How Useful are Therapeutic Boundaries?

How actively useful are boundaries in the therapeutic relationship? They are obviously a part of the ‘real world’ in which both client and therapists live, organising and managing their money and time. But in some humanistic, relationship-based schools of therapy, they seem to bring out a certain contradiction…

How actively useful are boundaries in the therapeutic relationship? They are obviously a part of the ‘real world’ in which both client and therapists live, organising and managing their money and time. They may be a ‘necessary evil’. In the psychoanalytic tradition in which the therapist plays ‘blank screen’ for the clients’ personal film show, firm boundaries are clearly necessary for the show to get underway at all. But in the more humanistic therapies, person centred, existential and experiential, what part do the traditional boundaries, (e.g. a 50 minute hour once a week, no contact between sessions, no forms of dual relationship or physical/sexual cotact) play?

If, as in the person centred school, the factors which allow the client to heal themselves/move forward/grow are empathy, realness and unconditional acceptance, arising in a perceived relationship, do the boundaries play a vital role? There has been debate in the person centred camp as to how flexible these boundaries can be, while remaining within ethical limits.

There seems to be a contradiction in the upholding of strict boundaries, due to the fact that person centred therapy is a kind of relationship which transcends and frees us from the confined terms in which we usually function. It can seem very strange from the client’s side, to experience being received in such a way and then have it switched off for the rest of the week, and from the therapist’s side too, as if such a way of being with each individual were only possible in small doses. It leaves us open to that creeping self doubt that can plague many clients anyway. If she/he really knew me, they wouldn’t be able to accept me this way. It’s only possible because we know each other in such a limited way, in such ideal, pure, almost sterile conditions.

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As always, I think that all the questions are well worth asking, and at the end of the day each therapist has to find a balance in which they feel that the integrity of those conditions of perceived empathy, realness and acceptance remains solid. For some, keeping strict rules as to contact between sessions and length of sessions is a treating of the client like a child who needs clear rules in order to feel safe, and it may seem inherently either necessary for their safety or disempowering. For others, those rules protect the therapist’s needs for regularity and structure in their lives, which is not to the detriment of the client! For all ethically practising therapists the boundary which removes the possibility of sexual contact is a vital one without which therapy could simply not take place.

Something I am learning in my own practice is that whatever the rules are it is necessary to be clear about them, and they tend to keep expanding, as new situations arise. The process of making rules together, working from respect for both parties, is a valuable one which could, indeed, be used in those “un-boundaried” relationships in “real life” which cause so much confusion and pain.

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