The Boundaries In Therapy Need To be Maintained

Just where are the boundaries between therapist and client? What can you expect your therapist to divulge about himself and his view on the world? This is often one of the confusing aspects of therapy for many clients.

Irvin Yalom has been an advocate of having a less rigid approach to therapy in certain cases, though this is an exception to the rule. There has long been debate about how close a therapist should allow clients to become and how much of their life they are able to disclose. This is a difficult problem for both parties and if not handled correctly could lead to the premature end of therapy. Maybe we should take a look at the reasons why therapists generally don’t disclose much about themselves.

Research has repeatedly shown that the single most curative factor in therapy isn’t simply the technique employed, or the therapeutic approach (from psychoanalytic, to cognitive-behavioural, to humanistic), but the relationship between client and therapist that develops during the course of treatment. Whether, deep down, the therapist is providing a corrective parenting experience, an unprecedented emotional release and resolution, or (somewhat more narrowly) the knowledge or skills requisite to the change requested by the client, ultimately it’s the relationship that principally determines the success of this unique professional engagement. Leon Saltzer Phd.

Firstly and the most basic reason is that you or your insurance are not paying the therapist to talk about their own issues or private life.  More is generally gained from listening than talking. This, of course does depend on the persuasion of the therapist concerned. Psychoanalysts tend not to divulge much at all and usually nothing about themselves, whereas CBT therapists will often use their own or other’s experiences as a realistic example of how they coped in certain situations, though care should even be taken here. It is often tempting as therapy advances to open the doors a little and allow clients in and I have done this occasionally when I thought it may help the process but generally boundaries need to be kept. Usually private life is only an issue when something happens that could affect the therapist’s ability to provide therapy to the client.The second reason and one that many will not have thought of is that being a therapist can be a dangerous job. Early on in my career, I was physically attacked by a client. This attack came completely out of the blue and I was unprepared for it. The lady concerned had severe issues and was frustrated with a point we were working on and exploded. This is why some therapists are reluctant to talk about their family and private life, purely to protect themselves and such cases are not unknown.

Should you really expect your therapist to have general opinions on current affairs, likes and dislikes, politics, etc? Some do but don’t really expect an in-depth discussion about any of these issues. A therapist won’t do this for one very good reason…the chance of disagreement. We all have our own views on things and sometimes on different ends of the spectrum. Your therapist will not want to alienate you or intimidate you with strong opinions on such things (or waste your time). Therapist non-disclosure sidesteps this by making the focus your background, beliefs and attitudes, and making the therapist responsible for keeping their bias in check.

As a therapist, I see the relationship with the client as a model for the client’s relationships with others outside of therapy. I work in an atmosphere of genuine respect, empathy and regard for the client’s feelings and situation. The fact that a client is able to talk about everything, receive and give feedback and realise they are not being judged is often the key to recovery. This is where the therapist bears a huge responsibility for the framework of the relationship. Often the therapist may be the first person who has ever listened to them and appeared to understand. This can lead to the inevitable outcome of seeing the therapist as more than just a service provider, at best a friend…to the extreme as a potential partner. Therapists will promote this transference but must try to hold it in a place where it is useful for therapy and deal with any unrealistic client feelings as part of therapy. What’s the problem with transference? Rather than connecting with the person,  the client (and sometimes the therapist) is often relating to a template, which may be quite different from the flesh and blood version. The bottom line is always that these feelings  are mostly unrealistic and should be dealt with as such. However, as already stated, therapists expect transference on this deep level and are trained to deal with it. It is often the sign that the relationship is where it should be to instigate change.  A client should never be afraid to reveal that they have romantic, sexual, loving or other feelings towards their therapist. The important thing is to talk about it.

4 Thoughts

  1. With you Dr Jenner, this is especially a “thing” because you are the only therapist I know that has contact with your clients inbetween sessions.
    And this was very new to me.

    So I’ve been finding it hard to get used to and get my head around as you well know.

    I think the hardest thing for me was getting it into my head that you were not my friend but my therapist.

    Because for many of us in therapy, you are everything a good friend should be. You encompass a kind, caring and compassionate but professional type friend. You acknowledge us, validate us, reassure us etc and that is difficult to not see as a some kind of friendship.

    It actually hurt me when you first said, you were not my friend, and it felt like you were rejecting me.

    Also getting the right amount of contact was and still is a challenge too.
    What is too much contact? For myself it has been hard to get boundaries right. I’m sure it depends upon the client’s needs too.

    But I should imagine this is one of the challenging things within therapy, and of course acknowledging fantasy type feelings for you, which I also had.

    It can feel a very anxious and insecure time for both client and therapist if not handled well.

    That’s why you need a good therapist like yourself who can handle the different complexities that can come up through transference.

    Obviously there are many so called “therapists” out there or coaches that I knew of before, that obviously took advantage of the vulnerabilities of different clients.

    H.G. Tudor was one of these who although being professional with his coaching about Narcissism, also couldn’t help but take advantage with quite a few of his clients causing great harm and upset to them. But of course covering it up and rejecting any claims of such things happening.

    Thankfully I was not one of these, but I know quite a few that were in this situation.

    And many vulnerable women go to that honey trap, thinking it’s safe, when it’s not!

  2. The greatest body of work I did with a therapist we shall call him S, lasted for about 15 years. It began when I was around age 20 when my work began with him. At first it was in a very limited way as he was the DBT class instructor. S was 40 years older than myself and I guess I felt a sort of fatherly type transference towards him.

    I had to abruptly terminate with my then psychiatrist and psychologist. Dr.D was both an M.D. and also doing the psychotherapy; unusual to find these days. He was leaving the practice to pursue a career in Forensic Psychiatry.

    S had done some work with me in DBT and knew my case Hx and offered to take me on in his private practice. I continued to work with him until I was 34. I gained the most health and recovery during this time.

    While S and his wife worked out of their home in Boston, he maintained tight professional boundaries, not even so much as a handshake and I knew nearly nothing about him. However, over the course of nearly 15 years, we grew very close in that therapeutic relationship. Towards the end of our work, the boundaries had relaxed in some ways. We laughed together in session more than I cried, I sometimes asked if him if I could shake his hand to thank him at the end of a particularly helpful session and he obliged. He hugged me goodbye the last time I saw him.

    Deep caring is inevitable on both ends, if a solid rapport is present and the work is long-term. Something would be wrong if that mutual caring didn’t occur.

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