Professional boundaries: your top 5 questions answered

When you train as a therapist, you generally do so because you want to help people. Maybe you’re the sort that everyone confides in anyway, and you feel you want to make a career of it. But that desire to help people can lead to over facing yourself to the point of exhaustion and burnout. Professional boundaries are the way you put limits on yourself (and your clients) and define exactly where your relationship starts and ends.

They are there to protect both you and your clients.

Q1. What sort of boundaries should I set?

This will depend on the shape of your practice and the type of therapy you offer, but broadly you should be setting some rules or guidelines around:

  • Confidentiality – what steps do you take to keep client information confidential and when would you break confidentiality?

  • Fees - how much you charge, when, and how, this should be paid, what happens if payments are missed?

  • Time – how long sessions last and how often they are held, how often you expect clients to attend, what happens if they are late, a cancellation policy.

  • Contact between sessions – is this acceptable? If so, how often and under what circumstances should clients contact you? By what method? Is it acceptable to turn up at your place of work without an appointment? (Especially important if you work from home.)

  • Gifts – do you accept thank you cards or gifts? If a bunch of flowers is OK, what about a gold watch? Where do you draw the line?

  • Non-therapeutic contact (platonic or otherwise) – do you draw a clear line between clients and friends? Do you connect with clients on social media, and if so, how? What if a client invited you to go out for coffee – would you go? If you would, where do you draw the line? Would you go on a date? Or a holiday?

  • Individual boundaries - some clients may have boundaries of their own, for example, autistic clients may prefer you to communicate in specific ways, or to avoid certain words or approaches*. One gentleman on the spectrum associated people using his full name (rather than a nickname) with 'being in trouble' and didn't like being praised. So saying 'Well done, Jonathan, you have done a really good job this week,' would impact negatively on your rapport.
    Other clients may not have told their families they are seeing you so it's best to agree on what you will say if you ever have to contact them (for example, to cancel an appointment if you are unwell) and their partner answers the phone. Perhaps you could say you are from work - or a hairdresser?

[*If you want to know more about working with autistic clients, check out our free course.}

Depending on your theoretical inclinations, or the areas you work in, you might also want to mention issues like self-disclosure and physical touch. Most of us are happy to disclose what training or professional experience we have for example, but sometimes clients ask more personal questions. If you are working with drug or alcohol addictions, for example, it’s common to let clients know if you have had these issues yourself in the past. It’s perhaps less relevant to give the same information to someone who wants to deal with a fear of spiders! Regarding touch, some therapeutic approaches encourage hugging, others would see it as crossing a line.

Q2. How can I ensure clients know what the boundaries are?

Go through them at every initial session and put at least the most important ones in a written contract or T&C. Provide this to every client and ideally ask them to sign it.

It’s especially important to do this if there are circumstance under which you feel you would want to break confidentiality. In UK law there is no universal requirement for therapists to break confidentiality to protect a client or others and your Code of Ethics, which might require it, is not legally binding. Your contract with the client is, so having it in there makes sure everyone knows where they stand.

If you feel a client is crossing a boundary, for example phoning you at all hours to report their progress, talk to them about it in their sessions and agree a way forward that suits both of you. If they can’t stick to boundaries, consider referring them on.

Q3. Why bother to set specific boundaries? Isn’t this common sense?

You know that you are professional, reliable and ethical but it’s not enough to be those things. You have to demonstrate that you are those things. Boundaries are what help you show the client you take them, your professional relationship and the help you offer seriously. It helps them feel safe in your office.

It also helps you keep your relationship professional and also helps you talk to clients about issues which might arise, such as constant lateness, rebooking appointments at short notice, failure to pay, or too much non-urgent contact between sessions.

Q4. Should I ever ignore the boundaries?

This is tricky to answer because someone, somewhere will always be able to think of a situation where it would be in the client’s best interests to ignore an established boundary. For example, if you discourage contact by phone between appointments but a client rings you in distress to say they are having suicidal thoughts, you’d be unlikely to respond by reminding them you prefer communication by email between sessions.

Or if a client fails to turn up and you later find she was run over and admitted to hospital on the way to your session (this happened to one of my clients!) you would likely waive your non-attendance fee.

And so on.

In non-exceptional circumstances, though, your boundaries should be clear and firm. This is not unsupportive or uncaring, it is acting within the parameters of a professional relationship. And it is not prioritizing one client’s needs over others, or your own. Extending a session because client A is late (however good their reasons) means that client B’s appointment doesn’t start on time. Or that you are not home for your family (who also deserve your time and attention) when you said you would be. Or that your self-care routine is put aside to make the extra time.

You want to be generous with your attention and expertise, of course, but no other professional gets paid for an hour and throws in a free 24/7 support system.

Q5.  How can I make sure I stick to the boundaries I have set?

  • As said, put them clearly in your contract.

  • Don’t provide work that isn’t being paid for.

  • Avoid dual relationships.

  • Have a separate phone for work and switch it off outside of working hours.

  • Carry out reflective practice and supervision to review how you respond to clients and how comfortable you feel in responding to requests from them that might cross boundaries.

  • If a client genuinely needs more support than you usually offer, such as frequent phone calls between meetings, consider having a fee for that service.

  • Learn to say no politely but firmly, and mean it.

As therapists, we want to do the best we can for our clients, of course we do. But caring for ourselves and running an effective business are just as much a part of our practice as client work. Balancing the three takes a bit of practice, but it can be done and you and your clients will feel the benefit.


Author: is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
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