I once heard a group of therapists talking about client readiness. They went back and forth about approaches and methodologies; I was mostly disinterested until someone said, “We shouldn’t be opening doors that we can’t close.”
Since then, I’ve used that quote in every single workshop and presentation I’ve led. Mostly though, I use it in Ethics course because I think it speaks to the core issue within any ethical practice: Therapists have tremendous responsibility to ensure that clients are emotionally safe when confronting various topics. It may seem obvious, but unless a client can handle the emotional surges that can arise in treatment, therapists should refrain from addressing topics that clients cannot handle. It takes great skill and practice to know when it’s time to open certain doors in treatment, but if there’s doubt, then don’t open a door that can’t be closed.
Most therapists understand this concept, but what concerns me is when people, though well-intentioned, open door with people in their lives that aren’t equipped to close. For example, I’ve witnessed several conversations where people advised friends or family members with information that they gathered from pop culture. Shows life Dr. Phil or Celebrity Rehab are dangerous because they show small snippets of people confronting their issues using buzzwords and stereotypes. The average person isn’t aware of the risks associated with “opening doors” and so they proceed to doling out advice that they simply aren’t qualified to provide.
What’s worse to me is someone who has taken a psychology class (or two or three) and learns terminology that he or she then proceed to misuse in his or her daily life. I’ve seen quite a few people who have come to me thinking that there’s something wrong with them because of something someone told them. It takes a bit to undo the damage that these people with limited vocabulary and training inflict. It’s frustrating to me that therapists and psychologists must always refresh their licenses with Ethics training, but average people are doing more harm than what any therapist ever could.
It’s good to want to offer help. Many times, people reach out to their loved ones in times of distress. But, if there’s a risk in opening a door, then it’s always better to provide resources than it is to try to counsel someone. Really, the best thing to do for someone is to listen and allow them to share, with as much safety as possible, without offering a solution. It’s better to say, “I understand and maybe together we can find a solution” than it is to offer psychobabble terms and advice. No one should open doors that they can’t close, not even friends and family.
Really, when people are hurting we should all be aware of their vulnerability and suggestibility. Emotional safety isn’t just for therapists or psychologists. Everyone should approach communication in their lives with as much care and awareness as is possible. We all have impact and that impact should be used to heal and not cause any further damage. Ethical treatment of each other isn’t just the responsibility of therapists; it’s everyone’s responsibility to know their limits and exercise caution when dealing with those who are hurting.