As therapists, our bottom line is the client. The service we provide directly affects how they deal with key facets of their lives, namely, personal, family, and work.
From the client’s perspective, a therapy session can determine how their whole week will go. When they are able to deal with their anxiety or make a conscious decision to change an unhelpful pattern of behaviour, they feel fulfilled and see the value of having a therapist.
For us, arriving at a breakthrough or seeing a client conquer an emotional hurdle is also as equally rewarding. It affirms our professional skills and it’s an indicator of success for programs we create.
The client-therapist relationship is a highly mutualistic relationship. It’s unique in the sense that the currency is mental and emotional wellness, unlike other professional relationships that base their success on a tangible output. Because of its nature, the relationship sometimes feels very personal to the client.
When the client-relationship starts overtaking our personal lives, how will you know to set respectful and firm boundaries between you and the client?
TYPES OF BOUNDARIES
Let’s focus on these two main categories of boundaries.
- Physical boundaries are more easily determined, therefore, setting where it begins and ends is much easier to establish. This is your personal space.
Depending on the type of program you’re following, therapists can tell clients when physical touch such as hugs is okay.
For example, do you allow clients to take you out for coffee for personal reasons? Do you discourage hugs when they see you at the grocery store or even during a therapy session?
- Mental and Emotional boundaries are less obvious. Mental boundaries pertain to your thoughts, values, and opinions while emotional boundaries help you compartmentalize yourself from feeling responsible or guilty for another person’s behaviour or decisions.
An example of a mental boundary is knowing when to be open about a client’s beliefs on race or culture. Do their values negate your basic principles? If so, will you allow them to voice their opinions during their sessions?
On the other hand, an example of an emotional boundary is knowing when not to feel guilty when a client tells you they had a tough time when you did not answer their call during the weekend.
Knowing the types of boundaries to set with clients allows us to gate-keep unnecessary stress from negative triggers. It also contributes to keeping us centred and balanced to effectively do our jobs while still catering to our other interests outside of the therapy room.
It’s a self-care practice that keeps us from burning out.
SAYING YES OR NO WITHOUT GUILT
“No” is a complete sentence.” ― Annie Lamott
Clients often do not intentionally cross our boundaries. They may be new to therapy or have a different set of personal boundaries themselves. But whether they mean to cross that line or not, the result remains the same and we are left to deal with the repercussions on our health, time with friends and family, and our overall relationship with work.
The thing about boundaries is that they have to be said in words when they’ve been crossed.
People can’t read minds and not everyone is sensitive in reading body language. Here lies the power of “no” or “yes.” Telling a client to call you only during office hours and saying that yes, you do mind when they try to reach you past 6 PM is one of the most common boundaries we can set for ourselves.
But why do we rarely celebrate “No”?
Perhaps it’s a misunderstood word and a challenge to engage with. Maybe we feel that it’s a lack of support for others. Maybe we see it as a verbal slamming of the door in a person’s face.
However, harnessing its hidden power to keep yourself shielded from toxic thoughts and emotions is one of the best courses of action for self-care, especially for a job as emotionally demanding as ours.
Refusing to go out of our way, when we’ve clearly set our boundaries, is not selfishness nor is it cruelty. It implies that we’ve acknowledged a situation and that we choose to stay separate from it.
“No” is empowering and “no” can be a cathartic moment of choosing yourself first. It’s self-awareness and a recognition of our limits.
BUILDING BOUNDARIES THAT NURTURE THE CLIENT-THERAPIST RELATIONSHIP
Some clients can be highly sensitive and vulnerable. Some may also be testing how far they can push us. This can make the process of boundary-setting challenging. So how do we establish them positively?
Listing what you value most
Determine your non-negotiable values. For instance, if you’ve set a personal goal for yourself to hold a photography exhibit in 3 years because it’s part of your passion and self-expression, then make that part of your list.
An extra hour at the office turns into four, and suddenly it’s three years later and you’re nowhere near an exhibit. Putting your values on the sidelines can slowly scratch away at the values that make you a good therapist in the first place. Make this list clear within yourself and build your boundaries around it.
Say what you need to say
A better way to tell a client about your boundaries is telling them what you want instead of what you don’t.
It’s also important to explain why you’re setting your boundaries from a non-personal standpoint. Instead of saying “I can’t extend an hour of your session because I’m too tired”, you can say that “Extending another hour means we’re possibly taking time from someone who may also need a session as much as you.” Ask them why they need an extra hour right now and why the next session can’t wait. This method also allows the client to process their own thoughts.
Keep in mind that setting boundaries is not about you but rather to reinforce a trusting and healthy relationship with the client.
Assertion is time-sensitive
Waiting for a few days to call a client’s attention about a crossed boundary lessens the power of your response to the situation. Telling a client that the gift basket they sent was inappropriate, days after receiving it, can sometimes feel like a betrayal for the client and may make them feel foolish for an innocent and well-meant gesture.
State your boundary as soon as it is crossed. Ruminating about it for an extended time and struggling whether to bring it up with a client does more harm than good to your professional relationship than you may think.
Unplug to re-energize
These days, we’re so attached to our devices that we stay plugged in even during our days off.
The accessibility that technology brings is a double-edged sword that allows us (more specifically our office) to be available to anyone who searches for us via the web. People can email us or send an IM on Whatsapp at any time and this adds to the things that we need to filter.
These simple practices can regulate your time on the computer or on your phone:
- Set the time to check your email and decrease the frequency of opening your inbox throughout the day.
- Snooze your notifications after work hours so you feel less compelled to check your phone.
- Avoid taking calls or respond to messages outside of your work hours. Make the client understand what qualifies as an emergency and have a written agreement about work hours if necessary.
Staying offline for a day or two will replenish your mental, emotional and spiritual reserves.
Expect clients to cross your boundaries
In an ideal world, we tell clients what we want and they respect and agree to it. Of course, reality will prove otherwise.
Once you accept that there will be a degree of testing and pushing from clients, it can be easier to formulate a response that will not be taken negatively. Listen to your thoughts and be truthful about how you’ll react to a certain situation. Tweak and adjust your response to make your point clear and objective.
Preparing yourself for a possible invasion of your boundaries prevents you from acting from emotion alone. You can gain a better insight into yourself and the way to set your boundaries when you take the time to think about the most likely scenario.
YOU DESERVE SELF-CARE AND SELF-LOVE TOO
“Switching from listening to an inner critic to an inner caretaker has been an ongoing journey with ups and downs. It invited me to question my views on nurturing, self-love and authenticity. I examined how love has been expressed in my family, by my parents and grandparents and how that reflected and informed how I treated myself. ― Antoinette Biehlmeier, “Me Too? Yes!”
Understanding your reasons for pushing yourself too hard and not stopping to listen to your own state of distress is a good starting point for setting your boundaries. It will take time and plenty of practice, but it is a skill we should learn.
Know when to call it a day and say “yes” to your own needs.
It takes courage to hold up our hands and say “me first.” Be open to seek and accept help because sometimes, therapists need therapy too.
It is in acknowledging our limits that we start to value our own boundaries and get others to understand and respect them too.