Professional “boundaries” in therapy is a subject widely discussed among professionals during training, in supervision and peer consultations. It is also a subject frequently brought up during therapy, because understanding and maintaining professional “boundaries” is thought to be an organic part of psychotherapy process.
I put “boundaries” in quotation marks because, sadly, this is one of the psychotherapy buzzwords being used mindlessly without any deep understanding of where this concept comes from and how it may or may not be useful in psychotherapy.
Therapists, and people in general, are trained to think of boundaries as some clearly defined borders that outline and structure our behavior in terms of what we are and aren’t allowed to do in certain relationships. This perception creates the need to make rules for every possible scenario that may arise in therapy in order for therapists to feel confident that they are fulfilling their professional duties and also to avoid professional liability.
This way of understanding relational boundaries is quite shallow and brings more problems than solutions because it can’t see the forest for the trees. It fails to recognize that the so-called “boundaries” a.k.a rules of professional conduct do not, in and of themselves, make a foundation upon which a healthy professional relationship is built.
“Boundaries” are a natural expression of how the therapist sees their professional role. It is this vision, not the formal rules of ethics, that ultimately determines how healthy their “boundaries” with clients are and whether therapy structure they create facilitates therapeutic environment that allows the healing work to take place.
The best way to understand boundaries is simple. In essence, boundaries are what we say yes or no to. This assumes, of course, that the yes/no choice is consistent with our moral compass, our and deep understanding of what is in our best interests and in the best interests of those we are engaged with in all kinds of relationships. In other words, we have to be true to ourselves when we make choices of what to allow or not to allow in relationships with other people. It is from this sense of personal integrity there comes knowing of what is and isn’t ok in a particular relationship, and it is from this knowing the boundaries emerge naturally, on their own, with no need to follow formal instructions. Let me give some examples.
Let’s look at a very common situation when someone asks you for a favor. It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is whether you are comfortable doing what you are asked. If it doesn’t feel right but you still agreed to do it, you’ve just violated your personal boundaries. That’s right, it is not the person who asked for a favor who has violated your boundaries because you had a choice in this situation and it is you who has chosen to go against what feels right to you thus violating your sense of integrity which directly corresponds to personal boundaries. Personal integrity corresponds to personal boundaries because maintaining our integrity is essentially the same as claiming a space where our needs are respected and protected, and any space that needs protection requires a border that protects it a.k.a boundaries.
Another common scenario. You choose not to express what you truly feel for the fear of being judged and/or rejected by the people who are important to you such as friends, your partner or other family members, a group, a club, an organization or a political party you may be affiliated with, co-workers at your workplace or anyone else whose acceptance is important to you. Whenever you choose not to speak your mind or not to speak from heart for whatever reason it means you refuse to claim your personal space in a particular environment thus, again, violating your personal integrity and, with that, violating your boundaries.
Those examples are endless. Our commitment to stay true to ourselves gets tested every day many times a day, which means that our boundaries are pushed every day many times a day by many people in many situations. It’s impossible to anticipate each situation and to make a decision of how to respond in advance. There are also no general rules that can safeguard everyone’s best interests and serve everyone’s authentic self at each given moment because every human being is unique and one man’s trash could be another man’s treasure and because life is messy, unpredictable and impossible to fit into a fully controllable structure.
The best way to increase our chance to make the best judgment about our personal boundaries at each given moment is to stay as fully connected with our true nature and sense of integrity as possible. The right choice will always emerge from that authenticity as opposed to superficial, formal rules of conduct produced by intellectual logic and the fear of making a mistake and doing something wrong.
The same reality exists in psychotherapy, as psychotherapy is just one of life’s experiences, and, as such, it is not exempt from general dynamics and forces of life.
The therapist would be able to maintain the “right” boundaries with clients, if their vision of their professional role is fully consistent with their authentic self otherwise known as personal integrity.
When the therapist is committed to staying true to who they really are, that kind of therapist will always know their limitations, what they can and cannot do, how they do and don’t want to work, what they are and aren’t willing to change in order to accommodate the client’s needs.
Many therapists would object to this view on boundaries and would say that it is not the therapist’s best interests or the therapist’s being true to themselves that should determine what kind of boundaries to establish with clients in various situations, that the boundaries are set and maintained for the best interests of the clients, not the therapists.
I would argue that not only best interests of both the therapist and the client aren’t mutually exclusive but that they can only be served together and that whenever the therapist acts in their own best interests this will always serve best interests of the client.
If you look at any scenario or professional boundary crossing or boundary violation, it will be easy to see that violating professional boundaries is not only harmful to the client but it is most certainly not in the therapist’s best interests either, and I am not talking only about potential legal repercussions and loss of career. Getting emotionally or otherwise entangled with the client beyond the confines of therapy work not only can potentially traumatize the client but is also not good for the therapist’s own emotional health.
Examples are not limited to just boundary violations. When the therapist has established clear professional policies that structure their work in the way which is organic to who they are and which allows them to have a good work-life balance, this would make their work more effective and, therefore, would serve their clients as well as it would serve them.
All of the above brings me to the conclusion that simply by being “selfish” through trying to serve their own best interests therapists would be able to set and maintain the healthy boundaries with clients quite easily without having to look through the guidelines, call lawyers and consult with colleagues every time they face an ethical dilemma and without struggling to decide if handing client a tissue or having a small talk with them in the hallway is the right thing to do. All it takes to take care of such situations without a struggle is to structure their work in such way that it would make them feel comfortable in their own skin and be transparent and honest with clients from the onset of therapy about how they conduct the work and why. This may me a difficult concept for many therapists and client alike to grasp and to digest because in our world we are trained to follow rules and instructions, but this is an important concept to understand and to implement if we want to see fewer people harmed in therapy.