5 best practices for therapists to maintain boundaries with their clients

A client-therapist relationship is unlike any other in a person’s life. You might see your therapist regularly, feel super comfortable with them, and even divulge your inner thoughts and feelings to them even more than you would to your best friend. But one thing needs to be clear: They’re not your best friend. That sounds harsh, but it’s important to understand that there’s a difference here. And even though therapists are often lights in people’s lives and truly feel like trusted companions, it can be dangerous to look at the relationship in a friendly way.

At its core, therapy is a professional service that therapists are providing for paying patients.

Of course, therapists care about their patients and truly want the best for them, but in order to avoid confusion between friendship and an important professional relationship, boundaries need to be set early on. We tapped a group of therapists for their advice on how they choose to maintain boundaries with their clients, because even though they care, it can be a slippery slope.

1Set expectations from the get-go.

When it comes to a therapist-patient relationship, certain areas can get blurry, so it’s important for therapists to set general boundaries initially to avoid confusion or misinterpretations down the line. For example, some therapists allow clients to text them, while others deem this too casual of an interaction and prefer to limit their communication to in-person, in-session discussions. Other therapists are fine with communicating via text but make sure to tell their patients that they won’t respond on weekends or evenings when they’re not on the clock so their lack of response doesn’t come off as rude.

"Though someone may want to talk to me at 2 a.m. about a dream they had or an argument with a partner from earlier in the day, I maintain those times of interaction, Amber Dee, professional counselor and founder of BlackFemaleTherapists.com tells HelloGiggles. “This is important to the health of our therapist-client interaction as well as my own self-care.

Another area where boundaries need to be set in place immediately is attendance policies. It can be tough to enforce this when someone is struggling to make their sessions because of mental health difficulties, but setting these expectations immediately should help enforce the habit of being on time for sessions.

“If a client consistently misses or cancels appointments, progress will be impacted and [other] clients [who are] waiting for sessions may not be seen, says clinical social work and therapist, Elise Hall. “Communicating and enforcing a clear attendance policy helps everyone get on the same page and establishes mutual commitment and respect for the client’s and therapist’s time.

2Follow their lead.

Another expectation to address from the get-go is how to handle running into each other unexpectedly in public. The general rule for therapists is to not approach their clients in public unless the client does so first to avoid violating the therapist-patient confidentiality agreement. Just make sure to put this out in the open from the very first session.

By addressing it up front, it takes the guess-work and awkwardness out of those unexpected run-ins, and also helps clients understand that a therapist who averts the client’s gaze in public is not doing so out of avoidance or awkwardness, but out of respect, says marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Irias.

3Avoid social media interaction.

It’s safe to say that you follow most acquaintances in your life on social media. Friends, colleagues, cool aunts or uncles, and probably even your hairstylist and gym instructor earned a follow (and gave you a follow back) on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. But when it comes to therapist-client interactions, engagement on social media should generally be avoided.

"It blurs the line between professional and personal and should be avoided by therapists," says Irias.

However, many therapists have professional social media accounts where they post therapeutic articles and other related media, and they’re typically okay with clients following them on those accounts. Again, therapists should outline this in paperwork and verbally address this during the patient’s first session so that an ignored friend request isn’t misinterpreted.

4Avoid interactions outside of sessions.

Outside of scheduled sessions in the office, therapists should generally avoid getting together with clients, even if they request it. Some exceptions are important ceremonies that patients invite therapists to like graduations, weddings, funerals, or an event that directly relates to therapy. Licensed professional counselor, Katie Lear, had a client who stopped acting due to performance anxiety, and she attended their first play back on the stage, which the client largely credited to their work together.

"It can be a really meaningful gesture to go [to a personal event] as a show of support for a client," says Lear.

Another exception for seeing a client outside of the office walls is if there’s a clear clinical reason to do so, like if the patient has social anxiety and the therapist needs to observe them engaging with others. But even in this case, clear boundaries need to be set so that time outside of sessions won’t feel too much like a friendship.

"There are lots of times when therapists care deeply for clients," Irias says. "However, there needs to be a very clear line between being a therapist and being a friend. Therapists are delivering a professional service, and things get messy and complicated quickly when the line between personal and professional is blurred—in the profession, we call this a 'dual relationship.'"

5Limit self-disclosure.

Finally, a tricky boundary that needs to be set inside the office during a session is limiting self-disclosure. The term refers to the intimate information a therapist offers to a client about themselves during conversation. This can be a delicate balance, because a therapist can help relate to their client if they share that they have had similar experiences. However, it’s important to focus on the client and their needs, not the therapists’.

Irais puts it like this: “When it comes to maintaining professional boundaries, the first question I ask myself as a therapist is this: ‘If my doctor did this thing I’m considering, would it be weird for me as a patient?’ For example, if my doctor told me, as a patient, about her dating life, it would be wildly inappropriate, and the same is true for therapists.”

Though therapists might occasionally offer tidbits about their own lives from time to time, it’s important to toe the line of too much self-disclosure, and only offer information if it is of direct clinical benefit to the client.

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