Learning Good Boundaries in Therapy


One of the common reasons people seek therapy is to learn about how to have better boundaries in their personal and/or professional relationships. If you think about it, it’s an understandable problem. A client can work on communication, mental health issues or other personal problems but if they don’t have good boundaries in their relationships they most likely will experience some significant difficulties

A good therapist recognizes how to help a client to set healthy boundaries under each specific circumstance. The good news is that most therapists become very good at this over time. The end result is that the client feels better with the level of satisfaction in their personal and professional relationships.

Boundaries Between Therapist and Client

One of the ways in which a therapist helps a client to learn how to have healthy boundaries is by modeling and maintaining good boundaries in the therapeutic relationship. There are number of ways in which this happens in therapy. For one, the client typically does not meet outside the therapy office unless it is a planned event that is a part of treatment. Additionally, the therapist makes a point not to engage in any role that has a dual purpose, thereby confusing the boundaries.

Therapists also place numerous other boundaries on the therapeutic relationship. If you’ve been in therapy, you probably will notice that therapists tend to start and finish the session at exact times. Therapists also maintain specific boundaries on how communication takes place outside of the session. For example, many therapists do not text or email and prefer to communicate over the telephone. By modeling good boundaries in various different ways, the therapist shows the clients the importance of boundaries and how to maintain them.

It is actually part of therapist’s duty as a mental health professional to maintain and monitor the boundaries of a therapeutic relationship and to take action if a boundary has been crossed. If that happens, roles need to be re-clarified by the therapist and treatment goals re-established. If the therapeutic relationship cannot be re-established it is the duty of the therapist to ensure that the client is not adversely affected by any interruption in therapy. When this happens, therapists are supposed to provide the client with the names of three other therapists.

Improving Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries are the physical and emotional limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated or violated by others. Boundaries enable us to separate who we are from the actions of others.

Boundaries vary from culture to culture but some commonalities include the establishment of guidelines, rules and limits so that a person can feel reasonably safe. Boundaries are created from a combination of judgments, expectations, beliefs, and values. The concept or creating boundaries to improve wellness was first discussed in self-help books and has been used in the therapy since the mid 1980s. Coincidentally or not, this is around the same time that codependency became a popular topic.

Codependency often involves subjugating one’s own needs while being obsessed with the needs of others. When a codependent acts on these thought and feelings, it often violates their own personal boundaries as well as the boundaries of others.

While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries, codependent relationships are characterized by a lack of limit setting. In this manner, the absence of good boundaries in a codependent relationship is strikingly similar to poor boundaries in every other type of relationship.

Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.

References

Bottke, Allison. (2008). Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers.

Cloud, Henry and Townsend, John. (1992). Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Gutheil, T.G and Gabbard, G.O. (1993). The concept of boundaries in clinical practice: Theoretical risk-management. Am J Psychiatry. 150:188–96.

Hawkins, David. (2007). Setting Boundaries on Unhealthy Relationships. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers.

Katherine, Anne. (1994). Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Lancer, Darlene. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Peterson M.R. (1992). At personal risk: Boundary violations in professional-client relationships. New York, NY: W.W Norton and Company.

Whitfield MD, Charles. (1994). Boundaries and Relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.