Ethics Committee

The Importance of Clarifying Personal Values: An Ethical Mandate

Pamela H. Harmell, Ph.D.


At the California Psychological Association’s 2014 Convention in Monterey, I had the delightful opportunity to participate as an ethics panel member with two other “senior” psychologists:  Ofer Zur, Ph.D., and Michael Donner, Ph.D.  Both have strong opinions and values that vastly differ from each other’s--and from my own. One thing we all had in common was our agreement that it is critical to be cognizant of and articulate one’s personal belief system.  All three of us practice very differently, but we agree that psychotherapy is not indoctrination, nor is it the psychologist’s function to convince our patients of the “proper” way to think.  In other words, it is not ethical to impose our values on our clients.


Media, specifically reality television, prescribes quick solutions to unique and complex human dilemmas.  Thirty-minute solutions are not the psychotherapeutic norm.  Psychologists are mentors, teachers, role models, and the like; however, we are required to promote autonomy, self-awareness, and self-determination (APA Principle E; APA 3.04). 


Psychologists incorporate value orientations when working with clients.  Attempting to maintain complete neutrality may prevent one from working from an authentic, genuine position. It may be appropriate at times to do more than reflect and interpret. It is generally understood that conducting psychotherapy is a value-laden process, and that, to some degree, all clinicians communicate their values to their clients. Non-verbal behavior and body language reflect internal processes and beliefs. 


In a recent survey, psychotherapists reported handling value differences by: (1) referring the client (40%); (2) discussing the issue with the client (25%); and (3) consulting with a colleague (18%).  Participants in the survey reported they had a firm grasp on their own personal values and made efforts to prevent differing values from creating a negative environment (Corey, Corey & Callanan, 2011).


Comprehensively examining one’s moral and ethical views is a good start, but often particular clients elicit responses that also need to be considered. It is important to determine when personal values would interfere with appropriate treatment. It is also important to anticipate circumstances when it would not be ethical to continue treatment due to conflicting values. It may be useful to decide in advance the limits of one’s own tolerance for issues such as:  termination of pregnancy, substance use, child discipline techniques, non-normative sexual activity, and extra-relationship affairs.


When is it time to refer?  It is mandatory to consult, increase skill, or refer when the problem is outside one’s skill set or competence.  Merely disagreeing with a client or having a clash in values is not sufficient to discontinue treatment.  If one has exhausted all possible means of improving the therapeutic relationship, it is ethical to empower and refer the client without blaming the client.  Be prepared to terminate and refer properly and to avoid potential patient abandonment (APA 10.10).


References are available on request from the LACPA office, [email protected]