What is a therapeutic boundary (and why do I need it?)

I was reading a post on Facebook the other day from a hypnotherapist who had found herself in a difficult position. She had a client who had started phoning up in between sessions and the phone calls were becoming more regular. The remit of the phone calls had extended beyond asking questions directly related to the client’s therapy to asking about a financial and legal situation she was involved in. She’d even asked the hypnotherapist to create and print out a document for her! The hypnotherapist had found herself in a very awkward position which was beginning to put strain on her. This is an example of a poor therapeutic boundary – one which doesn’t serve the client or therapist well.

Therapeutic boundaries are important for two reasons – to protect yourself and ensure that you are providing the best service to your client and to protect your client. Without healthy therapeutic boundaries, you risk burn out and resentment and your client will end up in a confusing, unhelpful situation.

A good therapeutic boundary clearly defines the therapeutic space as ‘set aside’ from other relationships and areas of a client’s life. When a client visits you for hypnotherapy, they are not visiting you as a friend. They are expecting you to provide a service – that of a hypnotherapist. Whilst it is important to create good rapport with a client, and whilst you may very genuinely like them (and would be happy to be their friend in a different context), you aren’t their friend. You’re their therapist. It’s important to define your role clearly to your client and it’s important to clearly set out what is required of them within the therapeutic boundary, too. For instance, you can require that they turn up on time for appointments, that they provide you with plenty cancellation notice and that they agree to your arrangements for contact between sessions. You should inform your client, at the onset of therapy, that if you see them out and about you might smile but you won’t start talking to them. This preserves their anonymity and it also means that you’re not going to spend an extra half an hour in Tesco’s after a long day at work! Creating this specific, bounded, therapeutic time and space means that you are creating a nurturing, healing, therapeutic time for your client which is clearly defined. It ensures that your client takes responsibility for themselves in the time between your sessions and stops them becoming dependent on you. It enables you to stay empathic and non-judgemental without being so overly involved in your client’s life that you find it hard to maintain that important distance.

As a hypnotherapist, if you don’t have healthy boundaries, you risk becoming resentful. Let’s imagine that you feel sorry for a client because they are a friend of a friend and you know something about their back story. You offer the client a discount. They’ve got baby-sitting issues so you let them off with being late for their appointment and overrun at the other end to compensate for their lateness. You’re tired after the appointment but you feel like you’ve done a good job for this person (even though it’s not what you would usually do). The next week – they don’t bother showing up at all! You’ve booked your office and you’re out of pocket. You’re mad! After all that help you gave to them!!! This is an example of you creating a poor boundary – and feeling extremely resentful when it was violated. Other very common examples involve allowing clients to repeatedly turn up late and allowing appointment times to seriously overrun. If you want to offer longer appointments – charge for them. Working for free isn’t part of the deal!

Poor boundaries results in as much confusion for the hypnotherapist as the client. If you feel it’s hard to say no to people – including clients – or to put yourself first, make sure you work with this under supervision. During my Diploma in Analytical Hypnotherapy I ensure that my students leave with a very clear idea of how to apply healthy boundaries with their clients.