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What Boundaries Should You Have With Your Therapist?

Healthy boundaries protect the therapeutic relationship.

by Kelsey Yandura
May 8, 2020 | Health

By nature, the therapist-client relationship has an unequal power dynamic.

When you enter your therapist’s office, sit down in the (hopefully comfortable) chair and begin disclosing your vulnerable thoughts and feelings, you place a great deal of trust in their professional authority. 

This makes it incredibly important that you understand your own rights and boundaries. 

According to Mitch Handelsman, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Denver, sometimes clients ascribe power to the therapist that they shouldn’t. 

“It’s important for clients to understand what proper boundaries look like in therapy,” he said.

“Just like in any professional relationship, the more you know in advance, the more you will get out of it.”

Boundaries keep the therapy room safe

As you sit in the therapist’s chair and spill your personal thoughts and feelings, it can be easy to feel an emotional bond with your therapist, much like you would with a close friend. 

However, it’s important to remember that your relationship with your therapist is much more akin to that of a doctor or a lawyer — you are paying this person for their professional expertise, care and skills, not their friendship.  

This may be obvious up front, but as you bond emotionally with your therapist, it can be easy to muddy the waters

Handelsman explains that this is where healthy boundaries come in — they protect the therapeutic relationship.

“It is a very intense emotional, difficult relationship under the best of circumstances. Therefore, it has to be protected. Boundary crossings and violations can contaminate the therapy so that it doesn’t work as well," he said.

What types of boundaries are important?

Boundaries in therapy can be tricky — mostly because these boundaries exist to keep the relationship professional. However, the closer you feel to your therapist, the more counterintuitive these boundaries feel. 

A few major categories of boundaries in therapy are self-disclosure (the therapist revealing personal information), gifts, touch and place of contact. 

Illustration of a psychologist talking with a patient. Rewire PBS Health Boundaries
Boundaries exist to keep your relationship with your therapist professional.   |  Credit: Adobe

Self-disclosure should have a purpose

Self-disclosure is not inherently bad. In fact, it can be very helpful, according to Dr. Ofer Zur,  a psychologist, writer, and educator who specializes in therapeutic ethics and boundaries for mental health professionals.

“It can help the client to know that someone else has felt this way before,” he said. 

However, if you begin to feel like the therapist is talking too much about themselves or disclosing personal information that isn’t a part of therapy, it’s okay to express this. 

“You can say, ‘This is my time, my money, my session.’ You can be really blunt about it,” said Zur.  

Gifts can lead to a conflict of interest

While gifts may seem like a kind gesture, most codes of ethical conduct ask therapists to refrain from exchanging gifts. This includes the therapist asking for online reviews. 

In an article on GoodTherapy, therapist Kimber Shelton explains that gifts can hinder therapeutic progress by creating a conflict of interest. 

Where are you meeting? 

Typically, therapy should take place in a neutral, private location like an office. However, especially during the coronavirus crisis, taking outdoor walks with your therapist or utilizing online therapy has become increasingly common and necessary. 

Handelsman explains that it’s important to keep the session as neutral as possible.

“It lends itself to potential boundary issues,” he said. “For example, I might see the inside of the therapist’s home, and that’s a little more information than I would get in the office. So maybe they need to use a virtual background.”  

When is touch appropriate? 

While nonsexual touch is not inherently unethical in therapy, it is perhaps the most important area to know your boundaries.

The therapist should always ask permission, and the touch should always have an explicit therapeutic reason. 

“The patients should always be in control of the physical contact,” said Zur. 

Touch can be an important, grounding tool in therapy, but it is never appropriate for the therapist to touch you beyond how you are comfortable. Sexual, erotic or violent touch in therapy is always unethical.

Is it a part of therapy? 

Each client-therapist relationship is unique. However, the ultimate context is the therapy itself. Ask yourself: Is this behavior a part of therapy? If it’s not, it’s inappropriate, whether it feels good or not. 

“Boundaries are an elusive construct,” said Zur. “The most important thing to understand about boundaries is context: who are you and who is the client?” 

Communicate with your therapist

Handelsman suggests discussing boundaries upfront with your therapist.

“Ask for their code of ethics,” he said. “All therapists should have one.” 

Keep in mind: boundaries shouldn’t only be placed around things that make you uncomfortable. Sometimes, feeling too comfortable can also be an issue. 

“If the therapist is doing something that makes you feel special, it creates a different kind of dynamic in therapy,” Handelsman said. “Anytime you’re an exception, it’s a red flag.” 

If you experience a boundary crossing or violation, it’s important to communicate this immediately with the therapist. 

“Tell yourself, ‘I’m entitled to this feeling and it’s valid,’” said Zur. “The best thing to do is express it.” 

“Clients always have the right to trust, they have a right to have a therapy experience that’s free of boundary violations. And they have the right to express whatever they want about their reactions because that’s part of the therapy,” said Handelsman. 

Ultimately, good communication about boundaries builds trust between you and your therapist, which can make therapy more effective. 

Kelsey Yandura
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).
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