We all know that the collaboration between therapist and client is the keystone of therapy. What many therapists may not realize is how much clarifying boundary issues means in establishing and strengthening that collaboration.
Boundaries are what make us all feel safe and grounded in a variety of situations; around a relationship in therapy, they create a secure perimeter, which makes possible the level of emotional freedom and authenticity that’s critical to successful treatment.
As I’ve come to appreciate the importance of boundary issues and safety to my clients, I’ve woven a clarification of those issues into the fabric of treatment from the very beginning of each case. I explore their opinion about what style of therapist they like and their overall expectations. I explain that I’ve learned that clients appreciate a collaborative, predictable structure, and discuss how we can work together to make their therapy experience as transparent as possible.
I often say, “This is a unique relationship. Although we may become best friends of sorts, I’ll never hang out with you, and when things are going at their best, we’ll probably begin to end the relationship.”
I’ll take time to define with clients what makes them feel safe and what types of relationships they feel safe in. Then we’ll explore how we can bring those ingredients into our work together.
Because of my focus on safety and collaboration early on, I talk directly about issues that might not occur to other therapists. For example, potential overlaps between my clients and me in our personal lives. I bring up the potential for confusing encounters early on, and discuss with clients how we might deal with possible meetings outside of therapy.
These conversations create an accepted etiquette that clarifies and smoothes over otherwise awkward situations. Unexpected encounters can sometimes loom large in the minds of clients, causing days of rumination and requiring an hour of processing during the next session.
We spend a good deal of time talking about what might be called internal boundary issues of therapy: What clients can expect to happen in therapy and what I can do to make them feel secure during the process.
If they’ve been in therapy before, I ask them what was helpful and what wasn’t. If something in particular wasn’t helpful, we’ll devise ways to avoid the same situation. These may not seem like boundary issues as they’re traditionally defined, but they make the client feel safe and contained like good professional boundaries are intended to do.
Clear structures and predictability are necessary to the healthy boundaries of the therapy process. Unfortunately, without meaning to, therapists may replicate the abusive relationships in the client’s past. That’s why it’s necessary to make our intentions to keep therapy as safe and transparent as possible.
Mary Jo Barrett
Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the founder and director of Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change and The Systemic Treatment of Incest.