Division of Professional Regulation for Marriage and Family Therapists, License #168.000190;

Special Approvals

This course is designed to meet the New York requirement for 3 hours of education in appropriate professional boundaries every renewal period. This course has been approved by NetCE, as a NAADAC Approved Education Provider, for educational credits, NAADAC Provider #97847. NetCE is responsible for all aspects of their programming. NetCE is approved as a provider of continuing education by the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals. Provider Number 5-08-151-0624. NetCE is approved as a provider of continuing education by the California Association of DUI Treatment Programs (CADTP). Provider Number 185. NetCE is approved as a provider of continuing education by the California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators. Provider Number CP40 889 H 0626. NetCE designates this continuing education activity for 3 continuing education hours for addiction professionals.

Course Objective

The purpose of this course is to educate helping mental health professionals on how to provide compassionate and competent care within the boundaries of appropriate practice.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Define professional competence.
  2. Outline components of the therapeutic relationship.
  3. Define empathy and describe the difference between empathy and sympathy.
  4. Define transference and countertransference and discuss their implications for the mental health professional.
  5. Identify the functions of professional boundaries in the therapeutic relationship and multiple relationships.
  6. Discuss the guidance on giving and receiving gifts provided by professional ethics codes.
  7. Discuss the legal and ethical considerations of providing distance therapy.


Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, has more than 20 years of experience providing individual and group counseling with adults. She specifically focuses on teaching assertiveness, stress management, and boundary setting for empathic helpers. Ms. Hutchison graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, with a Master’s degree in education for mental health counseling.

Faculty Disclosure

Contributing faculty, Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, has disclosed no relevant financial relationship with any product manufacturer or service provider mentioned.

Division Planners

Alice Yick Flanagan, PhD, MSW

James Trent, PhD

Division Planners Disclosure

The division planners have disclosed no relevant financial relationship with any product manufacturer or service provider mentioned.

Director of Development and Academic Affairs

Sarah Campbell

Director Disclosure Statement

The Director of Development and Academic Affairs has disclosed no relevant financial relationship with any product manufacturer or service provider mentioned.

About the Sponsor

The purpose of NetCE is to provide challenging curricula to assist healthcare professionals to raise their levels of expertise while fulfilling their continuing education requirements, thereby improving the quality of healthcare.

Our contributing faculty members have taken care to ensure that the information and recommendations are accurate and compatible with the standards generally accepted at the time of publication. The publisher disclaims any liability, loss or damage incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents. Participants are cautioned about the potential risk of using limited knowledge when integrating new techniques into practice.

Disclosure Statement

It is the policy of NetCE not to accept commercial support. Furthermore, commercial interests are prohibited from distributing or providing access to this activity to learners.

Technical Requirements

Supported browsers for Windows include Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.0 and up, Mozilla Firefox 3.0 and up, Opera 9.0 and up, and Google Chrome. Supported browsers for Macintosh include Safari, Mozilla Firefox 3.0 and up, Opera 9.0 and up, and Google Chrome. Other operating systems and browsers that include complete implementations of ECMAScript edition 3 and CSS 2.0 may work, but are not supported. Supported browsers must utilize the TLS encryption protocol v1.1 or v1.2 in order to connect to pages that require a secured HTTPS connection. TLS v1.0 is not supported.

Implicit Bias in Health Care

The role of implicit biases on healthcare outcomes has become a concern, as there is some evidence that implicit biases contribute to health disparities, professionals' attitudes toward and interactions with patients, quality of care, diagnoses, and treatment decisions. This may produce differences in help-seeking, diagnoses, and ultimately treatments and interventions. Implicit biases may also unwittingly produce professional behaviors, attitudes, and interactions that reduce patients' trust and comfort with their provider, leading to earlier termination of visits and/or reduced adherence and follow-up. Disadvantaged groups are marginalized in the healthcare system and vulnerable on multiple levels; health professionals' implicit biases can further exacerbate these existing disadvantages.

Interventions or strategies designed to reduce implicit bias may be categorized as change-based or control-based. Change-based interventions focus on reducing or changing cognitive associations underlying implicit biases. These interventions might include challenging stereotypes. Conversely, control-based interventions involve reducing the effects of the implicit bias on the individual's behaviors. These strategies include increasing awareness of biased thoughts and responses. The two types of interventions are not mutually exclusive and may be used synergistically.

#77560: Professional Boundaries in Mental Health Care


Mental health professionals can make a significant, positive impact in the lives of those with whom they work, and the practice of therapy can be highly rewarding and gratifying. However, it can also be emotionally demanding, challenging, and stressful. These professionals are at risk for occupational stress from a variety of sources, including [1]:

  • The demands of clinical and professional responsibility

  • The challenges of managing the client/counselor relationship

  • The role characteristics that make counselors prone to burnout (e.g., high level of involvement)

  • Vulnerability to vicarious traumatization

  • The changing standards and business demands of the profession (e.g., increased documentation requirements, increased intrusion of legal/business concerns into therapeutic practice)

  • The intersection of personal and professional demands

Healthy boundaries are a critical component of self-care. Setting boundaries can help counselors manage occupational stressors and maintain the delicate balance between their personal and professional lives. Boundaries also demonstrate competency in clinical practice and help counselors avoid ethical conflicts [2].

Please note, throughout this course the term "counselor" is used to refer to any professional providing mental health and/or social services to clients, unless otherwise noted.


Professional associations representing the various fields of clinical practice have codes of ethics that provide principles and standards to guide and protect both the mental health professional and the individuals with whom they work. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Counseling Association (ACA), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), and the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP) each has an ethics code created to identify core values, inform ethical practice, support professional responsibility and accountability, and ensure competency among its members [3,4,5,6,7].

Competency is defined as "the extent to which a therapist has the knowledge and skill required to deliver a treatment to the standard needed for it to achieve its expected effects" [8]. It is the scope of the professional's practice. According to the ethics codes of the APA, the ACA, and the NASW, members are to practice only within their boundaries of competence [3,4,5].


Many situations that occur in the counseling office are not written about in textbooks or taught in a classroom setting. Counselors learn through hands-on experience, intuition, ongoing supervision, and continuing education. One constant is the therapeutic relationship. Every therapeutic relationship is built on trust and rapport. Counselors teach their clients what a healthy relationship is through the compassionate care and limit setting that occurs within the therapeutic context. Counselors model acceptable behavior in the office so their clients are equipped to emulate and apply that behavior in the outside world. In many cases, counselors are teaching self-regulation to clients who are learning how to control impulses or regulate behavior in order to improve their connection to other people.

Bandura has described self-regulation as a self-governing system that is divided into three major subfunctions [9]:

  • Self-observation: We monitor our performance and observe ourselves and our behavior. This provides us with the information we need to set performance standards and evaluate our progress toward them.

  • Judgment: We evaluate our performance against our standards, situational circumstances, and valuation of our activities. In the therapeutic setting, the counselor sets the standard of how to interact by setting limits and upholding professional ethics. The client then compares the counselor's (i.e., "the expert's") modeled behavior with what they already have learned about relationship patterns and dynamics (i.e., referential comparisons).

  • Self-response: If the client perceives that he or she has done well in comparison to the counselor's standard, the client gives him- or herself a rewarding self-response. The counselor should reinforce this response by delivering positive reinforcement and affirmation for the newly learned behavior. For example, if the client arrives to therapy habitually late and then makes an effort to arrive on time, the counselor can remark, "I notice that you are working hard to arrive on time for session. That is great." The counselor's positive reinforcement and acknowledgment can have a positive impact on the client's self-satisfaction and self-esteem.

According to Rogers, "individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior" [10]. To facilitate a growth-promoting climate for the client, the counselor should accept, care for, and prize the client. This is what Rogers refers to as "unconditional positive regard," and it allows the client to experience whatever immediate feeling is going on (e.g., confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage) knowing that the professional accepts it unconditionally [10]. In addition to unconditional positive regard, a growth-promoting therapeutic relationship also includes congruence and empathy.


Trust is built and sustained over time through consistent limits that are maintained within the sacred space of each therapeutic hour. When a counselor is observed as consistent and congruent, the client notices. Being authentic is part of being compassionate and empathic. Clients know when a counselor's words and actions do not match. These actions can be overt, such as cutting short the therapeutic time or going over the time allotted. They also can be subtle, as when leaked out and expressed through a stressed vocal tone, facial expression, or other body language indicator (e.g., arms folded across the chest). To the highly aware client, these actions can result in a loss of trust.

Nevertheless, counselors are not perfect and can err from time to time. This is why it is important for counselors to be self-aware, acknowledge when their words and actions do not match, and discuss that within the therapeutic relationship. If a client notices one of these cues of incongruence and expresses it to the counselor, it is essential that the counselor listen openly and validate the client's experience. Any defensiveness on the part of the counselor will decrease relationship trust. Conversely, this admission of human failure can actually build a stronger bond of trust. Clients see that counselors are, like themselves, human and imperfect. This presents an opportunity for clients to learn and then model this type of integrity in their own relationships. "Congruence for the therapist means that he (or she) need not always appear in a good light, always understanding, wise, or strong" [10]. It means that the therapist is his or her actual self during encounters with clients. Without façade, he or she openly has the feelings and attitudes that are flowing at the moment [10]. The counselor's being oneself and expressing oneself openly frees him or her of many encumbrances and artificialities and makes it possible for the client to come in touch with another human being as directly as possible [10]. As discussed, this involves self-observation and self-awareness on the counselor's part.

This does not mean that counselors burden clients with overt expression of all their feelings. Nor does it mean that counselors disclose their total self to clients. It means that the counselor is transparent to the client so that the client can see him or her within the context of the therapeutic relationship [11]. It also means avoiding the temptation to present a façade or hide behind a mask of professionalism, or to assume a confessional-professional attitude. It is not easy to achieve such a reality, as it involves "the difficult task of being acquainted with the flow of experiencing going on within oneself, a flow marked especially by complexity and continuous change" [10].


There is great power in empathy. It breaks down resistance and allows clients to feel safe and able to explore their feelings and thoughts. It is a potent and positive force for change [10]. Empathy serves our basic desire for connection and emotional joining [12]. Empathy may be defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. It is a deeper kind of listening in which the counselor senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client [10]. Empathy is not parroting back the client's words or reflecting only the content of those words. It entails capturing the nuances and implications of what the client is saying, and reflecting this back to the client for their consideration using clear, simply connotative language in as few words as possible [13]. Counselors also can show empathy in nonverbal ways to their clients by, for example, looking concerned, being attentive, leaning forward, and maintaining eye contact [13].

Empathy is a multi-level process of relating to others. It encompasses both an emotive experience and a cognitive one. It includes an intellectual component (namely, understanding the cognitive basis for the client's feelings), and it implies the ability to detach oneself from the client's feelings in order to maintain objectivity [14]. While engaged in empathic listening, mental health professionals should remain responsive to feedback and alter their perspective or understanding of the client as they acquire more information [14]. Empathy may be summarized by the ability to [15]:

  • See the world as others see it.

  • Be nonjudgmental.

  • Understand another person's feelings.

  • Communicate your understanding of that person's feelings.

Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which may be defined as an affinity, association, or relationship between persons wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other. Compared with empathy, sympathy is a superficial demonstration of care. With sympathy, you feel sorry for the client; with empathy, you feel the client's pain. Although a counselor can get caught up in the client's feelings, he or she should always strive to empathically understand what the client is experiencing while maintaining emotional detachment. This potentially provides a broader perspective that extends beyond the client's situational distress. Mental health professionals want to employ the best tools in order to affect change in their clients without causing harm, and empathy surpasses sympathy in terms of effectiveness. Research has validated the importance of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence for achieving an effective therapeutic relationship [16].

Compassion-focused therapy is a rapidly growing, evidence-based form of psychotherapy that pursues the alleviation of human suffering through psychological science and engaged action [17]. According to Gilbert, the following are attributes of compassion-focused therapy [18]:

  • Sensitivity: Responsive to distress and needs; able to recognize and distinguish the feelings and needs of the client.

  • Sympathy: Being emotionally moved by the feelings and distress of the client. In the therapeutic relationship, the client experiences the counselor as being emotionally engaged with their story as opposed to being emotionally passive or distant.

  • Distress tolerance: Able to contain, stay with, and tolerate complex and high levels of emotion, rather than avoid, fearfully divert from, close down, contradict, invalidate, or deny them. The client experiences the counselor as able to contain her/his own emotions and the client's emotions.

  • Empathy: Working to understand the meanings, functions, and origins of another person's inner world so that one can see it from her/his point of view. Empathy takes effort in a way that sympathy does not.

  • Nonjudgment: Not condemning, criticizing, shaming, or rejecting. It does not mean nonpreference. For example, nonjudgment is important in Buddhist psychology, which emphasizes experiencing the moment "as it is." This does not mean an absence of preferences.

Empathic Boundaries

Counselors strive to achieve empathy with their clients while maintaining boundaries that protect their own energies. Professionals should ''sense the client's private world as if it were [their] own, without ever losing the 'as if' quality,'' and while not becoming entangled with their perception of the client [10; 19]. It takes work to maintain a healthy distance emotionally while feeling and intuiting what the client is saying.

Too much sympathy, or working with empathy without proper boundaries in the therapeutic relationship, drains the counselor of energy and leads to burnout. In a study of 216 hospice care nurses from 22 hospice facilities across Florida, it was found that trauma, anxiety, life demands, and excessive empathy (leading to blurred professional boundaries) were key determinants of compassion fatigue risk [20]. In other words, there can be too much of a good thing. In order to motivate client change, there should be a limit to the use of empathy in therapy. Empathy is but one tool that a compassionate mental health professional can use to ensure client growth.


The term transference was coined by Freud to describe the way that clients "transfer" feelings about important persons in their lives onto their counselor. As Freud said, "a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past but applying to the person of the physician at the present moment" [21]. The client's formative dynamics are recreated in the therapeutic relationship, allowing clients to discover unfounded or outmoded assumptions about others that do not serve them well, potentially leading to lasting positive change [22]. Part of the counselor's work is to "take" or "accept" the transferences that unfold in the service of understanding the client's experience and, eventually, offer interpretations that link the here-and-now experience in session to events in the client's past [23]. The intense, seemingly irrational emotional reaction a client may have toward the counselor should be recognized as resulting from projective identification of the client's own conflicts and issues. It is important to guard against taking these reactions too personally or acting on the emotions in inappropriate ways [24]. Therapists' emotional reactions to their patients (countertransference) impact both the treatment process and the outcome of psychotherapy.


It also is important to be reflective rather than reactive in words and actions. Use of the mindfulness technique can help counselors to become reflective rather than reactive and can help counselors unhook from any triggering material and maintain appropriate limits and boundaries. Reflection demands a reasonable level of awareness of one's thoughts and feelings and a sound grasp of whether they deviate from good professional behavior. Reflection includes [25]:

  • A questioning attitude towards one's own feelings and motives

  • The recognition that we all have blind spots

  • An understanding that staff are affected by clients

  • An understanding that clients are affected by staff behavior

  • A recognition that clients often have strong feelings toward staff

Clients are more accepting of transference interpretations in an environment of empathy. Transference interpretation is most effective when the road has been paved with a series of empathic, validating, and supportive interventions that create a holding environment for the client [26].

Freud believed transference to be universal, with the possibility of occurring in the counselor as well as the client. He described this "countertransference" as "the unconscious counter reaction to the client's transference, indicative of the therapist's own unresolved intrapsychic conflicts" [27]. Freud felt that countertransference could interfere with successful treatment [22]. Since the 1950s, the view of countertransference has evolved. It is no longer believed to be an impediment to treatment. Instead, it is viewed as providing important information that the professional can use in helping the client [22].

Empathy allows the counselor to experience and thus know what the client is experiencing. Countertransference emerges when the client's transference reactions touch the counselor in an unresolved area, resulting in conflictual and irrational internal reactions [28]. Good indicators of countertransference are feelings of irritability, anger, or sadness that seem to arise from nowhere. Countertransference frequently originates in counselors' unresolved conflicts related to family issues, needs, and values; therapy-specific areas (e.g., termination, performance issues); and cultural issues [29]. When feelings have intensity or when they persist, this is an indicator for future work and healing.

The counselor's work is to bear the client's transferences and interpret them. When the counselor refuses the transference, there is often a mutual projective identification going on, in which both counselor and client project part of themselves onto the other. Refusal may also mean that one of the counselor's own blind spots has been engaged. As Shapiro explains, "a rough edge of our character has been 'hooked' by a bit of what the patient is struggling with, and we act out a bit of countertransference evoked in us by the transference" [30]. In a group therapy setting, family dynamic re-enactments can emerge as transferences. Managing these complex dynamics can raise the counselor's anxiety and mobilize his or her defenses, compromising a usually thoughtful stance. When counselors experience intense reactions in trauma groups that pull them out of the present moment, they should investigate whether they are responding to traumatic content, personal unresolved issues, or individual or collective transference [31]. Counselors who find themselves ruminating about a previous session's content, a client's welfare, or their own issues should talk with a trusted, objective colleague. Countertransference issues for the mental health professional should be resolved apart from the therapeutic environment to avoid burdening and potentially harming clients [27]. One study of countertransference found that therapists' self-reported disengaged feelings over a treatment period adversely impacted the effect of transference work for all patients, but especially for patients with a history of poor, nonmutual, complicated relationships [32].


Problems arise when the professional lacks awareness or refuses to devote the necessary time to process the personal emotions and thoughts that arise within the therapeutic relationship. Feelings of anger, grief, jealousy, shame, injustice, trauma, and even attraction can, when they touch a wound from the past, trigger reactions within even experienced professionals. Clients' experiences can replicate the professional's past relationships and trigger emotions that have not been worked on or addressed. If this occurs, the professional can, without disrupting the client's session, make a mental note of the feelings. This allows the professional to attend to the present moment. After the client's session has ended, the professional can arrange to talk to a colleague or supervisor for processing. If the countertransference continues, it may be necessary for the professional to seek counseling. Self-awareness helps the professional to reflect back to the client's true emotions. It also is an important component of training, development, and effectiveness [33]. Mental health professionals need to possess certain values, qualities, and sensitivities, and should be open-minded and have an awareness of their comfort levels, values, biases, and prejudices [34].

As stated in the ethics codes of the ACA [4]:

Therapists are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. They respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when their values are inconsistent with the client's goals. They refrain from initiating an activity when they know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner. When they become aware of personal problems that may interfere with their performing work-related duties adequately, they take appropriate measures, such as obtaining professional consultation or assistance and determine whether they should limit, suspend, or terminate their work-related duties.


Generally speaking, a boundary indicates where one area ends and another begins. It indicates what is "out of bounds" and acts to constrain, constrict, and limit. In the therapeutic relationship, a boundary delineates the "edge" of appropriate behaviors and helps to rule in and out what is acceptable, although the same behaviors might be acceptable or even desirable in other relationships [35,36]. Boundaries have important functions in the therapeutic relationship, helping to build trust, empower and protect clients, and protect the professional.


An inherent power differential exists in the therapeutic relationship between the client, who is placed in a position of vulnerability as she or he seeks help, and the practitioner, who is placed in a position of power because of her or his professional status and expertise [36]. When the client sees the counselor sitting in a chair, with a diploma or licensure on the wall, it can be intimidating. To help mitigate these feelings with the client, it is important to maintain a sense of professionalism while working to build trust and rapport. Part of that professionalism includes setting limits and explaining what they are in the context of therapy.

The familiarity, trust, and intensity of the therapeutic relationship create a powerful potential for abuse that underscores the need for careful attention to the ethical aspects of professional care [36]. Trust is the cornerstone of the therapeutic relationship, and counselors have the responsibility to respect and safeguard the client's right to privacy and confidentiality [4]. Clients have expressed what they believe to be essential conditions for the development of trust in the therapeutic relationship. These include that the clinician [37]:

  • Is perceived as available and accessible

  • Tries to understand by listening and caring

  • Behaves in a professional manner (evidenced by attributes such as honesty in all interactions)

  • Maintains confidentiality

  • Relates to the client as another adult person rather than as an "expert"

  • Remains calm and does not over-react to the issue under discussion

Only when satisfied that the clinician is sufficiently experienced, professional, flexible, and empathic can a foundation for therapy be laid. Clients acknowledge that this takes time and that the trustworthiness of the therapeutic relationship may be tested. If the relationship is perceived to be wanting, clients indicate that they would have difficulty continuing it [37].


Rigid boundaries can negatively reinforce the power differential that exists between the client and the counselor. Rigid boundaries may serve the fears and needs of counselors who are new to the profession and/or concerned with the implications of boundary violations. However, rigid boundaries can lead to harm for the client who perceives that the "rules" are more important than his or her welfare. While rigidity and remoteness on the counselor's part may help ensure that boundaries are intact, they do not accurately reflect the intended role of boundaries in clinical practice. Boundaries should never imply coldness or aloofness. As stated, clients value flexibility, caring, and understanding. Within conditions that create a climate of safety, flexible boundaries can accommodate individual differences among clients and counselors and allow them to interact with warmth, empathy, and spontaneity [38]. Firm, intractable boundaries may be a comfort to the helping professional; however, fixed rules cannot capture the complex reality of the therapeutic relationship [36].


Boundaries and effective limit setting in sessions help to empower and protect clients by teaching and reinforcing the skills they need to become healthy. Boundaries set the parameters and expectations of therapy, so it is important to articulate them in such a way that each client's understanding of them is clear. Counselors should constantly and actively make judgements about where to draw lines that are in the client's best interests [39].

Boundaries begin the moment a client enters the room. Indicate which chair is yours and where it is acceptable for the client to sit. Take note of where your seat is in relation to the door should an emergency arise. Be sure to maintain an appropriate amount of space between yourself and the client. Too much space can feel impersonal and too little can feel invasive. Consider the décor of the setting. Clients may become distracted by the counselor's personal artifacts and family photographs and may place their focus on the counselor rather than on their own therapeutic work. Some clients with poor boundaries may become preoccupied with the counselor's family, which can become a source of transference.

Clients often enter therapy with a history of prior boundary violations (e.g., childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, inappropriate boundary crossings with another professional) that leave them with persisting feelings and confusion regarding roles and boundaries in subsequent intimate relationships [40]. Consequently, they may test the boundaries as children do. The counselor should recognize these boundary dilemmas and manage them by reiterating the boundaries calmly and clearly [39]. The counselor must also set and maintain boundaries even if the client threatens self-harm or flight from therapy. This can be extremely challenging when faced with a client's primitively motivated, intense demands. However, counselors should recall that one description of the tasks with clients with primitive tendencies is to resist reinforcing primitive strivings and to foster and encourage adult strivings [41]. Winnicott refers to this as a "holding relationship," wherein the counselor acts as a "container" for the strong emotional storms of the client. The act of holding helps reassure the client that the clinician is there to help the client retain control and, if necessary, assume control on his or her behalf [42].

Due to the potential issues and challenges that the client brings to therapy (e.g., cognitive deficits, substance abuse/addictions, memory issues, personality disordered manipulations), it is important to maintain a record of instances when the articulated boundaries and limits have been ignored or violated. For example, a client is habitually late, despite knowing that it is unacceptable to arrive more than 10 minutes late to session. The first instance of a late arrival might simply warrant a reminder of the 10-minute limit, whereas repeated instances would require that the limit be enforced. The clinician who overidentifies with a client might experience a need to do things for the client rather than help the client learn to do things for him- or herself. While this behavior may appear relatively harmless, it suggests overinvolvement with a client and potential boundary problems [43]. Such behavior inhibits the client's ability to learn personal responsibility and how to resolve conflict [44]. It also may impede the reflective and investigative character of an effective helping process [45]. Mental health professionals should take reasonable steps to minimize harm to clients where it is foreseeable and unavoidable [3,4]. They also should facilitate client growth and development in ways that foster the interest and welfare of the client and promote the formation of healthy relationships [4].


As stated, professional associations that represent the various fields of clinical practice have codes of ethics that provide principles and standards to guide and protect the professional and the individuals with whom they work [3,4,5,6,7]. Client welfare and trust in the helping professions depend on a high level of professional conduct [3,4]. Professional values, such as managing and maintaining appropriate boundaries, are an important way of living out an ethical commitment [4].

Some situations in therapy are clear with regard to boundaries (e.g., no sexual relationships with clients). Other situations may be not as clear or may be ambiguous (e.g., receiving gifts from clients). When faced with such situations, professionals should engage in an ethical decision-making process that includes an evaluation of the context of the situation and collaboration with the client to make decisions that promote the client's growth and development [4]. Supervision and colleague support also may be necessary to reach the best decision. Such a process helps clinicians maintain justice and equity and avoid implications of favoritism in dealing with all of their clients [46].

Professionals who deliver services in nontraditional settings, such as those who have home-based practices, face unique challenges related to boundaries and limit setting. As with office-based therapy, some situations cannot be prepared for and will need to be addressed in the moment. While delivering services in nontraditional settings may benefit some clients, when working in homes or residences, the professional is advised to emphasize informed consent, particularly with regard to therapeutic boundaries. Whenever possible, the impact of crossing boundaries on therapy and on the therapeutic relationship should be considered ahead of time [47].


A boundary crossing is a departure from commonly accepted practices that could potentially benefit clients; a boundary violation is a serious breach that results in harm to clients and is therefore unethical [48]. Professional risk factors for boundary violations include [49]:

  • The professional's own life crises or illness

  • A tendency to idealize a "special" client, make exceptions for the client, or an inability to set limits with the client

  • Engaging in early boundary incursions and crossings or feeling provoked to do so

  • Feeling solely responsible for the client's life

  • Feeling unable to discuss the case with anyone due to guilt, shame, or the fear of having one's failings acknowledged

  • Realization that the client has assumed management of his or her own case

Denial about the possibility of boundary problems (i.e., "This couldn't happen to me") also plays a significant role in the persistence of the problem [49]. Lack of self-care and self-awareness also can leave the mental health professional vulnerable to boundary crossings and/or violations.

Whatever the reason the professional has to cross a boundary, it is of utmost importance to ensure that it will not harm the client. Each boundary crossing should be taken seriously, weighed carefully in consultation with a supervisor or trusted colleague, well-documented, and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Intentional crossings should be implemented with two things in mind: the welfare of the client and therapeutic effectiveness. Boundary crossing, like any other intervention, should be part of a well-constructed and clearly articulated treatment plan that takes into consideration the client's problem, personality, situation, history, and culture as well as the therapeutic setting and context [50]. Boundary crossings with certain clients (e.g., those with borderline personality disorder or acute paranoia) are not usually recommended. Effective therapy with such clients often requires well-defined boundaries of time and space and a clearly structured therapeutic environment. Dual or multiple relationships, which always entail boundary crossing, impose the same criteria on the professional. Even when such relationships are unplanned and unavoidable, the welfare of the client and clinical effectiveness will always be the paramount concerns [50].

Some counselors may consider a boundary crossing when it provides a better firsthand sense of the broader clinical context of their client, such as visiting the home of a client that is ailing, bedridden, or dying; accompanying a client to a medically critical but dreaded procedure; joining a client/architect on a tour of her latest construction; escorting a client to visit the gravesite of a deceased loved one; or attending a client's wedding [50]. Many mental health professionals will not cross these boundaries and will insist that therapy occur only in the office. Each professional should operate according to the parameters with which he or she is comfortable. As stated, the best interests of the client, including client confidentiality, and the impact to therapy should be of paramount importance when considering whether to cross a boundary.

To be in the best position to make sound decisions regarding boundary crossings, mental health professionals should develop an approach that is grounded in ethics; stay abreast of evolving legislation, case law, ethical standards, research, theory, and practice guidelines; consider the relevant contexts for each client; engage in critical thinking and personal responsibility; and, when a mistake is made or a boundary decision has led to trouble, use all available resources to determine the best course of action to respond to the problem [51]. The risk management strategy also should include discussions with supervisors, colleagues, and the client. Each step should be documented and should include supervisory recommendations and client discussion regarding the benefits versus the risks of such actions. Although minor boundary violations may initially appear innocuous, they may represent the foundation for eventual exploitation of the client. If basic treatment boundaries are violated and the client is harmed, the professional may be sued, charged with ethical violations, and lose his/her license [52].


Examples of multiple relationships include being both a client's counselor and friend; entering into a teacher/student relationship; becoming sexually involved with a current or former client; bartering services with a client; or being a client's supervisor. Even when entering into a multiple relationship seems to offer the possibility of a better connection to a client, it is not recommended. Multiple relationships can cause confusion and a blurring of boundaries and risk exploitation of the client.

The issue of multiple relationships is addressed by the codes of ethics of mental health professions. According to the APA's ethics code [3]:

A multiple relationship occurs when a psychologist is in a professional role with a person and (1) at the same time is in another role with the same person, (2) at the same time is in a relationship with a person closely associated with or related to the person with whom the psychologist has the professional relationship, or (3) promises to enter into another relationship in the future with the person or a person closely associated with or related to the person. A psychologist refrains from entering into a multiple relationship if the multiple relationships could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist's objectivity, competence or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists.

The ethics code of the NASW (standard 1.06 Conflicts of Interest) defines dual or multiple relationships as occurring "when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business. Dual or multiple relationships can occur simultaneously or consecutively" [5]. It also states that "social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries" [5]. The code further states that it is the professional's responsibility to "be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment" and that counselors should "inform clients when a real or potential conflict of interest arises and take reasonable steps to resolve the issue in a manner that makes the clients' interests primary and protects clients' interests to the greatest extent possible" [5]. In some instances, this may require "termination of the professional relationship with proper referral of the client" [5].

The ACA ethics code states that [4]:

Counselors are prohibited from engaging in counseling relationships with friends or family members with whom they have an inability to remain objective. They also are prohibited from engaging in a personal virtual relationship with individuals with whom they have a current counseling relationship (e.g., through social and other media). When a counselor agrees to provide counseling services to two or more persons who have a relationship, the counselor clarifies at the outset which person or persons are clients and the nature of the relationships the counselor will have with each involved person. If it becomes apparent that the counselor may be called upon to perform potentially conflicting roles, the counselor will clarify, adjust, or withdraw from roles appropriately.

Mental health professionals who practice in small, rural communities face special problems in maintaining neutrality, fostering client separateness, protecting confidentiality, and managing past, current, or future personal relationships with clients [53]. Whether the practice is located in a small town or a big city, there will be times when counselors and clients will encounter one another outside the office. To ignore a client who is reaching out in a social setting may cause the client harm. However, it also is important to avoid violating the client's privacy. The best way to minimize the potential awkwardness of such an encounter is to prepare ahead of time. For example, a counselor might incorporate a conversation about such an encounter into the initial evaluation process by telling the client: "If I happen to be at a store or a restaurant and see you, I won't say hello because I respect your confidentiality and want to protect your privacy. However, if you want to smile or say hello to me, I will respond in kind." Explain to the client that the conversation or acknowledgment must be brief to prevent any violation of the client's privacy. After an encounter in public, address the event in your next session, discuss any feelings the client had about the encounter, and note the discussion in the client record. Such an encounter would not fall under the category of dual/multiple relationships unless, for example, the counselor and client went grocery shopping at the same time every week and interacted each time. In this instance, the counselor is advised to change his or her shopping day and/or time in order to avoid risking loss of client confidentiality.


Mental health professionals are forbidden to exploit any person over whom they have supervisory, evaluative, or other similar authority. This includes clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, and employees [3,4]. Professional ethics codes outline specific instances of behaviors and actions (some that are expressly prohibited) that have exploitative potential, including [3,4,5]:

  • Bartering with clients

  • Sexual relationships with students or supervisees

  • Sexual intimacies with current or former clients

  • Sexual intimacies with relatives/significant others of current therapy clients

  • Therapy with former sexual partners or partners of a romantic relationship

  • Romantic interactions or relationships with current clients, their romantic partners, or their family members, including electronic interactions or relationships

  • Physical contact with clients (e.g., cradling or caressing)

There are times when a client has an emotional session and hugs the counselor unexpectedly before leaving the office. This physical contact should be noted in the client's record along with what precipitated it. It should be revisited with the client at the next session, with this discussion recorded in the client's record. While you may prefer no physical contact, you can try to respond positively to the desire for closeness. For example, make personal contact with your hand as you hold the client at a distance, make eye contact, and tell the client that while physical reaching out is positive and welcome, you cannot allow it [10].

The ACA ethics code prohibits sexual and/or romantic counselor/client interactions or relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members for a period of five years following the last professional contact. This prohibition applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships [4]. The APA ethics code indicates that this period should be "at least two years after cessation or termination of therapy," and that "psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with former clients/patients even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances" [3]. Mental health professionals who choose to engage in relationships with former clients have the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors [3]. Factors to consider include the amount of time passed since termination of therapy; the client's personal history and mental status; the likelihood of an adverse impact on the client; and statements or actions made by the counselor during therapy suggesting or inviting a possible sexual or romantic relationship with the client [3].

Standards regarding sexual relationships and physical contact also are addressed by the NASW ethics code [5]:

1.09 Sexual Relationships

(a) Social workers should under no circumstances engage in sexual activities, inappropriate sexual communications through the use of technology or in person, or sexual contact with current clients, whether such contact is consensual or forced.

(b) Social workers should not engage in sexual activities or sexual contact with clients' relatives or other individuals with whom clients maintain a close personal relationship when there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. Sexual activity or sexual contact with clients' relatives or other individuals with whom clients maintain a personal relationship has the potential to be harmful to the client and may make it difficult for the social worker and client to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Social workers—not their clients, their clients' relatives, or other individuals with whom the client maintains a personal relationship—assume the full burden for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries.

(c) Social workers should not engage in sexual activities or sexual contact with former clients because of the potential for harm to the client. If social workers engage in conduct contrary to this prohibition or claim that an exception to this prohibition is warranted because of extraordinary circumstances, it is social workers—not their clients—who assume the full burden of demonstrating that the former client has not been exploited, coerced, or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally.

(d) Social workers should not provide clinical services to individuals with whom they have had a prior sexual relationship. Providing clinical services to a former sexual partner has the potential to be harmful to the individual and is likely to make it difficult for the social worker and individual to maintain appropriate professional boundaries.

1.10 Physical Contact

Social workers should not engage in physical contact with clients when there is a possibility of psychological harm to the client as a result of the contact (such as cradling or caressing clients). Social workers who engage in appropriate physical contact with clients are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern such physical contact.

The safest course of action is to continue to maintain established boundaries and limits indefinitely after therapy ends. In addition to the noted relevant factors, counselors should keep in mind that the client may return for further treatment. If the counselor has become involved in a business or social relationship with a former client, he or she deprives the client of the opportunity to return for additional treatment. It is vital to be mindful of the potential to exploit the client's vulnerability in a post-termination relationship [54].

Mental health professionals who find themselves attracted to a client should seek supervision around this issue. It is normal for feelings to develop in any type of relational context. It is not the feelings of attraction that are the problem, but rather actions taken. Mental health professionals should never act on these feelings, but instead discuss them with a trusted supervisor or colleague, exploring the possibility of countertransference as well as the potential trigger for the attraction. If the attraction causes intense feelings, it is advisable to seek personal therapy. If the feelings interfere with one's ability to treat a client, the client should be transferred to another professional, and work with the client terminated.


It is not unusual during the course of therapy for a client to present a counselor with a token of appreciation or a holiday gift, and receiving gifts from clients is not strictly prohibited by professional ethics codes. Instead, the ethics codes advise professionals to consider a variety of factors when deciding whether to accept a client's gift.

Section A.10.f (Receiving Gifts) of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics states that [4]:

Counselors understand the challenges of accepting gifts from clients and recognize that, in some cultures, small gifts are a token of respect and gratitude. When determining whether to accept a gift from clients, counselors take into account the therapeutic relationship, the monetary value of the gift, the client's motivation for giving the gift, and the counselor's motivation for wanting to accept or decline the gift.

The National Board for Certified Counselors Code of Ethics: Directive #4 provides similar guidance to its members [6]:

National certified counselors (NCCs) shall not accept gifts from clients except in cases when it is culturally appropriate or therapeutically relevant because of the potential confusion that may arise. NCCs shall consider the value of the gift and the effect on the therapeutic relationship when contemplating acceptance. This consideration shall be documented in the client's record.

In the code of ethics of the Association for Addiction Professionals, Principle I-40: The Counseling Relationship states that [7]:

Addiction professionals recognize that clients may wish to show appreciation for services by offering gifts. Providers shall take into account the therapeutic relationship, the monetary value of the gift, the client's motivation for giving the gift, and the counselor's motivation for wanting to accept or decline the gift.

As noted in these excerpts, the effect on the therapeutic relationship should be a primary consideration when considering whether to accept a gift. Gifts can mean many things and also can fulfill social functions. The counselor's task is to identify the contextual meaning of the gift and determine when the gift is not merely a gift. To do so, the counselor must draw out from the client information to discern the possibility of a metaphorical or culturally significant meaning for the gift giving [55]. Counselors should consider the client's motivation for gift-giving as well as the status of the therapeutic relationship. Gifts that may seem intended to manipulate the counselor are probably best refused, whereas rejection of a gift intended to convey a client's appreciation may harm the relationship [56].

If the counselor is most comfortable with a "no-gift policy," it is best that the policy be discussed at the beginning of therapy. To wait until a client is presenting a gift to state that it is your policy to decline gifts may harm the client and damage the therapeutic relationship. Clear communication, both written and spoken, of the policy with clients as they enter therapy may help avert difficult later interactions around gifts. If clients have an understanding as they begin therapy what the counselor's approach will be, misunderstandings may be avoided [57]. While restrictive guidelines might be unhelpful, confusion surrounding gifts seems to be exacerbated by a lack of professional discussion about the topic [58].

Many professionals try to keep gifts "alive" throughout client sessions. This often involves putting the gift "on hold" (including decisions about acceptance and rejection) until the best moment for exploration with the client occurs. This allows that gifts given during therapy (where possible) remain part of therapy (i.e., they stay in the room and are available for future sessions) [58]. When considering whether to discuss the gift as part of therapy, the counselor should evaluate pertinent factors, such as the client's time in therapy, the context and frequency of gifts, and client dynamics. While not all gifts warrant full discussion (e.g., those given to show appreciation or of modest financial value), some, such as repeated or expensive gifts, do. Although counselors should be careful not to make too much of a gift, especially those that clients at least initially see as being given simply as a way to say thank you, such conversations may enable both members of the dyad to attain greater insight into the gift's intention and meaning and thereby prove helpful to the continued therapy work [59].

Gifts can range from physical objects, to symbols or gestures. As stated, consider the monetary value of the gift, the client's motivation for giving the gift, and the counselor's motivation for wanting to accept or decline the gift [4,5,7]. If there are concerns about any of these factors, it may be best to explore the intent of the gift in session. If a gift is deemed inappropriate, the counselor is advised to decline to accept it. In these cases, counselors should express appreciation for the thought and gesture, explain why they are unable to accept the gift, return it with kindness, and note the encounter in the client's record.

Professionals who work with children have unique challenges regarding gifts. Rejecting a child's gift or trying to explain a "no-gift policy" can cause the child to feel confused or rejected; children do not have the same levels of cognition and understanding that adults have. For play counselors, potential compromises include incorporating the gift into the other materials and toys in the playroom or directly sharing the gift with the child [59]. An important factor affecting the decision to accept a gift is the kind of gift presented by the child. Artwork or something created by the child is an extension of the child and therefore can be viewed as an extension of emotional giving. Accepting non-purchased items (e.g., a flower picked by a child or a child's drawing) would be acceptable in most cases [60].

Clients with personality disorders present unique challenges regarding the issue of gifts. Generally, these clients exhibit manipulation, poor boundaries, and fixed or rigid patterns of relating, and gift giving can be a feature of the clinical picture for such clients. Accepting a gift from such a client may reinforce patterns of manipulative or self-debasing behaviors that are symptomatic of the problematic levels of functioning. In such instances, counselors should discern which course of action is truly in the client's best interests [55].

Often, a small token may be given or received at the termination of therapy for a long-term client. A touchstone that has meaning for the client, such as a meditation CD, book, or greeting card, is appropriate. As with all gifts, the gift and the context in which the gift was given or received should be noted in the client's record, along with your own intent and how you think the client perceived the gift.


We live in a rapidly changing world, especially where technology is concerned. In the past, therapy was offered only through in-person interaction in an office setting. Then, gradually, some professionals began to offer telephone sessions. Today, counseling is offered through video conferencing and online message boards, and paper client records are being replaced with electronic records. Competent counseling includes maintaining the knowledge and skills required to understand and properly use treatment tools, including technology, while adhering to the ethical code of one's profession.

The APA has created guidelines to address the developing area of psychologic service provision commonly known as telepsychology [61]. The APA defines telepsychology as the "provision of psychological services using telecommunication technologies. Telecommunication technologies include, but are not limited to, telephone, mobile devices, interactive videoconferencing, email, chat, text, and Internet (e.g., self-help websites, blogs, and social media)" [61]. The APA guidelines are informed by its ethics code and record-keeping guidelines as well as its guidelines on multicultural training, research, and practice. The guidelines allow that telecommunication technologies may either augment traditional in-person services or be used as stand-alone services. The guidelines also acknowledge that telepsychology involves "consideration of legal requirements, ethical standards, telecommunication technologies, intra- and interagency policies, and other external constraints, as well as the demands of the particular professional context" [61]. When one set of considerations may suggest a different course of action than another, the professional should balance them appropriately, with the aid of the guidelines [61]. The complete guidelines are available online at https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/telepsychology.

The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics also addresses distance counseling, technology, and social media. It states [4]:

Counselors understand that the profession of counseling may no longer be limited to in-person, face-to-face interactions. Counselors actively attempt to understand the evolving nature of the profession with regard to distance counseling, technology, and social media and how such resources may be used to better serve their clients. Counselors strive to become knowledgeable about these resources. Counselors understand the additional concerns related to the use of distance counseling, technology, and social media and make every attempt to protect confidentiality and meet any legal and ethical requirements for the use of such resources.

The ACA code also addresses legal considerations, informed consent and disclosure, confidentiality, security, and multicultural and disability considerations as they relate to technology.

The NBCC recognizes that distance counseling presents unique ethical challenges to professional counselors; related technology continues to advance and be used by more professionals; and that the use of technology by professionals continues to evolve. In light of this information, the NBCC revised its Internet counseling policy and developed the NBCC Policy Regarding the Provision of Distance Professional Services [62]. This policy replaces previous editions.

The revised policy includes use of the term "distance professional services" to include other types of professional services that are being used more in distance formats. The policy addresses telephone-, email-, chat-, video-, and social network-based distance professional services that may be conducted with individuals, couples, families, or group members. The policy also identifies specific actions that NCCs should take when providing distance services. The policy supplements the directives identified in the NBCC Code of Ethics [6,62]. The policy is available at https://www.nbcc.org/Assets/Ethics/NBCCPolicyRegardingPracticeofDistanceCounselingBoard.pdf.

According to the NASW ethics code, social work services assisted by technology "include any social work services that involve the use of computers, mobile or landline telephones, tablets, video technology, or other electronic digital technologies [that] includes the use of various electronic or digital platforms, such as the Internet, online social media, chat rooms, text messaging, e-mail and emerging digital applications" [5]. Professionals are advised to "keep apprised of emerging technological developments that may be used in social work practice and how various ethical standards apply to them" [5]. In general, the ethical standards articulated in the NASW Code of Ethics are "applicable to all interactions, relationships, or communications, whether they occur in person or with the use of technology" [5]. Professionals who are involved in discoverable (by the client) "electronic communication with groups based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical ability, religion, immigration status, and other personal affiliations may affect their ability to work effectively with particular clients" [5].

Professionals interested in providing online interventions also should consider the potential for boundary confusion, inappropriate dual relationships, or harm to clients [5]. For example, instant message systems can alert clients each time the professional is online, allowing the client to send chat requests. Clients might access a professional's personal webpage or sign onto online discussion groups to which the professional also belongs. Some may continue to send the professional emails after the termination of the relationship. E-counselors should consider their response to such ongoing contact. Potentially more seriously, clients may use the Internet to harass or stalk current or former counselors [63]. The best way to prevent potential problems is to discuss the boundaries with clients during the initial assessment. Being up front and clear with clients about limits and policies regarding the use of technology and social networking is recommended [64].

Miscommunication is a commonplace occurrence in the online world. Even the simplest things (e.g., punctuation marks) can be misinterpreted. Studies reveal that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, posture) [65]. Some technology-based forms of communication can result in the loss of important nonverbal and vocal cues, leading to an increased risk for miscommunication between client and counselor. Interactive communication, such as texting and email, involves the loss of nonverbal social cues that provide valuable contextual information and interpretation of meaning. Loss of these physical social cues may also increase the client's tendency to project personal psychologic material onto the blankness of the communication. While this may be helpful in some forms of psychotherapeutic interventions and it may offer advantages over in-person communication, it also presents a potential risk for increased miscommunication [63].

The compassionate professional strives to communicate nonverbally to clients that he or she is listening to and in the moment with the client. Physical cues, such as nodding and eye contact, have been shown to be positively associated with the degree that clients feel the counselor is respectful and genuine [66,67]. Much attention also is paid to the voice, as it carries the verbal message and people often believe the voice to be a more reliable indicator of one's true feelings [68]. Because research exploring how empathy is experienced in an online environment is minimal, counselors should check with their clients to determine if the empathy is being transmitted in their text-based communications [10].

No matter what type of counseling is offered, a thorough initial evaluation should be completed to assess whether a client is appropriate for distance counseling. Practicing within recommended guidelines does not release counselors from the personal responsibility to be aware of, and to independently evaluate, the variety of ethical issues involved in the practice of online therapy [63]. Certain clients (e.g., those with suicidal, homicidal, or substance abuse history, clients with personality disorders) would not be suited to online therapy.


The challenges of online therapy lead to legal and ethical concerns associated with the delivery of mental health services via the Internet. Those opposed to online or distance therapy worry about licensure issues related to doing therapy across jurisdictional boundaries, legal responsibility in the event of a crisis, and the appropriateness of client anonymity [69].

Providing services across state lines is one of the biggest unresolved issues. Although communication technologies allow counselors to reach clients anywhere, state licensing laws generally do not permit out-of-state counselors to provide services via these methods. Some states offer guest licensure provisions, but most states require that the counselor hold a license in his or her own state and in the client's state. Providing distance therapy within one's own state is simpler, and it allows mental health professionals to reach people who would not otherwise have access to services (e.g., rural residents, people with certain disabilities) as well as those who want to receive services from home. To confidently provide distance services [70]:

  • Abide by all applicable licensing requirements and professional standards of care.

  • Understand the technology being used.

  • Periodically check your state legislature's website for the latest telehealth laws and regulations.

  • Check for a board policy statement that provides guidance on telepractice.

  • Check whether your state licensing board has issued policies related to telepractice.

  • Confirm that telehealth services (both in-state and across jurisdictional lines) are covered under your malpractice policy.

The COVID-19 public health emergency increased demand for mental and behavioral health services while driving most of those services to telehealth platforms. In response to this, in 2020, the APA led a campaign to maximize the availability of telepsychology services [71]. In March 2020, the federal government designated psychologists as critical, essential workers, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) improved access to care for Medicare beneficiaries. CMS issued further guidance to waive key telehealth requirements. Because the new legislation cannot supersede state licensing laws (e.g., those that prohibit psychologists from using telehealth to provide services across state lines), the APA drafted letters to governors in all 50 states urging them to temporarily suspend state licensing laws and regulations regarding telepsychology services to ensure continuity of care. Within weeks of receiving the APA letter [71]:

  • 12 states issued executive orders calling for expansion of telehealth service rates.

  • 14 states issued executive orders allowing patients to receive telehealth services in their own homes.

  • 16 states temporarily lifted licensing requirements.

  • 22 states either expanded their policies for out-of-state providers to temporarily practice in their states or instituted emergency expedited registration for out-of-state providers.


With the advent of social media, clients can now search for and find the Facebook or Twitter page of their counselor, if one exists. Counselors who accept a client's "friend request" are in essence agreeing that the counselor and client are now friends, creating a multiple relationship. As discussed, when clients have access to their counselor's social media sites, both intentional and unintentional self-disclosures can occur. Modern social networking systems (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) exemplify intentional self-disclosure without a particular client focus. In contrast, Internet search engines (e.g., Google, LexisNexis) may allow unintended disclosure of personal details of the professional's life. Professionals should be aware and cognizant of social media involvement, including what information is public. Many sites offer ways to post minimal information if a connection to other professionals is desired. Avoid posting a profile photo that includes your family or other personal details, as these are public [72].


Competent counselors are well-educated and well-versed in the ethics of their profession. They understand that trust is built over time in the therapeutic relationship, with the help of limits and boundaries, and that it is reinforced by empathic response. Competent, compassionate professionals are both self- and other-aware and able to seek appropriate supervision and consultation when necessary. They establish self-care boundaries in order to protect their own compassionate, empathic response as well as their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. This enables counselors to most effectively help their clients.


American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Code of Ethics
APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
ACA Code of Ethics
NAADAC Code of Ethics
NBCC Code of Ethics
NASW Code of Ethics

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