I am not placing blame on anyone. The truth is I don’t know if it even matters how this long-held standard in therapy began to unravel. What I do know is that therapeutic boundaries for people who are practicing psychotherapy still matter. What I am also clear about is that the pressure to erode those boundaries is not coming as much from clients as it did in years past. Instead, it is therapists that want to share their story and be “known” to the client. The boundary walls of therapy are being scaled by the therapists rather than the clients.
Therapists who are compelled to overshare with their clients, befriend their clients by extending and accepting invitations to engage outside of the therapy hour and generally engage in activities not relevant or beneficial to the therapeutic process need to examine their motives.
In my estimation, one of the challenges to therapists as it relates to boundaries is the relative isolation or alone-ness that is cultivated in relationship dynamics where you know a lot about someone and they share a lot about themselves but they know very little about you. The boundaries of therapy are intended to create this effect so that the therapist and client can focus on the inner world and experiences of the client. This is at the core of the therapist’s function and role…the ability and willingness to set many aspects of self aside to “center” another person and focus on them.
Unfortunately, this may lead to some therapists feeling a sense of losing one’s self. What’s worse is that I don’t think they are aware of it. So it comes out in boundary crossings that are intended to be beneficial to clients. The problem is that one boundary crossing can beget another. Boundary crossings are invitations to a secondary relationship that exists outside of therapy. One where no fee is exchanged and the therapist, out of the “kindness of their heart,” invests in a relationship that will move from a focus on one person in the therapeutic relationship…to a focus on both people in a social relationship. One where inevitably the client loses what they initially sought as the therapist becomes another person in the client’s day-to-day life rather than an external observer who occasionally engages with the client about their life.
There is a Method
The boundaries of therapy are not there to make the therapist a mystery to the client. The boundaries are there to create a safe, consistent and predictable space for the client to explore. Within therapeutic boundaries clients get to explore their emotional, relational, cognitive, psychological and at times even spiritual landscapes. The more we insert our stuff the less clear the landscapes.
When it comes to therapy that is strictly therapy (and not social work, case management, other general social work, or human services work) the therapist should not be serving as a mentor. The therapist should not be initiating holiday greetings via text, email or snail mail. The therapist should not be offering mentor-ship to clients, nor employment. The therapist should not be offering friendship or providing meals.
Get a Life
Generally speaking, the therapist should not have their social needs met via their clients. I believe this is at the root of many boundary crossings. Therapists are human beings who have needs. When therapists are not working, they can and should be attending to their own lives and to their own well-being. This will allow them to continue to work as healthy and competent therapists. The client will not get the not so subtle message that they therapist needs them in order for the therapist to be okay.
The reports from liability insurance carriers is clear: the highest category of claims filed against therapists is in the area of sexual misconduct. Generally speaking, sexual misconduct does not happen out of the blue. It can happen when we minimize the effect of our boundary crossings. The truth is therapeutic boundaries still matter. When they do not, we are providing a service that is something other than therapy.
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