Although your therapist will encourage you to share your deepest feelings and thoughts, not just anything goes in the therapy room. In fact, without boundaries, therapy would be far less successful—and far less safe.
It’s your therapist’s responsibility to ensure the maintenance of most of the ethical boundaries that are necessary for your work, and it’s important to know that different schools of therapy vary in the boundaries they emphasize. However, an awareness of what’s generally appropriate can help you to spot any concerning behavior, and can also help you adjust your expectations. Here are some of the most significant therapeutic boundaries you may encounter, along with explanations of why they can be helpful.
1. Time boundaries
Barring truly exceptional circumstances, both you and your therapist should be ready to start your session at the allotted time, and it should not run over the allotted duration (typically 50-60 minutes). Showing up on time communicates a commitment to collaborative work, while not running over helps to provide a sense of consistency. While the latter might not sound important, many therapists believe that time boundaries work on a subconscious level, helping clients feel that they are in a secure, reliable setting that can contain their difficult emotions.
2. Rules about gifts
Therapists differ in their beliefs about gifts, but don’t be surprised if your therapist politely turns down your generous token of appreciation. Although it’s natural to want to give back to someone who has supported and nurtured you, many therapists have a blanket rule about refusing gifts in order to keep the relationship appropriately professional. If you do want to give a small gift, consider asking if it’s appropriate before bringing it in, and be sure to avoid gifts that could be seen as imbued with sexual or romantic subtext. In addition, it’s like that your therapist wants to talk about the meaning of the gift, as well as your motivations for giving it.
3. Physical boundaries
It’s one thing to shake your therapist’s hand when you first meet, or to ask for help standing up due to a health problem, but most therapists won’t think it’s such a good idea to share a hug. As with gifts, there may be exceptions to this general rule, but it’s wise to think twice before trying to go in for a cuddle. Once again, this type of contact can blur the lines of appropriateness in what can already be a very charged and intimate relationship, and it may sometimes leave a client feeling confused about their feelings for the therapist.
4. Limitations to contact
Your therapist might give you their number in case of emergencies (depending on the type of work in which you’re engaged), but you should not be in regular contact to simply chat or ask about minor queries. You should also only be meeting in their office or practice and never in a social setting. If you accidentally meet in a social setting, your therapist should politely acknowledge you if you acknowledge them, but should then withdraw from the situation if at all possible.
5. Relationship boundaries
Your therapy can be undermined and good work can be undone if your relationship with your therapist becomes a friendship or business collaboration. This is true even if you get along very well and would have loved to have had a different relationship in different circumstances. This boundary should apply long after therapy is over, and is especially significant when it comes to the possibility of romance. It’s incredibly common to be attracted to your therapist, but this should be understood as providing useful information about your needs and unresolved issues—it is typically seen as being more about what you project onto the therapist, rather than an indication of deep compatibility. Further, it goes without saying that if your therapist makes a romantic or sexual advance on you then you should file a complaint immediately.
6. Limited knowledge of your therapist’s personal life
Sometimes, your therapist will self-disclose in order to make a useful point about your situation or experiences, or you will know something significant about them because of the setting (e.g. if they work in a sexual abuse counseling center where all the therapists are themselves survivors of sexual abuse). However, if you’re spending time in sessions working through your therapist’s own problems, something has gone wrong and you should object! Meanwhile, don’t be hurt if your therapist doesn’t seem keen to share details about their marital or family situation—therapists from the analytic tradition, in particular, believe that the client should have room to see the therapist in the way that’s most useful (e.g. as a parent figure or as representative of another significant person from the past). Knowing the truth about their roles outside of therapy can therefore actually be an impediment.
7. Content boundaries
While therapists want you to commit to a depth of exploration that helps you, there’s a fine line here. In the end, whether something is discussed is up to you and not the therapist. They may want to explore why something is off limits without touching on the thing itself, and that can be extremely beneficial. However, you should discuss the daunting topic itself only if and when you’re ready.
Finally, if you want to know about your particular therapist’s boundaries, then ask! And if you’re troubled by a perceived boundary, bring this into your work. Virtually anything that you feel or wonder about can be productively used in your journey towards greater self-knowledge.
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