Boundaries are important for any relationship, but boundaries in a therapist client relationship are imperative to maintain healthy professionalism. As a therapist, setting boundaries will ensure you will never grow to dread your job. A balance between work and home life apply to therapists, too. It’s difficult for a therapist to look forward to sessions when they’ve been on the phone all night with clients.
Boundaries will likewise benefit clients. Clients who respect a therapist’s boundaries will grow from the experience and internalize a sense of empowerment to rely on themselves. Why would a client stop and think of ways to solve problems they encounter when they can call their therapist at any time of the day? Some clients may not understand or have experienced healthy balanced relationships in their lives. The therapist client relationship can be an opportunity to show these clients boundaries and how to structure other relationships.
How Does a Therapist Set Boundaries?
Here are some tips that may apply. Not every tip should be followed without consideration of your practice, your personal boundaries as a therapist, and your clients.
Be conscious of the therapy environment
How the furniture is arranged during a therapy session can communicate to your client the boundaries of your relationship. Arrange chairs to allow for plenty of comfortable space between you and the client. Sitting on the couch next to the client relays a friendship rather than a professional relationship. Sitting across from the client is a better arrangement to imply professionalism.
As a therapist, be mindful of arranging too much of a physical boundary. Talking with the client while you sit at your desk will emphasize the unequal power structure in your relationship. The power imbalance between therapist and client is inherent and cannot be avoided. With some clients, an emphasis on your powerful role may be beneficial. In other cases, sitting at a desk may hinder the client from expressing themselves as freely.
If your office is at home, the office should be clearly distinguished from the rest of the home. Personal belongings should remain outside of the office. Your family members and friends should limit their interaction with clients as much as possible.
Limit discussion of your personal life
It may be helpful, on occasion, to refer to a personal detail of your life, but in general, your personal life should remain out of the sessions. Divulging your private life to a client communicates a friendship. Talking at length about how, for instance, you experienced a similar event in your life will blur the boundaries of the therapist client relationship.
If a particular topic or something a client says stirs an emotional response in you, you must try your best to not expound on these emotions. The client is there to work on themselves. It is not an opportunity for you to discuss your issues. Revelations like these may change how the client views your expertise. It may also damage the inherent power structure in the therapist client relationship to the point where a client doubts you will be able to help them.
It may be beneficial to keep your office space devoid of any personal materials. Photographs of friends and family may communicate friendship. Additionally, involving friends and family into your therapy, even if it is just through photos, may subtly shift focus away from the client. A clean well lit room with comfortably spaced seating arrangements without any personal details to distract the client may be the best therapy environment for a client to flourish.
Respect the session times
An agreed upon appointment time should be respected by client and therapist. Frequent cancellations may frustrate clients and lead them to resent you as a therapist. Being late will communicate to the client you care little for their schedule and the full time they counted on to be able to talk with you.
While in a session, refrain from taking phone calls. Emergency calls are acceptable, but long non-urgent calls while a client awkwardly stares at their feet violate a client’s trust. A client trusts that you want to help them. Taking calls during sessions communicates that taking advantage of the full time you have together is not a priority.
Only be available outside of therapy sessions for emergencies
If you respect the appointed times of sessions, it will be easy to set boundaries to when you are available. Providing clients with your phone number for emergencies is acceptable. Allowing clients to call you to discuss non-urgent matters is not. Being available via phone and helping a client get through every small obstacle they may face during the day can be exhausting and can hinder your client’s progress. Boundaries of when you are available will guide clients to make decisions for themselves and problem solve on their own.
Constant availability may cause compassion fatigue. Other symptoms may accompany compassion fatigue: hopelessness, sleeplessness, constant stress, and anxiety. In general, therapists are at high risk of suffering compassion fatigue, but a way to reduce risk is to take a break from work. Constant availability requires you to consider your clients’ needs at all times. Your own needs will not be met. You will grow to resent your clients. You will undertake a general negative attitude from your lack of sleep, your anxiety, and hopelessness.
When you are not at your best, you will be unable to help your clients to the best of your abilities. Taking time for yourself is important to maintain your personal health. A therapist needs rest and relaxation like everyone else.
Refrain from socializing with your client outside of therapy
A client should always remain just a client. Socializing with a client outside of therapy should be prohibited. Don’t hire your client. Don’t join the same book club. Don’t become Facebook friends. Don’t date your client. Don’t date your client’s sister. Similarly, never take on clients that you already know as friends or family.
A healthy therapeutic relationship will be difficult to ever achieve if you know your clients outside the therapy context. The inherent power relationship where the therapist is an authority in helping clients heal will diminish. The client will see you differently. Likewise, you will see the client differently. You will begin to view each other as equals, friends.
A client seeks a therapist for professional help. If they wanted to simply talk over their issues with a friend, they would do so, but they purposefully wanted a professional. Setting boundaries ensures you are respecting the very reason why the client hired you in the first place. At the same time, boundaries prevent you from compassion fatigue where you will genuinely dread going into work every day. You will no longer be an effective therapist helping clients reach goals successfully. Boundaries allow you, as a therapist, and your client to maintain a healthy professional therapeutic relationship while providing opportunities for self growth for both of you.