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Counselling & Psychology

Limits of Proficiency in Counselling – Limitations of Counsellors


Lead Academy

9 Mins Read

A female psychologist jotting down the problems of a young man on a notepad in a counselling session.

A Counsellor is a trained mental health professional who addresses clients’ emotional and relationship issues and offers different types of assistance through talk therapy. However, in some cases, a counsellor’s existing skills and knowledge may fall short while providing therapy to clients. That is when the term “Limits of proficiency in counselling” comes in.

Find out the “limits of proficiency” meaning, the importance of working within the limits of proficiency, the boundaries and limitations of counselling from this blog.

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What does Limits of Proficiency in Counselling mean?

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has explained about the limits of proficiency in counselling which is-

“Occasionally, a client’s particular needs or issues exceed the scope of a counsellor’s ability. Usually, in these cases, when a client needs additional counselling, that counsellor may become a member of a treatment team rather than ending the relationship.”

Why is it Important to Work within the Limits of Proficiency in Counselling?

As a counsellor, it is important to work within your competence, whether you are a qualified counsellor or a student counsellor. While counselling, if you feel like you lack the proper knowledge, skills and experience to help a potential client, you should make an ethical referral.

If you do otherwise and continue counselling or end the sessions, your client might lose trust in you and your therapy. This can result in more frustration which can adversely affect your client’s mental health as well as your reputation.

Female psychologist comforting her depressed male patient by placing her hand on his shoulder in a counselling session.

What is the Ethical Framework in Counselling?

Ethical frameworks in counselling are a set of professional standards prepared for counsellors to work out (and ensure) consistency in provision across the profession and achieve the highest standard of counselling. They are documents that are periodically updated, learning from complaints and societal changes.

Most of the professional counselling bodies have ethical frameworks that their members need to abide by. Each of them has its own ethical framework. For example, the BACP’s Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.

What are the Stages of Counselling?

The following are the five stages of counselling proposed by Hackney and Cormier.

Stage 1: Initial disclosure

The first stage focuses on the counsellor engaging with the client to identify the issues directly affecting them. This step is all about building relationships with clients.

At this stage, counsellors try to build trust by empathising the clients with their effective communication skills. They help clients explore the issues that are bothering them.

Stage two: In-depth exploration

This is the stage of problem assessment. The counsellor actively listens to the client and gathers information regarding the client’s life, work, home, and education and the reason for which they have engaged in counselling.

Stage three: Commitment to action

This is the goal-setting stage where the client identifies specific ways of problem-solving with the counsellor’s help. A client attends counselling sessions so that they can get the outcomes. Without setting the goals, it is not possible to reach the outcome.

Stage four: Counselling intervention

This stage depends on the counsellor and the theories they are familiar with, along with the situation the client faces.

For example, a behavioural approach may suggest the client alter their behaviour. On the other hand, a person-centred approach seeks to engage the client’s self-actualising tendency.

Stage five: Termination and referral

Termination is ending the counselling session with a positive conclusion, avoiding any anger, sadness, or anxiety.

Part of the process might be to reach an early agreement on how the therapy will terminate. This can lead to a referral if required.

Female psychologist jotting down important notes from a young man in a counselling session.

What are the Limitations of Counselling?

The counselling profession is such that it can create close ties between counsellors and clients. However, as a counsellor, you should know your limitations to maintain your own emotional health and strictly observe the ethical concerns of the field.

Counsellors have limitations in the following aspects:


Confidentiality means keeping client’s issues private. In other words, whatever a client shares with a counsellor, should not be exposed to anyone.

However, there are limitations to this rule. Under some circumstances, counsellors might need to break confidentiality. For example, if a client is about to harm themself or others, counsellors need to violate confidentiality and issues (if there are any) and report to appropriate authorities.


Counsellors are not supposed to pursue any relationship with clients or their friends or family members. A client-counsellor’s relationship should be friendly yet a formal one.

Counsellors might attend certain events, such as weddings or graduation ceremonies, at a client’s request or invitation. But, before attending these events, counsellors must be aware of any potential negative outcomes due to these visits.

Counsellor Issues

Counsellors should maintain professionalism so that they do not become emotionally involved or angry when working with clients. Counsellors should also consider the impact of their own abuse experiences when working with clients experiencing similar situations.

Boundaries to Consider in Counselling:

As a counsellor, you should be aware of the limitations you need to maintain with your clients. Boundaries in counselling ensure trust towards the counsellor and clarifies the nature of a client-counsellor relationship.

Physical Contact

 Elderly patient expressing her gratitude by hugging her therapist.

Some therapists might offer hugs or other types of physical contact as part of their therapeutic relationship. Any form of physical contact needs to be managed in a considered way, as well as the client should be made clear about the therapeutic meaning.

Disclosure of Personal Experiences

Counsellors should think about therapeutic purpose when thinking of sharing any similar personal experience with the client. Self-disclosure can promote relational depth in the therapeutic encounter if used effectively. However, if used inadvertently, it can be inappropriate and appear confusing or hurtful in the counselling session.

Exchange of Gifts

Sometimes, clients may offer their counsellors gifts on a special occasion or at the end of therapy. Counsellors who do not wish to receive gifts can keep a policy stating that they do not accept gifts from their clients. The policy should be made clear from the outset of therapy to avoid unwanted situations.

Many organisations have policies regarding gifts, so it is important for counsellors to familiarise themself with such policies.

Maintenance of Online Boundaries

In today’s era, almost everyone is on social media. That is why it is essential to maintain online boundaries with your clients  to protect the integrity of the therapeutic relationship. Otherwise, your personal and professional online presence can impact the therapeutic relationship with your clients.

It is better to avoid accepting ‘friend’ requests from clients on social media and also following or searching them online.

Any sort of Contact outside Session

 A young man and woman in formal attire having a serious conversation at a coffee shop.

Some therapists often offer clients communication options between sessions. This is particularly relevant to private practices. Therapists might contact clients through phone, email or text. Any out of session contact must be discussed and managed sensitively.


The blog has clarified everything about the limits of proficiency in counselling, limitations and boundaries in counselling. Now that you have known all the relevant topics about counselling, you can better help your clients by following the ethics and maintaining professionalism.

If you are further interested in developing your counselling skill, you can enrol in online courses like Psychotherapy and Counselling Course and Diploma in Counselling & Psychotherapy Course. The courses would give you the opportunity to expand your knowledge in psychotherapy and relevant topics.


Why is it important to work within the limits of proficiency in counselling?

If you continue counselling despite reaching the limits of your knowledge or discontinue the sessions, your client may lose faith in you and your treatment. This might lead to increased frustration, which can harm your client’s mental health as well as your reputation.

What are the limitations of therapy?

We’ve discussed the strengths and limitations of counselling (limitations of guidance and counselling) in detail in the blog. Please give it a read.

What does Nonmaleficence mean in counselling?

Nonmaleficence stands for “do not harm.” It’s among the most important moral qualities for counsellors. The principle is based on not causing harm to others and avoiding potentially harmful actions. The moral principle of beneficence is to do good, to promote and contribute to the client’s benefit.

What are the five principles of counselling?

We’ve discussed this topic in detail in the blog. Please give it a read.

What are limits and boundaries?

Boundaries protect the client and the counsellor. They define the context in which the clinician-client relationship takes place. Boundaries provide the constraints within which psychological services are performed, making the interaction professional and safe for the client.

How do you find limits?

Your limitations as a counsellor are dictated by your degree of experience, skill in a certain counselling field, and the legal restrictions in your practice state about your obligation to warn.

Why do you need to identify your personal limitations?

When counsellors engage in and seek to enhance awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, and prejudices (and prejudice transference), personal moral qualities, the therapeutic relationship benefits and the client is not harmed. Understanding your personality and prejudices enables you to moderate your internal reaction, and achieve the highest standards while being present with the client.

What is autonomy in counselling?

Respecting patients’ autonomy entails accepting that patients with decision-making ability have the right to make decisions about their treatment, even if those decisions contradict the advice of their physicians.

What factors can hinder the counselling process?

Age, culture, marital status, education, economy,, and the nation or society itself are some factors that can hinder the counselling process.

What are the risks of making assumptions in counselling?

Assumptions detrimentally impact our relationships in various ways. This includes professional relationships as well. We make assumptions and judgements automatically regarding:

  1. Other people’s behaviour,
  2. Their motivations behind their behaviour,
  3. Our own behaviour and intentions.

What are the limitations of CBT?

CBT requires scheduled sessions. So it may not be appropriate for those with more complicated mental health problems or learning disabilities.

What is confidentiality in relation to record-keeping?

Confidential information (you can include safety record-keeping confidentiality in the list here) may only be released without permission from the person who submitted it or to whom it pertains if it is in the public interest- that is, if the consequences of not sharing it are harsher than the consequences of disclosing it.

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