Professional boundaries

Boundaries are really important to me both professionally and personally.

In my work as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor I come across so many instances where professional boundaries have sadly been broken, often to the detriment of the client.

It’s been difficult during lockdown; the way we work as a profession had to change overnight. Thankfully (for me) I was used to providing services via video and phone so that part didn’t stretch me so much personally. What did challenge me was that for several consecutive months I worked from my very compact home office, a place where I also do lots of other things. The once clear work/home lines felt well and truly blurred. It took a couple of occasions of noticing I had checked my work phone as I was heading to bed – something I don’t generally do – to compassionately challenge myself. I’m pleased I did. It made me think about other small changes that could have evolved into something more unhelpful if left unattended. I’m now back in my therapeutic space, albeit mostly online still, but that clear demarcation between work and other is back where it needs to be.

Maintaining boundaries is often crucial. We need to maintain professional boundaries to keep our clients (and ourselves) safe. It’s why we don’t become friends, socialise or engage in social media with our clients, irrespective of how drawn to them we are, how much we care about them, and how much we might feel pulled into rescuing them. It’s why we also maintain confidentiality. We don’t post anything about clients online; we don’t discuss clients with friends and family. A huge portion of complaints to BACP involve boundary/contract violations and it’s got me thinking again about why we might potentially get pulled out of shape.

Naturally, for most therapists, there’s an element of ‘wanting to help people’.  Left unchecked though this desire to help – often rooted in early complicated histories – can lead us into hot water. Many a time a supervisee has announced a change with their client and I’ll gently ask, ‘what brought that change about?’. ‘Because the client asked for it!’ is so often the reply. If the supervisee is willing, we explore this in more detail with some deeper questioning about how they might respond if this question were put to them in a law court or through the BACP complaints procedure. Then we start to see something different emerging…that they have responded from an emotional place rather than a professional, ethically-driven one. So, in terms of professional boundaries, it’s not enough to simply say yes because a client asked or to become friends with a client because we feel sorry for them or because we genuinely like them. How is that remaining professional? Each decision we make professionally needs to be backed up with a sound ethical decision-making process. The client asking for something simply isn’t enough.  

Equally, with friends and family, it’s not as easy as saying ‘they asked me to so I will’. We need to know 1) if we have the resources available to carry out the request, 2) has the other person actually asked or are we perceiving a request through emotional content, e.g, ‘I don’t have the bus fare!’  = ‘please lend/give me the money’ and 3) are we actively consenting to using those resources on this person, at this time and for this particular thing?

It might sound a bit laboured but by doing this we spend less time tangled up ‘on the drama triangle’ and more time in an adult-to-adult space = much healthier = more resources available.

It’s often when our resources are more depleted personally that we get pulled out of shape professionally. Clearly the pandemic has made us all change some of our behaviour. Seven months on, maybe it’s time to check-in with ourselves to ensure we have enough resources to remain professionally boundaried and ethically driven in our decisions.