Boundaries in therapy – A-Z of therapy terms

In my A-Z of therapy terms, boundaries is my ‘B’. Creating healthy boundaries is as important between you and your therapist or life coach as it is between you and other people. But, unless it’s something we’re looking at in therapy, it’s often something we never think about.

Why are boundaries important between you and your hypnotherapist or life coach? Well, the therapeutic relationship is designed to be a ‘safe space’ – almost removed from your usual daily concerns and relationships. It is specifically set up to foster an environment of empathy and understanding, a non-judgemental space where you take centre space. The focus is on you. Think of how different this is to your usual relationships with friends and family, where – even if they’re great human beings – people jump in with their own opinions and jostle with you to be heard. Friendships are very different to therapeutic relationships and maintaining healthy therapeutic boundaries is one way to create and maintain that therapeutic relationship. The boundary should be designed in order to define that relationship as being unique and separate from your other relationships – otherwise your therapist or life coach will just end up taking on the role of your family or friends.

What would a healthy therapeutic relationship look like? You may well be given a confidentiality statement and/ or contract which clearly defines the relationship (although not all therapists used signed forms) and the relationship will be demonstrated by your therapist. Confidentiality is a key element of a therapeutic relationship – your therapist will not discuss anything you say with anyone else (except with a supervisor, in which case identity is preserved) unless they believe you or someone else is in danger or you are involved in certain illegal activities. Your therapist will also ensure that your contact hours and type of contact are kept to what has been agreed. For instance, if you have booked one session per week, you will not be encouraged to phone your therapist at random times throughout the week. If you meet out and about in the supermarket, your therapist or life coach will not engage in conversation with you – this is to preserve your anonymity and also to allow them to get on with their shopping! You will also be required to turn up for appointments at the allotted time and your therapist will have some system in place for charging you for the full appointment or proportion of your fee if you fail to attend.

All of these measures are there to help you become independent of your therapist, to maintain your responsibility, to preserve confidentiality and to ensure that your therapist or life coach isn’t suggesting they are your ‘friend’ which breaks down the structure of the therapeutic relationship.

What is a healthy boundary between you and your friends and family? Well, firstly, I prefer the word ‘healthy’ to strong. I sometimes feel that ‘strong’ implies that the boundary is there to shut out other people, whereas a good, healthy boundary can hold out what is negative or unwanted but it also let’s in what is good and desired. Some people have very ‘strong’ boundaries which are more like a crab’s shell than anything else and which don’t allow themselves to escape the boundary or to let others in.

A healthy boundary will allow you to decide who or what is allowed to be a part of your life. This can cover behaviours and people. And the great news is – it’s entirely up to you to decide what that boundary will look and feel like! When I’m working with clients, I spend some time asking them to experience what their boundary feels like and what they have to do to create a boundary which will work better for them. Creating your boundary is such a unique and personal experience and there’s no right or wrong.

A healthy boundary will allow good experiences in. It will allow you to say no to people or things which you believe are damaging to you. It will allow you to acknowledge and protect yourself from difficult past experiences and prepare yourself for future experiences. If you consistently come into contact with a person who manipulates you or treats you badly, or who makes you feel bad about yourself, a healthy boundary will allow you to confront that person in the hope that they will change or to cut yourself off from that person. If someone repeatedly violates your boundaries, you have the option to remove yourself from that relationship.

Unhealthy boundaries are poorly defined. They offer little protection from other people or behaviours. For instance, let’s say you have a family member who treats you with no respect, who is rude or aggressive to your face and who gossips about you behind your back. An unhealthy boundary would mean that you might continue to have contact with this person and put up with their behaviour without confronting them because you ‘don’t want to rock the boat’. It could be that you are in a relationship with someone who bullies you or puts you down in public. An unhealthy boundary would allow you to accept their behaviour and to stay in this relationship. You might have an unhealthy boundary with your own behaviours. Are you drinking or eating junk food, despite wishing to pursue a healthier lifestyle? If your boundaries are weak, you will find it hard to say no to these behaviours. Perhaps you’re working so hard there’s no time for yourself, but you lack the strength in your boundary to decide what is wrong or right for you.

Having a healthy boundary allows for openings which can show your vulnerabilities. Asking for help when needed – letting other people into your boundary – is a strength which can provide the learning, nurturing and love which you might have been missing if that boundary was too hard and fast in the past.

Life coaching can help you identify what your boundaries would look like if they were really working well for you. I spend time with clients helping them create a good, healthy boundary and then work with them so that they are operating from within that wonderful, healthy, creative, supportive space.