Boundaries are useful things: to define physical or personal space, as lines that are not to be crossed, as guides to self and others about how to behave. In counselling and psychotherapy, boundaries are particularly important to keep both clients and counsellors safe, but also to highlight the value of the therapeutic relationship. Boundaries create a safe container in which our therapeutic work can take place. When difficult or painful feelings arise it is important that the therapist can hold a client safely in this container, as they explore these feelings.
Anne Gray (1994) writes of the importance of the ‘therapeutic frame’ as a clear marker for boundaries and containment. How a client deals with these boundaries can often suggest how we were cared for in the past and also how the therapy is perceived or prioritised. If someone is regularly late, or misses sessions without prior notice, this can often echo how they behave in the rest of their life, or lessons that they learned in early years. There may be unconscious reasons why they are avoiding facing difficult issues in their sessions.
Whilst the relationship between a client and counsellor is friendly, it is not a friendship; it is a working alliance. If a counsellor suggests the relationship becomes more than this, they are heading into dangerous and unprofessional territory. If a client wants something different from the relationship, it is useful to explore which of their needs they are trying to meet, while stressing the importance of maintaining boundaries.
As a counsellor, I work hard to ensure my clients’ safety; we sign a contract at the start of our work together to make sure that we both understand exactly what we are agreeing to; the length and number of sessions, how much they cost and the cancellation policy. It is hugely important that we maintain this contract as it serves as an important reminder of the boundary that we are putting between the outside world of the client’s work, family and relationships and our time together in our therapy sessions.
Confidentiality is an integral part of this as it is vital that a client feels safe to speak honestly and without the fear of being judged. Working as a counsellor in Woodbridge, I am aware that I may (although I have not so far) bump into a client and it is therefore important that we agree what we would do in that instance. Would you rather that we acknowledged each other, or that we ignore each other? These details will be discussed in our early sessions to make sure that possibilities are covered.
Gray, A. (1994). An introduction to the therapeutic frame. London: Routledge.