Ethics Rounds

The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002)—our Ethics Code—can be read on many levels. Perhaps most superficially, APA members can read the code as a list of "do's and don'ts." More deeply, members can read the code as an invitation to explore how ethics permeates all we do in our roles as psychologists and to examine the relationship between our personal and our professional lives. Each way of reading the code, from the more superficial to the more nuanced, is legitimate and even necessary, especially if we think in developmental terms as psychologists often do.

This distinction between aspirational ideals and enforceable rules of conduct is found in the code's very first paragraph:

Introduction and Applicability
The Preamble and General Principles are aspirational goals to guide psychologists toward the highest ideals of psychology. Although the Preamble and General Principles are not themselves enforceable rules, they should be considered by psychologists in arriving at an ethical course of action. The Ethical Standards set forth enforceable rules for conduct as psychologists.

Shortly after this passage, in its preamble, the code introduces the notion that there are ethically relevant aspects to the relationship between a psychologist's personal and work lives. The code introduces this idea by emphasizing the role of a "personal" commitment to professionally ethical behavior:

The development of a dynamic set of ethical standards for psychologists' work-related conduct requires a personal commitment and lifelong effort to act ethically; to encourage ethical behavior by students, supervisees, employees, and colleagues; and to consult with others concerning ethical problems.

In the ethical standards, the code elaborates ethical aspects of the relationship between a psychologist's personal and professional, or work-related, lives. Ethical Standard 2.06 is especially on-point and becomes an interesting study in how psychologists conceptualize the relationship between what goes on in their work-related and nonwork-related lives:

2.06 Personal Problems and Conflicts

(a) Psychologists 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.

(b) When psychologists 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.

Ethical Standard 2.06 sets a minimum standard of behavior by requiring that psychologists "refraining from initiating an activity" when personal problems prevent competent performance in work-related activities.

Standard 2.06 also provides an opportunity for psychologists to think beyond situations in which "personal problems or conflicts" interfere with their competence, to consider more generally the relationship between their own life circumstances and professional activities. This opportunity arises largely from the language of the standard's title, which has the connotation of a deficit or failing—"problems" and "conflicts." Limiting one's ethical analysis strictly to times when we fall short in our personal lives misses the richness of the work we do and the complexity of how our personal lives intersect with those of the individuals with whom we work. Broadening our ethical analysis of Standard 2.06 is likewise consistent with the code's spirit, which invites us to move beyond reading the code as a list of obligations and prohibitions to a more subtle and nuanced consideration of the relationship between our personal and work lives.

A metaphor for enhancing a practitioner perspective on Standard 2.06 is that of our personal lives and the lives of our clients as two rivers flowing alongside one another, which from time to time come together. What becomes important to explore is not always the fact of the intersection, but rather the quality, effects and timing of the intersection. The reason is that events and themes in our lives can intersect with those in our clients' lives in ways that significantly interfere with, or significantly enhance, the work we do together.

An example of a personal problem or conflict that Standard 2.06 speaks to directly is current substance abuse, which can render a psychologist incapable of providing a competent service and can be hugely harmful to a professional relationship. A psychologist with a history of substance abuse, however, who is now clean, sober and in treatment can draw upon personal experiences to assist a client in his or her own struggles. To return to our metaphor, the timing of the intersection between events in our lives and those in the lives of our clients will likely bear a strong relationship to the effects that events in our personal lives will have on our work. A weakness or vulnerability at one point in a psychologist's life may be a strength at another.

Each of us will experience the loss of a loved one, a marriage or commitment ceremony, and many of us will have or adopt a child. No event as powerful as each of these in our own lives will leave our work untouched, regardless of how slight the trace may be. The ethical challenge is to explore the nature and extent of the impact on our work. When it happens that our clients are encountering the same situation in their lives as we are in our own, the value of a consultation rises dramatically, to help us become more fully aware of the relationship between our personal and professional lives. Obtaining a consultation may be especially valuable for events that generate negative stress, such as a difficult divorce, and may be essential when we and our clients are simultaneously facing such a challenge.

An exceptionally gifted clinical psychologist took the opportunity during an ethics workshop to share her own experiences regarding the relationship between her personal life and her clinical work. She talked about going through a difficult period with her adolescent children, and remarked that during those times she likely would not have been very helpful to another parent or adolescent patient struggling with similar conflicts. Now that her children are grown and doing well, she thought that these experiences would probably enhance her ability to work with parents and their adolescent children. I found this psychologist's way of thinking about the relationship between her personal life and her professional work an elegant application of our Ethics Code.

Personal values present another occasion to reflect on the intersection of our personal and professional lives. Clients who have values deeply disparate from their treating psychologist may represent special challenges as their behaviors and attitudes evoke strong feelings in the therapist. Such differences do not necessarily arise from a Standard 2.06 problem or conflict, but may certainly call for an examination of how a treating psychologist is reacting to what he or she may experience as offensive or even disturbing. While some psychologists, especially those of a psychoanalytic orientation, would view such self-examination largely in clinical terms (the "countertransference"), self-reflection and self-awareness have important ethical aspects as well.

Psychology training programs are excellent opportunities to highlight the importance of ethical self-reflection and awareness. Ethical Standard 7.04, in the code's "Education and Training" section, sets forth the conditions under which training programs may require disclosure of personal information when personal problems likely interfere with a trainee's professional responsibilities:

7.04 Student Disclosure of Personal Information

Psychologists do not require students or supervisees to disclose personal information in course- or program-related activities, either orally or in writing except if (2) the information is necessary to evaluate or obtain assistance for students whose personal problems could reasonably be judged to be preventing them from performing their training- or professionally related activities in a competent manner.

As with Standard 2.06, this ethical standard, when placed in the larger context of the Ethics Code, invites trainees to explore more broadly the relationship between their personal and work-related lives.

Psychologists will often encounter the same challenges, good and bad, that our clients encounter in their lives. At times, the code may require us to withdraw from our work (Standard 2.06), or allow a training program to take a more parent-like role in exploring a trainee's personal challenges as they relate to the trainee's professional responsibilities (Standard 7.04). These rare circumstances aside, the code provides an opportunity to explore the relationship between our personal lives and our clients' struggles from the perspective of our ethics.

Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, directs APA's Ethics Office.