Should Psychotherapy Be a Judgment-Free Zone?

JudgmentMany years ago, back when I still lived in Los Angeles, I worked for a brief time with a client who was secretly draining his wife’s inheritance to support their family. He didn’t make personal use of the money or spend it on a mistress; instead, he took his family on lavish vacations, pretending to have earned the money himself, and used it to fund a lifestyle they couldn’t afford. This man worked in a field with the potential to earn large sums of money if he invested properly (and got lucky); he continually hoped to hit “the big one” and replenish the investment account where his wife had placed her inheritance. He hoped she would never learn what he had done. He eventually ran through the inheritance, however, and when his wife discovered the truth, she divorced him. Not long after, he discontinued treatment for financial reasons and, I believe, left the country.

Shortly after the truth came out, the wife called me. She had looked into the legal and ethical guidelines and acknowledged that I was “probably covered,” as she put it, but she nonetheless felt my behavior was morally wrong — that I had a moral obligation to tell her about what her husband was doing. It didn’t help to explain that what she expected me to do would’ve violated my client’s right to privacy and my legal obligation to preserve confidentiality. She regarded it as a moral issue. I didn’t then and I don’t now agree with her. And because I wasn’t her therapist, I couldn’t help her examine her own collusion in those unhappy events. My client had a history of lying and concealing the truth about money which she knew about, so it was surprising that she had made him a co-signator on the investment account and hadn’t looked at a bank statement or checked the balance in years.

I agree that my client’s behavior was wrong, but it wouldn’t have helped our work together if I simply passed judgment on him and told his wife. Clients who feel judged will most likely leave treatment, and for good reason. Instead, I tried to help my client deal with the sense of shame and inadequacy he felt for not being able to provide for his family, but also encouraged him to examine the somewhat grandiose image of himself as provider that both he and his wife shared. I explained the importance of honesty in a marriage, which he readily acknowledged, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell her the truth. He kept hoping to find “a way out” and not have to face the music. We ran out of time when he ran out of money.

Had I heard this story in my “outside” life, I probably would have felt quite judgmental about this man’s behavior. Without knowing his internal dynamics, and the collusion between husband and wife, I probably would have called him an “asshole” or some other such insightful and compassionate name. But with their clients, therapists are supposed to understand instead of pass judgment, aren’t they?

All this came back to me in recent days due to another marital crisis in the life of one of my clients. He had been having an affair for many years and his wife found out. He isn’t the first of my clients to have a secret affair, and I always find myself in a similarly ambiguous position. I certainly do not approve of extra-marital affairs, and often pass harsh judgment upon acquaintances who engage in them, but I never pass judgment upon my clients, nor do I feel at all judgmental. I try to help them understand the emotional reasons for the affair — there are always reasons — and it usually points to some breakdown in communication for which both parties are responsible. I try to help them see how an affair doesn’t actually address the real problem and isn’t a viable solution.

In any event, it got me to thinking about the way psychotherapy is a “judgment-free” zone, and how curious it is that we set aside our usual moral judgments in the service of deeper insight … but only as a part of our job. As much as I try to be a compassionate, understanding person in my “outside” life, I often feel judgmental and pass judgment upon others. I’m not a moral relativist. I suppose the lesson here is that the more you know about people and the more deeply you enter into their emotional experience, the less likely you are to judge them. As a society, we can’t do without morality; the force of moral judgment helps to prevent people from behaving in ways that damage the social fabric as well as their intimate relationships. Passing judgment has its place in society but doesn’t help in our more personal or psychotherapeutic relationships, where empathy and understanding do much more to help people develop into better “citizens.”

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Great post.

    If you have watched (recommendation!) the awesome TV show the Soprano’s Dr Melfi talks about this with Tony. As long as he doesn’t tell her about his crimes she won’t break confidentiality or pass judgement on him (in the therapy). To me (not saying objectively) this raises ethical questions with respect to her character, if you know someone is a gangster and they kill people on a (fairly) regular basis, how can you give them advice without feeling in some way complicit in their crimes? What if they use the knowledge you give them to become more coldly sociopathic, for example?

    “I certainly do not approve of extra-marital affairs, and often pass harsh judgment upon acquaintances who engage in them, but I never pass judgment upon my clients, nor do I feel at all judgmental.”

    See, now this confuses me. Maybe it’s because I’m immature (still only 27) and have a tendency to split, but how can you have strong feelings about infidelity and sit there without feeling anything while someone cheats on their partner? I’m not criticising you btw, I’m genuinely curious, I would be unable to control my emotional impulses and judgements (which I’m sure demonstrates immaturity and a lack of self-control on my part) but you literally feel no judgement? Does this mean you have a “therapist Joe” sub-self or persona that you “use” for professional purposes?

    1. It’s a very interesting point. I guess you could say there is a sub-Joe who functions in a different way. I’m 100% clear that judging my client will prevent me from understanding and helping him. When you pass harsh judgment, you place distance between you and the other person; it makes it impossible to empathize. And there is a distinction between making a judgment — I think you should not be having an extramarital affair — versus being harshly judgment about it — you are a bad person because you’re having an affair. I’d say I do the former with my clients but not the latter.

    2. for me it is knowing a person’s story that suspends judgment… while i agree having an extra marital affair is not right and is definitely not the answer, when i know the circumstances, the back story, and see the whole person of my client- snap black-white judgment is automatically suspended.

  2. Wow..great post. You don’t have to be in an intimate relationship or be a priest/professional health worker to understand the dynamics of the judgement of a society/person and judging them. Even when I go for my daily walk/run , I see drivers cutting me off and my mentality tells me that this is wrong and I express myself by telling the car drivers or shaking my head(yes, I want them to see their shame at being a faulty driver) but that doesn’t mean I’m bias against them or judging them emotionally. A judgment of a situation is just an intellectual mental decision based on the facts that lets us see whats happening in reality but to be a better person I let the judging be in higher hands.

  3. My underderstanding is in a therapeutic relationship the only time privacy can be overruled is if someone wouKD be a harm to themselves or someone else and if any harm was being reported towards a child.

    That is in Canada, I do not know about the U.S.

  4. It must be a fine line therapist feel/walk when their client demonstrates behaviors not in accordance with their own belief systems.

    Yet, we as clients want completely to be ‘heard’ and ‘not judge’ for whatever actions or whatever history has befallen upon us.

    I became ‘judgement free’ because of my son, who has profound disabilities. I look at people in a more humane way and do not immediately cast stones because they may look or act differently or they engage in a lifestyle and choices not in line with my own.

    I hope my therapist isn’t creating an undesirable narrative about me. But, I realize he is human and some things may make him uncomfortable.

    I loved this post! 🙂

  5. Joe, this is off topic (sort of), but I always wonder how it is that you can talk about your clients’ issues in this forum and not feel like you’re breaking confidentiality or giving them an insight into your work with them outside of the office (assuming you’d consider that less than ideal). I imagine that they give consent, and that you omit/alter details enough to not reveal identities. But still, it seems a conundrum. If my therapist posted in this way, I am pretty sure I would be obsessively following to figure out if she’s referencing me, and what she thinks about me. I’m not sure how I’d feel, if she did. (Sorry if you have addressed this in earlier posts.)

    But, thank the gods that you do this. I get so much from your site — and I’ve looked at thousands of them. This and the Mental Happy Hour podcast are the cream of the crop!

    1. There are professional standards for discussing clients for educational purposes. Primarily, it’s making sure there is no identifying material that would allow third parties to recognize the person I’m discussing. Most of my clients came to me after reading my blog so they already accept it as a fact that I do discuss my clients from time to time.

  6. Dear Dr. Burgo,

    I think you’re right in your approach to not “passing judgement.” What exactly does that mean? All it means is you are not “passing” judgement, that is actively telling your patients how “*ucked up” you think their attitudes are. It does NOT mean you do not internally think “Man, this guys has got a really *ucked up attitude!” It just would not be very professional to do that.

    I firmly believe that no human being can thrive very long if he never uses his judgement. (Whether he keeps it to himself or proclaims it to the world.) Some people have lousy judgement. You might ask “Well… what’s the bench-mark for judgement then?” This is seen in the RESULTS. If a person’s life is a train wreck, it is obviously a result of bad judgement in a lot of cases.

    A person can have bad judgement for many different reasons: inadequate education, mis-information, being mis-lead, or simply just not being too smart. Some people can’t learn from their mistakes, and I am sure you’ve seen these patients in your practice. They waste their time and money in therapy they can’t benefit from. They waste your time… time that can’t be given to someone who can possibly benefit from it.

    I think your outlook is correct, though. You didn’t do anything wrong. You upheld the standards of your profession.

    1. I actually don’t think (in the privacy of my unvoiced thoughts), “This guy has a f**ked up attitude.” That would be passing judgment but simply not saying it. I’m more likely to feel like he’s lost and unhappy and wonder why he’s trying to resolve it this way.

      1. We have different interpretations of the term “passing judgement.” In my opinion, you form judgements in your mind. You only “pass” this mental judgement when you communicate it or act on it.

        I find if difficult to believe anyone can prevent personal opinions from appearing in thought. What I think happens is that professionalism takes the lead, supressing personal opinion and the job gets done by wondering why the patient does what he does. Here again, it’s the right thing to do if you really want to help.

        I’m not trying to needlessly argue the point but I just want to make sure you understand the difference I am noting here… even if you disagree.


  7. Hmm…the best therapists I have ever had were also very straight shooters when it came to client behavior they knew was harming others. Maybe there is a difference in your mind between moral judgement and straight shooting, but in my mind, part of a contract to undergo therapy is that you are committing to making better decisions, not simply going for an ego stroke or to pay someone listen to your problems. The teachers’ rule, “don’t work any harder than your students” fits here. It seems to me from the description that your effort in working with this client was much greater than his in confronting his magical thinking, which evidently went on for years.

    I had a therapist who simply refused to discuss one issue with one client (in group work) because her defenses repeatedly prevented her from addressing a very problematic situation, one that she let fester for years and ended up harming those close to her. He made it clear that he would discuss the issue if she acted on it. They kept a relationship and discussed other things. The therapist and everyone in the group got tired of hearing the defenses that got repeatedly dragged out and became excuses for a problem that eventually caught up with her and her family. But the therapist did not drop the discussion because of his tiredness or moral judgement, he did it for the same reason a good parent does not listen to the same excuse of bad behavior over and over, because it makes them complicit. While I do not know everything about your married client or the nature of your discussions, I do believe by not “putting your foot down” on his destructive behavior”, your knowledge of it did make you complicit in it and his wife was justified in what she said to you. I also understand that she may have had denial issues of her own that she never dealt with. An analogy that comes to mind is an addict. Addicts have many defenses and excuses to hold on the their addiction, which is always harmful to their friends and family. A doctor treating addiction after several attempts (years) at some point has to say, our relationship is not changing the reality of the addiction, and encourage the client to move on, just like a heart doctor would say that I am not able to treat your liver disease.

    There are some things in life (losing your inheritance, extra-marital affairs) that are so hurtful to others, that our knowledge of them and the way we handle that knowledge is critically important, regardless of the relationship (public or professional). If we allow someone to drag out the same defenses of behavior harmful to others for years and years, without ratcheting up our own response and ratcheting down our compassion for the person harming others, as humans we have failed each other.

    1. “Maybe there is a difference in your mind between moral judgement and straight shooting …”

      Yes, there is. As I said in an earlier comment, providing a non-judgmental environment isn’t the same thing as saying everything the client does is just fine. I did tell my client repeatedly that he needed to tell his wife the truth; I explored all the destructive reasons why he did what he was doing, but I can’t force my client to do what I think is best.

  8. Does no judgment include positive judgment? Like for example telling a client that they do good by helping at an animal shelter or by forgiving someone?
    On the subject of morality I think the best way a therapist can “teach” morality is by being a role model for being empathic. I squirm at the idea of moral relativism. It ultimately puts the culture and tradition above the individuals. Maybe it has something to do with change and how it reminds us of our mortality, but I digress.

    1. Being judgmental is not the same thing as making judgments. We all make judgments, all the time, and most of them aren’t harsh. Saying to a client, “I think you’re making a mistake and you know it” — is that a judgment? Or is it “straight-shooting,” as one other site visitor put it?

      1. To respond to Gordon’s comment. My therapist does not give negative or positive judgements. He wouldn’t tell me I did a good thing for helping at an animal shelter to use your example what he may observe is something along the lines of ‘when you talk about helping at the shelter you use very self affirming language and you it seems to be heelping with your feelings of self worth, is that accurate? Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to do for others… Have you found that..?’ That kind of thing. He wouldn’t be ‘judging’ or praising, he would ommenting on behaviours I exed and cognitions he’d noticed – my therapist doesn’t give empty praise, he helps me see my potential and my strides in therapy – ‘you have been very brave today …’ Etc is the closest to praise but he will always relate ot back to something concrete about my journey.

        1. Sorry for the typos – it’s hard to write on my phone!

          To summarise- it’s non judgemental observation and insight my therapist offers. While instigating positive change through challenging and questioning my negative cognitions in a supportive way. That in itself is affirming and can be very powerful.

  9. So many things.

    1. You are a moral relativist because you have different standards in different places (inside and outside the therapy room). My judgement is that this is ethically dubious.

    2. Perception is qualitative. Though perception is educatable and so the perception of the qualities may change and other qualities may be perceived.

    3. “And because I wasn’t her therapist, I couldn’t help her examine her own collusion in those unhappy events”. Really?

    4. Ethical engagement is more than simply passing judgement, – “it wouldn’t have helped our work together if I simply passed judgment on him and told his wife” – I certainly agree this wouldn’t help.

    5. Any action will almost certainly be based on some judgements about desirability and rightness. Even an extreme ethical relativism is a judgement (albeit a self-contradictory one. Roger Scruton: ethical relativists are asking you to not believe them; so don’t.).

    6. I doubt that moralising judgementalism helps individuals or our society much. Though it may increase skill in deceit and hypocrisy.

  10. Dear Dr. Burgo,

    Thanks so much for this post! It really shed some light on the usual question that friends and family would ask me as an attorney: ‘how is it that you put up with all these people that break the law? Moreover, how is it that you can bring yourself to defend criminals or to assist anyone who lies to you about their case?’ The easiest answer always is that criminal also have rights and that you’re a key player in the checks and balances system, preventing state organs from abusing the powerful position they’re in. Apart from that I’ve always wondered why it is that I hardly ever feel my clients are assholes, not deserving any assistance or defense. You post showed me that this probably has to do with the fact that I get to know my clients at a point in their life when they’re extremely vulnerable, not only because they’re threatened in their rights and freedoms but especially because they’re subjected to feelings of shame and guilt. Even if they don’t show any of these feelings, I guess you either intuitively feel or suppose them, and this makes that questions of morality are simply no part of the relationship.
    All of this of course not withstanding the fact that I feel annoyed when clients only tell part of the story and at any given moment – worst case scenario: in court – the other part is revealed (then it is my turn to feel ashamed).

    I love you blog and am a regular visitor from The Netherlands.

    1. Ah, forgot to add: outside of my office and amongst friends I also hear myself pass rather harsh judgements on anyone breaking laws / moral standards.

    2. I’ve known many lawyers and worked for a couple of years as a paralegal for a criminal lawyer, so I understand your perspective. It’s a fairly sophisticated point of view, to be part of a system of checks and balances — and that it’s the system itself that you are actually protecting. For most people, it’s a only a matter of right and wrong.

  11. Interesting topic and I’ve often wondered about this. I imagine (i’m not a therapist) that therapists must face moral dilemma in many aspects of their work.

    I was part of a mental health group some time ago where one member often talked about her daughter in a negative, critical, disparaging way. Her daughter was very young and I think this woman was a narcissistic mother and her daughter was the scapegoat. I left that group for that and other reasons but I wondered what I would do if I was a therapist and I had a client who was scapegoating one or more of their children?

    I think in this country (Ireland) therapists are legally oblidged to report sexual abuse cases (not necessarily emotional abuse/rejection) or ‘minor’ cases of physical abuse. (but I’m not 100% sure about that)

    If you don’t mind answering do you face this dilemma ? and if so how do you feel about it?

    1. I’ve never faced that particular dilemma, but I think I would feel as you did. If I couldn’t help my client see how destructive her narcissism was to her children, I might not be able to hide my disapproval.

  12. And yet, if a person is a threat to themselves or others, the therapist is required to report it. It is a conundrum about what to share with family and what not to share.

    I spent years in therapy with non-judgmental therapists and they saved my life. At the same time, I went over the same material and didn’t progress. Understanding only took me so far. Later in life I met a pastor who was also a psychologist. He also took me over the same material, but supplied judgment (in love). Showing me where my thoughts and actions didn’t line up with the truth. I had to make a choice, continue doing what didn’t work or make a change in my life and face the truth. Facing the truth freed me. We did all the ordinary therapy things, but the judgment of what I was facing helped me move forward. As he promised, my memories became memories that weren’t fraught with emotions. I healed.

    1. You’re making an important distinction. Non-judgment doesn’t mean implying that everything you do is okay. We have to say a lot of hard things to our clients, just as your pastor did to you, but we can do it in a non-judgmental way.

      1. So true Joe. My therapist questions a lot of what I say and he makes me question myself. There’s a very powerful difference between passing judgement and offering insight.

  13. Thanks for this Joe – I spent a great deal of time in my early months of therapy worrying that my therapist was judging me and thinking negative thoughts about me (how could he not? he is human after all!). He would constantly and consistently reassure me that he only had positive regard for me and that he was not thinking in a judgemental way. He would explain that in order to do his job affectively he needs to have an empathetic and compassionate relationship with every client. He told me that in his earlier career of a mental health nurse he had worked on psychiatric wards with all sorts of people including rapists and murderers and with some people who had committed the worst crimes but he would still have to find compassion and understanding for that person. He explained that even Hitler deserved compassion and not judgement. I think it takes a very VERY special type of person who is capable of this. I am learning that I AM judgemental and have very high internalised standards for myself and others.

    When I talk to my therapist I can see in his face he is not judging me and I often feel like he is placing himself in my shoes thinking along the lines of ‘what has pulled her towards this behaviour?’ or ‘what need is she trying to fulfil?’ – he puts himself in my shoes rather than on a higher platform to me (the former being empathy and the latter being what judgement is all about). It surprises me how little personal response he gives me – even when I am telling a story that makes me laugh because it’s ridiculous or embarrassingly funny he still remains un-movingly neutral and professional. We have a wee chat at the start and end of each session which is more relaxed and informal – in these times he is more himself, more responsive on a personal level, will have a laugh and interact more then.

    It’s inspiring interacting with someone like that – I am working on becoming more like him, more accepting and less critical and judgemental of others and myself. You therapists must be so skilled and have such self-control – is it a big part of your training? To learn how to not have immediate, visible reactions to what people say to you?

    1. I think it comes from having had the same experience ourselves: as part of our training, we go through extensive psychotherapy, so we have non-judgment modeled for us and we feel the good of it.

  14. Given the fact that we judge ourselves more critically than anyone else could, it is comforting to have that safe place in therapy where you know or at least hope that you are not being judged by your therapist. For me that would just be too much for my gentle inner spirit to handle.
    I did have a therapist give me hell before about a situation when my daughter went missing for 15 hours – long story. By the end of it she seemed to be feeling much better. It was the last time I saw her. While leaving her office she smiled at me and told me to have a nice day. I felt ripped apart. I had trusted that I wasn’t going to be judged, as no one else seemed to be judging me because they know I’m a good mother.
    So it important to have that place – judgement free- a place where it takes courage to talk about the things that you feel ashamed about, things that you have done in your life where you judge yourself so harshly it’s difficult to admit to them to anyone else.
    But I also think it would be difficult to be in a position where you are not supposed to judge.

  15. Great post!

    Our world is so judgemental that it can be impossible to trust anyone when faced with a crisis — such as the onset of mental illness, a crisis with crippling stigma attached. In therapy a sanctuary is created where it is possible to speak the unspeakable: for me, this has been about my behaviour when manic, that I want a second divorce, that I lust after a young musician. As Joe says, there are important reasons behind each of these situations, and I know things will fester in dangerous ways if left unattended to.

    My therapist is my place of refuge. Her being non- judgemental is an expression of her compassion towards me. Psychological change is hard work. Where compassion can be counted on, where no judgement exists, the client can face the seemingly unbearable — including shame and humiliation — making possible profound changes towards a better life.

  16. Dr. Joe, it seems clear to me that you did the right thing within the context of your profession. There are some gray areas here though. I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the wife in this situation, no matter how much she unconsciously colluded with the actions of her husband. It sounds like you made some effort to question the morality of your patients actions, but could you have been more aggressive in that sense? Also it sounds like some of that inheritance money was indirectly coming to you (when the money ran out, he quit). Were you benefitting in any way by keeping your client on the books? Just some thoughts.

    1. You make a good point. As far as I can tell, my motivations were not mercenary. I was very fond of this client and wanted very much to help him. I did make repeated statements about the need to tell his wife the truth before she found out in some awful way (as she eventually did).

  17. What an interesting post!

    After I’d been in therapy for about a year, I revealed a “secret” that did impact my husband and kids…something he needed to know.

    He didn’t freak out or judge me, but over the course of the next few sessions, he strongly encouraged me to talk to my husband. We talked about all of the “horrible things I was sure would happen” and how unlikely those were to happen, versus doing NOTHING and then terrible things would for sure happen.

    I did tell my husband with the support of my therapist, and my marriage is much stronger today than it was. It wasn’t easy, but it was right.

    I’m grateful that my therapist sort of did judge me…at least enough to encourage me to take a healthier path!

  18. At some point, though, aren’t there moral judgments that would make it impossible for you to continue to see a patient? How about the patient who reveals, after a few months of therapy, that they use corporal punishment on their children and see no reason to stop? Or the patient who reveals, after a few months of therapy, that s/he are a member of a white separatist group and sees no reason to quit?

    I think it all depends on the moral judgment involved. Maybe you wouldn’t make one about affairs, but I suspect even the most value-neutral therapist has a line that can’t be crossed that falls short of what would be required by Tarasoff.

    1. I think you’re right, although assuming I had a motivated, cooperative client, I’d try to help before breaking confidence. I believe corporal punishment means mandated reporting.

      1. The way it has been explained to me by my therapist is that our work and my disclosure remains completely confidential however if I am at risk of seriously hurting myself or someone else then it must be reported. Therefore TPG if a therapist suspected physical abuse was being used on the clients child then I presume it should be reported.

        1. Thank you very much for responding. It’s the gray areas that are most interesting to me. I wonder if you and Dr. Burgo would reconsider the necessity of reporting in light of the following:

          According to this document from the very liberal Oakland/Alameda County, California child abuse prevention guide for mandated reporters, non-injurious spanking to the buttocks by parents is NOT a violation of the law and does NOT require mandatory reporting.

          Basically, there’s a difference between corporal punishment that is child abuse, and non-injurious spanking.

          “Unlawful Corporal Punishment or Injury, also called physical abuse, is the willful infliction of cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or injury resulting in a traumatic physical condition. Corporal punishment, or physical discipline, is not in and of itself child abuse, and a non-injurious spanking to the buttocks is not prohibited by law. However, when parents or caretakers use corporal punishment with sufficient force to cause internal or external injuries, this is child abuse. When parents who are out of control use corporal punishment, or when instruments (including closed fists, belts, spoons, and cords) are used to hit children, the chances of causing injury are greatly increased. “

          1. It’s illegal here in the UK – I’d consider it reportable. I am a teacher – if a pupil of mine confided in me that they were punished by being spanked and they were showing signs of being traumatised/disturbed/upset by it (or even if they weren’t showing any of that but had obviously thought it important to tell me) – I would refer it on to my superiors.

            ‘non-injurious spanking’ doesn’t exist – there are emotional and mental scars regardless of how hard a child is hit.

            I think the Canadian laws need to be amended. In my opinion.

  19. This kind of frankness is so uncharacteristic of me, but here goes: confidentiality is confidentiality. Unless the person is a risk to themselves, or others, what is said in therapy must stay in therapy!

    You did the right thing, Dr. Burgo. You cannot keep your clients from making mistakes, nor should you even take on the burden. They must take responsibility for their own actions. After all, isn’t that the goal of therapy?

      1. BTW, I just ordered (and started reading) Cinderella. You, sir, can really write! Your sentences are flawless, and you have a real knack for dialogue. I wish I could stay up longer to finish the whole thing!

          1. I see a very specific piece of myself in your Cinderella (I’m sure most readers who have survived abuse will), and I think you have written something very important. I really can’t get her out of my mind now that I’m finished.

            How did you take care of yourself emotionally while you were writing?

  20. I’m aware of the laws with regards to reporting if a child or person is in danger. I assume you would feel OK with reporting this. Morally OK? Would you report it if a child was in danger even if those laws weren’t in place and you were therefore breaking the law? What about an adult acquaintance of the client? To make it extra special let’s assume this person is guilty of a terrible crime. Would you report danger to an innocent child but not to the bad guy? Both? Neither/ Strip away the legal issues and what do people think about reporting things like this? Does it – would it – come down to the individual moral line drawn by the therapist?
    I don’t know any of the answers myself, just blathering.

    1. They’re tough questions, and I don’t have the answers, either. I would always report danger to a child, whether or not I was mandated, but I can’t say whether I’d report danger to a “bad guy.” You’ve given me some food for thought, about when I would breach confidence.

  21. A great topic…I recently left therapy after two yrs because I was feeling judged by my therapist. Specifically I felt he had the expectation or position that I should leave my husband because I’m clearly unhappy. I am, but being praised when I did things independently and not being praised when I made efforts to salvage my marriage made me very uncomfortable. This post helped me to see that positive or negative judgment is not helpful.

    1. Exactly. It’s one thing to try to get your client to face the reality of an unhappy marriage so that he or she can make a more enlightened choice about what to do; quite another to judge your client for not doing what you think is best.

  22. J, The only other option I can think of would be, with proper exploration and preparation, moving toward ending treatment if he continued to insist on endangering himself, his marriage and family. I’ve never gotten to that point with a client, but can imagine doing that in certain circumstances. For example, suicidal behavior in any extreme and resistant form, unless I felt personally comfortable with the circumstances, as in ending one’s life to avoid otherwise inevitably declining into incompetence &/or severe !, un-releivable pain.
    I agree that informing the aggrieved spouse is not an option for the therapist, unless the client had explored that possibility and approved. Much better, ‘tho much more difficult for him, if he’d taken responsibility and faced the issue with his spouse, which this man chose not to do. bd

  23. Hi Jo
    Thanks for another interesting post, what a great topic. I think for me…the non-judgement from my therapist has been the most incredible part of the whole therapy process. It amazes me that no matter what I tell him he always seems to see the good in me, even when I can’t possibly…. It hit me today, after a truly heart warming comment that he made, that I have learnt to love myself faults and all. I see a defected, sometimes horrible person with some goodness in her. Someone that I choose to love despite her many flaws. His genuine affirmation of my character today gave me a massive insight on how there might actually be another way to love. He seems to see all the goodness first…..despite the flaws. How would that feel to be able to accept myself as an innately “good” person first? I look forward to finding out;-) So yes non-judgement, for me is the greatest gift a therapist can gift their client. It gives us the space to breath as it slowly helps us to be less judgmental of ourselves. We no doubt learn from your example. So thank you.
    It also reminded me how absolutely powerful genuine affirmations for your children’s growing characters can be. A few kind words can carry so much weight.

  24. You mentioned “About the way psychotherapy is a “judgment-free” zone, and how curious it is that we set aside our usual moral judgments in the service of deeper insight … but only as a part of our job.”

    I have a saying: If we learn the darkness in ourselves we’ll view others a bit brighter.

    Therapy allows a person to reveal their “dark side” in ways that few outsiders are able to “see,” and/or in few ways that clients are comfortable in revealing. As a therapist (not one myself) to be able to fully immerse yourself into helping the client and gainng insight then a “judge free zone” has to be created. Otherswise their giving and your receiving (vice versa) may be undermined.

    My saying attempts to take the insight that you gained within the job and apply it to outside social situations. When analyzing a client a therapist also analyzes oneself (indirect experience) and in the process (hopefully) reveals/learns that everyone’s “dark is different but we all have our “dark.”

    I will admit that it is easier to judge outsiders or those close to us because in the former we are not attempting to build a relationship (trust, etc..) and in the latter that relationship is already formed so we’re just trying to get to the heart of the matter with the expectancy that they know we’re only trying to help.

    And in some cases we are just being judgemental.


    1. Nicely said, and I completely agree. I like your saying — “If we learn the darkness in ourselves we’ll view others a bit brighter.” Jung would probably have agreed with that, too.

        1. I’m not well-versed in Jung so I asked a friend. She replied that Jung is often difficult to read but recommended some other writers who work in that mode:

          “The Little Book of the Human Shadow by Robert Bly
          Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert Johnson

          Also there is The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford. She’s done some really good work on normalizing the shadow.”

          I hope this helps.

        2. Two more books on the shadow that I found particularly powerful: Meeting the Shadow, a collection of 65 essays by Jungian practitioners; and Swamplands of the Soul (or The Middle Passage) by James Hollis.

  25. Hopefully this poor (literally) woman will get some help to see why she chose to be willfully blind. She is very likely quite angry at herself for this and being angry at you, well that sounds like displaced anger.

  26. There must be a boundary beyond which the suspension of judgment becomes impossible as a therapist. draining the wife’s bank account or cheating may not be offensive enough for you not to stop seeing the client. But imagine a client mandated to come into treatment who recounts to you with righteous indignation and satisfaction how he beat his wife and she deserved it, it was not something he had a problem with and wanted to change. Would you see a point in continuing to see such a client, and do you feel there is behavior you would find so repugnant but not necessarily something mandatory legally to report, something like habitually viewing child pornography, something you just couldn’t get past?

    1. Yes, I’m sure there are instances where I couldn’t work with a client. I certainly wouldn’t continue with a client who beat his wife, felt no compunction about it, and didn’t want to change.

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