Boundaries are essential for healthy relationships. For therapists, boundaries aren’t just vital for their relationships with family, friends and colleagues; they’re also critical for their relationships with clients.
Therapists must set boundaries both outside the office and inside their sessions. Doing so helps clients “have the most meaningful and healthy therapy experience,” said clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD.
Boundaries keep the session focused on the client and their needs, she said.
For instance, Serani rarely discloses personal information in session – unless it’s helpful for the treatment. “…I might help a client feel less alone by sharing ‘I know what it’s like to go through chemotherapy with a loved one.’ Or ‘I had the same situation happen with that store in town. It’s not just you they were being rude to.’”
Serani also sets physical boundaries. She arranges chairs so there’s plenty of personal space for both her and her client. She keeps the space clutter-free. And she doesn’t hug clients.
“[I]f someone feels the need to hug me hello or goodbye or needs to shake my hand every session, I generally ask what these physical exchanges mean for them. In therapy, expressing words is always better than acting out actions.”
Serani only returns emergency phone calls, and doesn’t respond to “messages about incidental things or questions in between sessions.” The intent is to empower clients to problem solve on their own, she said.
When psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, started his practice, he was overly available to his clients. He initially believed that this was the only way to truly help. But it just backfired.
“Because of my disregard for my own boundaries, clients called frequently. I found myself resentful, until a client pointed out that not only had I not set up appropriate boundaries, I had disregarded boundaries all together. This setup was unhealthy, for both me and my clients,” said Duffy, also author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
Today, he creates clear boundaries and sticks to them. He discusses these boundaries with clients. “I find this to be a gift not only to myself, but to my clients as well.”
Tips to Set Good Boundaries with Others
Below, Serani, Duffy and other clinicians spill additional details on how they set boundaries with everyone in their lives.
They know themselves.
Serani, also author of two books on depression, knows that she’s a sensitive person who has to work at not feeling what she sees. So she sets a firm boundary about how much information she takes in. She limits her time online, avoids news shows and tries not to get sucked into gossip-fueled chitchat.
She’s also “fiercely private,” setting a boundary not to reveal too much about herself in conversations.
Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist who owns the counseling practice Urban Balance, has always known that spending time with her kids before and after school was a major priority. That’s why she structured her business a certain way: “My business hours are school hours. I have employees using my office during the evenings and weekends so that I can’t compromise those boundaries.”
They realize that saying no is really an opportunity.
“I used to say ‘yes’ to everything, because I didn’t want to disappoint people in my life, or I wanted people to like me. Then, I would complain about it,” said Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, author of the forthcoming memoir This Is How We Grow and an expert in women’s mental health, postpartum issues and parenting. Today, she regularly reflects on her needs and priorities.
“I have learned that saying ‘no’ to someone else is really saying ‘yes’ to something that’s more important to me. It’s easier to do this when I’m clear on what really matters to me. And, I am clearer on what matters most to me when I honestly check in with how I feel.”