How to Set Professional Boundaries as a Psychologist

Learning how to set professional boundaries in psychology is a tough part of becoming a counselor or therapist. You spend a lot of your training learning how to break through walls with your clients, not figuring out how to put them up. But ask anybody in the field, and they’ll tell you that you have to learn to strike a perfect balance.

Of course, you won’t accomplish much in the field unless you can be the kind of warm, trusted confidant to your clients and patients that makes them want to open up to you. Naturally, you have to create a safe and familiar place where they can share openly and reveal the things that allow you to know them deeply enough to understand the pathology of what’s troubling them. But doing all of this with an appropriate sense of professionalism actually has a funny way of being more effective than if your client sees you as a friend.

At the end of the day, clients come to you for professional treatment. If they could get that from friends, they wouldn’t be in your office. And they know that as well as you do. So it’s important to keep in mind that your clients are seeking your professional help, which means they expect you to demonstrate professionalism. Maintaining boundaries is a big part of that.

Setting professional boundaries is a standard part of professional conduct, but it’s still a real challenge for everybody who works in counseling psychology careers. The walls you have to put up are there for the protection of both you and your patients. Over time, you’ll find that setting boundaries with clients in counseling is a professional tool that makes you a more effective therapist.

What Are Professional Boundaries And Why Do They Matter?

What are professional boundaries and why are they important?

A boundary is a clear line of separation. In psychology, that’s a line drawn between something that is acceptable and something that is unacceptable.

Boundaries can be both physical and psychological. They set the limits of acceptable and professional behavior. But setting boundaries with clients in counseling also can reflect a counselor’s own judgement in exactly where they should be set. This decision can be influenced by everything from their particular approach to therapy, to their sense of what’s best for any individual client. Every therapist is free to figure out their own comfort level—with certain limits.

That’s because you can face both ethical and legal sanction for some boundary violations in professional-client relationships. So boundaries matter a lot for you as a professional therapist. Your license can depend on them!

Boundaries also represent an agreement. In one context, that’s your agreement with the state and with your profession to follow established guidelines. But in another context, they are the terms of your relationship with patients. Setting boundaries with clients in counseling informs both therapist and patient where lines exist, and creates respect for those lines.

Why Are Professional Boundaries Important in Psychology?

Boundaries are there to protect both you and your patients. More importantly, they are there to allow you to do the best possible work you can. They allow you to exercise your clinical judgement without bias or influence. In a job where emotions run high, putting down markers can help keep your therapy sessions on the rails.

Boundaries can also serve as a model that some clients would benefit from emulating. In some cases, this actually gets to some of the roots of their issues and can be directly beneficial to the counseling you provide.

Setting boundaries with clients in counseling can also serve as a diagnostic tool. Therapists are trained to look beneath the surface of reactions. When you observe how a patient handles boundary-setting in your relationship, it’s a jumping-off point for exploring how they form relationships generally. For example, a discussion of a patient’s boundary about being touched led one therapist to discover issues of control and fear of rejection… problems that might otherwise have taken years of probing and discussion to uncover.

You set boundaries based on experience, as well. For example, research in the field has found that inappropriate self-disclosure by therapists is one of the most common boundary violations in professional client-therapist relationships leading to the biggest ethics violation of them all – a sexual relationship. By following the long-established practice of limiting self-disclosure, even when it seems harmless, you avoid going down the path to more serious ethical issues.

What Are Some Examples of Professional Boundaries?

Limiting self-disclosure is just one example of a professional boundary in psychology. The field has many hard-won examples of those kind of boundary best-practices, though.

You’ll find many of these outlined in the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. For the most part, setting professional boundaries with clients is covered in Section 2: Competence and Section 3: Human Relations. A lot of these are pretty obvious:

  • Personal Problems and Conflicts - Psychologists refrain from interacting with clients in ways that might inflame their personal issues in ways that prevent them from performing competently.
  • Unfair discrimination - Therapists draw lines at discriminating on the basis of age, gender, race, culture, or other bases proscribed by law
  • Harassment - Therapists must avoid harassing or demeaning interactions with any person they interact with, client or not.

But then it gets down into the weeds. For example, therapists must also set boundaries that avoid harming clients, research participants, or others they might work with. They have to draw lines when it comes to getting into multiple relationships. For instance, a therapist should not be counseling someone who is also a co-worker or a student of theirs.

One of the biggest no-nos, of course, is any history of intimacy with current clients or their relatives. Even sexual intimacy with former clients is considered a boundary violation in professional-client relationships. And on the flip side, you shouldn’t accept former sexual partners as future clients, either.

Personal boundaries come from places outside the formal codes of conduct for therapists. Your personal boundaries don’t have to be the same as every other counseling psychologist. Even beyond professional standards, there will be different parts of your history and personality that lead you to adopt limits that reflect your comfort level in client interactions.

For example, maybe you’re not comfortable talking about religious or spiritual matters because of some history with the church. There’s no professional reason those subjects should be out of bounds. In fact, many pastors make excellent counselors. But it’s completely appropriate for you to recognize where personal biases or sensitivities make you unsuited to dealing with religious matters.

As long as you are clear and up-front with your clients, there’s no reason that your boundaries can’t be a reflection of who you are, both as a person and a professional. These standards are part of what will make counseling psychology a long and rewarding career. A job that routinely upsets you isn’t one you will stay with for very long.

How Do You Set Boundaries With Psychological Patients?

There’s no question that setting boundaries with clients in counseling can be one of the hardest parts of the job. After all, you’re taking a deep dive into the mind of your patient and asking them to trust you with some of their most intimate personal information. The very concept of a boundary can seem strange in such a situation.

But that’s exactly when boundaries become the most important. Being straight with patients about what professional boundaries are and why they are important starts with explaining how they create a safe environment for being able to explore sensitive issues.

Some standard practices for setting boundaries with clients in counseling include:

  • Limit self-disclosure - Creating trust in therapeutic relationships sometimes requires an exchange of confidences. But most therapists try to avoid bringing many personal details of their own lives into counseling sessions.
  • Avoid social media connections - In an increasingly digital age, it’s getting harder and harder for therapists to keep their personal and professional lives separate. It’s all too easy to find boundary violations in professional-client relationships when your personal details are out there on Facebook for all to see. Therapists have to practice strong self-control when it comes to social media participation, or to make good use of privacy settings to keep their information under control.
  • Avoid interactions outside the office - For therapists working in the big city, this isn’t usually a problem. But in smaller towns, it can be difficult to avoid running into clients at the grocery store, at your kid’s school bake sale, or even just at the local diner. But setting professional boundaries with clients means keeping the entire relationship professional, and that means avoiding interacting outside of sessions as much as possible.
  • Set acceptable methods of contact - Being a therapist means handling unexpected psychological emergencies, and that means being contacted outside office hours. You can’t schedule a psychological breakdown for mutually convenient times and locations. But what you can do is clearly outline when and how it is acceptable for clients to contact you. Showing up without an appointment is usually ruled out. Many therapists use an answering service or have a dedicated number where they should be texted if a client needs immediate help.

A good first step is always just to figure out where your personal and professional boundaries are. Sometimes the act of writing them down can help you decide exactly where the lines should be drawn.

How Are Professional Boundaries Set?

Clarity is one of the most important skills when it comes to setting professional boundaries in psychology. You need to be straightforward and absolutely firm. Most therapists begin their sessions with a new client by outlining some boundary definitions.

Every therapist is aware that setting boundaries with clients in counseling isn’t as easy as just laying down the law. It takes consistency and repetition to make boundaries stick.

Some therapists use a formal contract to outline their boundaries, which they have patients read and sign before beginning therapy. That’s a kind of ritual, a routine formula that can serve as another way of maintaining professional boundaries in psychology. Another example of ritual is asking clients to turn off their cell phones as they enter your office, or even simply re-stating expectations at the beginning of a session. That’s particularly common in group therapy, where everyone is reminded about privacy and limitations at the beginning of every meeting.

Setting Up Patients To Set Their Own Boundaries

Patients get to set boundaries, too. Unlike you, however, they won’t have the training and the education it takes for an understanding of how to go about setting boundaries in therapy. You will have to explain the concept and ask plenty of questions  about their own limits.

This is a delicate process since therapy is often about discovering issues that patients don’t already realize. It also frequently involves intentionally exploring areas of discomfort, even if in the most comfortable way. Both of those things can make setting boundaries with counseling clients a difficult process.

But this is why you get paid the big bucks!

In fact, it can be empowering for some clients to be told they are allowed to set boundaries. And the process you work through in their sessions can become a solid model for them to set similar boundaries in other parts of their lives.

For both your own welfare and the health and well-being of your clients, learning to set professional boundaries in psychology will be a key piece of your practice over the course of your career.