A therapist can theoretically change (and even save) a client’s life. Therapists who understand the critical role they can play in the wellbeing of their clients frequently wish to do all they can to help clients overcome massive challenges. This is admirable.
However, therapists should also remember that they are human beings with their own needs. When they neglect their own needs or take on too much responsibility, their ability to properly serve their clients might actually diminish over time.
If you’re a dedicated therapist who wants the best for both yourself and your clients, setting boundaries should be among your top priorities. Being available for your patients is important, but so is making sure you have your own life outside of work.
There are various steps you can take to properly set boundaries as a therapist. The following are a few noteworthy examples:
Discuss and Establish Boundaries at the Start
Therapists sometimes feel guilty about setting and enforcing boundaries when clients are monopolizing their time and attention. They often feel this way because they didn’t properly address the topic of boundaries when they first began working with such clients.
This is a common and understandable error. It’s also one that’s relatively easy to avoid.
When you first meet with a potential client, set aside time to directly and explicitly talk about the subject of boundaries. Talk about limitations on the amount of time you can dedicate to their needs, any behaviors or actions that you consider to be “off limits” (such as physical touch), and other such relevant topics. If you don’t have experience talking about boundaries with new clients and you’re not sure how to do so thoroughly but respectfully, ask your more seasoned peers how they address the issue. The Belongly community can also provide much-needed assistance in these circumstances.
You might also strongly consider addressing the topic of boundaries in contracts and intake forms. This ensures you have official documentation indicating a client understood your boundaries when they agreed to begin working with you.
Be Careful When Disclosing Personal Information
Most therapists understand that sharing a certain amount of personal information with a client can help them forge a bond. This may be necessary for a client to feel comfortable discussing their own needs with a therapist. On the other hand, sharing too much personal information can prevent a therapist from consistently enforcing boundaries.
Don’t expect to strike this balance perfectly all the time. Whenever you are considering sharing personal information with a client, you should assess whether you believe sharing this information will be to their benefit.
Learning when sharing personal information will benefit a client and when it won’t takes time. When you begin sharing personal information with clients, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Only discuss your personal life when you are thoroughly comfortable doing so. As you grow increasingly comfortable sharing more details, monitor and review outcomes. Your goal is to eventually develop a natural and intuitive sense for when it is appropriate to “open up.”
Experiment With Language
Learning to say “no” in situations when you need to enforce boundaries with a client is critical for your emotional and mental health. Just remember something you probably learned in grad school: there are many different ways to say no.
Experiment with different phrasings to identify those which seem to yield the best results for both yourself and your clients. Options to consider include:
- “I’m afraid I can’t discuss this with you”
- “I’m not comfortable doing that as it would not be appropriate or professional of me”
- “I will have to draw a line at [insert boundary here]”
- “I’m not available to help you with that at this time, but I would be happy to address this matter during our next session”
- “Please make an attempt to speak to me more respectfully in the future”
Those are just a few examples. You can modify them to match your manner of speaking more naturally. You can also think of your own examples. The ones above may not cover all situations in which it is necessary to establish and enforce boundaries as a therapist. Again, your main goal is to learn how to specifically and clearly vocalize your need for boundaries without alienating a client.
Don’t overlook the importance of this. Once more, therapists who struggle to set boundaries often find this task challenging because they want the best for their clients. They may be uncomfortable with the idea of not constantly being available.
This is not a trap you need to fall into. If you want to optimize your ability to serve your clients’ needs, you should also prioritize your own needs. As these suggestions illustrate, setting boundaries doesn’t have to be challenging. Both you and your clients will benefit in the long run if you make establishing reasonable boundaries a priority.