Psychotherapy is a process that involves a unique relationship between the therapist and client and it stands apart from those relationships we engage in with family, friends, and intimate partners. Emotional intimacy is unavoidable due to the nature of a therapeutic relationship in which a client shares personal experiences with a therapist. Because of this, there is potential risk of harm to a client if professional boundaries are not established and maintained. So what exactly does “professional boundaries” in therapy mean?
Professional boundaries are guidelines that allow for appropriate separation between the physical, emotional, social, and psychological aspects of a client and a therapist. Professional boundaries should be clear but have the ability to be flexible given that each therapy relationship is different. The one aspect of a therapeutic relationship that remains the same in all cases is that the therapist has the responsibility to ensure and maintain the wellbeing of the client. This is one of the main reasons why professional boundaries must exist and without them, blurred lines can lead to exploitation and harm done to the client.
Clients like to know what they can expect from a therapist regarding roles and responsibilities with therapy, which can promote feelings of safety and security. This means that therapists need to be upfront with clients about policies that govern the therapeutic relationship. Here are a few examples of professional boundaries that are relevant in psychotherapy:
· Dual relationships
· Therapist self-disclosure
· Gift giving
· Contact outside of office
· Confidentiality and releasing information
· Attire in session
· Use of language
Depending on the setting, location, and client or therapist factors, certain situations or boundary crossings are unavoidable and do not necessarily lead to negative effects on the client. Each therapist’s approach and philosophy will dictate the type of boundaries they establish with clients. Some of this information is generally made available in a therapist’s informed consent form that is provided to the client at the outset of therapy however it is always recommended to have a discussion about any unknown or gray areas that may apply.