Boundaries in Counselling
What are Boundaries in Counselling
Boundaries are the perimeters of the therapeutic relationship – the frame within which the work takes place. Clear boundaries promote trust in the practitioner and provide clarity about the purpose and nature of the relationship.
All interpersonal relationships have boundaries, often unspoken, which are mutually understood limitations as to what is appropriate in a particular situation.
In counselling, the boundaries are made explicit in the contracting stage of the relationship, and are mutually agreed and understood by both therapist and client.
The boundaries create clarity for both parties around expectations, and a safe frame for the work of therapy.
Important Boundaries to Consider in Counselling and Psychotherapy
Time, Number of Sessions and Location
These are the practical boundaries relevant to each encounter. It is important to be explicit about the length and frequency of the sessions being offered, whether the work is to be open-ended or time-limited, and when and where the counselling sessions will take place.
Clarity about these practical elements help to provide a transparent frame in which the more interpersonal aspects of the relationship can be allowed to develop securely.
When a client and therapist are engaged in another relationship or interaction outside of the role of therapist and client, this is known as a dual relationship. Dual relationships can manifest in a number of ways:
- A family/friend connection
- A business relationship
- Online interaction, e.g. social media
- A collegial relationship
- Same religious congregation, shared group, hobby or club
The BACP ethical framework states:
“…any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client.” (BACP, 2018).
This guidance asks that we use sound ethical decision-making in any situation where dual relationships might present themselves, and that we proceed with caution, avoiding dual relationships wherever possible. It is important to use supervision when there is a possibility of a dual relationship, and ethical bodies, including the BACP will also offer advice and guidance to their members.
When deciding upon the appropriateness of a personal disclosure in the therapeutic relationship, it is important to think about therapeutic purpose. Used effectively, self-disclosure can promote relational depth in the therapeutic encounter, however, used thoughtlessly, it can miss the client’s frame of reference and appear confusing or hurtful.
Relational self-disclosure (a disclosure relating to how the therapist feels about the relationship or the work in the here-and-now) is likely to offer more potential for nurturing the relationship than a disclosure about something in the therapist’s life outside of therapy (Wosket, 2016).
Some therapists offer hugs or other touch (such as hand-holding) as part of the therapeutic relationship. Any intervention involving touch needs to be managed in a considered way, and reflection in supervision about the purpose and value of touch is important, as well as discussion with the client about the therapeutic meaning.
An ongoing dialogue in the therapy room helps to avoid misunderstandings and ensure safety. This is particularly important for clients who may have experienced relational trauma. Any organisational policies must also be taken into consideration and properly observed.
Sometimes clients may wish to offer their therapist a gift at the end of therapy or on a special occasion. Some therapists may choose not to accept gifts from their clients, and in order to avoid an upsetting rejection, it is a good idea to make such a policy clear from the outset of therapy.
In an organisation, policies around gifts may exist, so it’s important to familiarise yourself with any policy. Often expensive gifts or gifts of money are not permitted.
Out of Session Contact
Particularly relevant to private practice, some therapists may offer clients communication options between sessions, either for a fee or included in the service. This might include phone, email or text contact. It is important that any between-session contact is discussed, and that a realistic amount is offered. A sudden change in the therapeutic frame can be unsettling for the client, and any changes to the contract around out-of-session contact must be managed sensitively.
In the modern world, it is important that we consider how our personal and professional online presence might impact on the therapeutic relationship and ensure we are maintaining online boundaries in a way that protects the integrity of the therapeutic relationship and promotes trust.
The 2018 BACP ethical framework addresses the issue of social media use:
“reasonable care is taken to separate and maintain a distinction between our personal and professional presence on social media where this could result in harmful dual relationships with clients” (BACP, 2018).
It is generally considered good practice to avoid following or searching for our clients online, not to accept ‘friend’ requests from clients on social media, and never to post about clients online. Supervision is the place to discuss client work.
Counsellors have a duty to maintain client confidentiality by not discussing client material inappropriately, storing client data securely and according to the law, and to ensure clients are clear about the limits to confidentiality and when confidentiality may need to be broken.
When Boundaries are Crossed
Boundaries can create ethical dilemmas when working with clients and if a therapeutic boundary is crossed or becomes blurred, it is likely to be unsettling for both therapist and client. When a therapeutic boundary has been crossed, depending on the nature and seriousness of the violation, the therapist has an ethical duty to:
- Mitigate harm where possible and ethical.
- Take the situation to supervision.
- If a student, inform the learning establishment.
- Inform the organisational manager where appropriate.
- In some cases it is appropriate to inform the professional body.
Seeking help from more experienced practitioners at the earliest possible opportunity helps to ensure that any harm to the client or the relationship can be kept to a minimum, and that best practice is upheld.
This article was written for Counselling Tutor by Erin Stevens
BACP (2018) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions [Online]. Lutterworth: BACP. Available from: <https://www.bacp.co.uk/events-and-resources/ethics-and-standards/ethical-framework-for-the-counselling-professions/> [Accessed 10 August 2018].
Wosket, V. (2016) The Therapeutic Use of Self: Counselling practice, research and supervision. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.