Boundaries in Person-Centred Counselling

My learning journal of 6th March 2012 for counselling training:

In this learning journal, I am going to be discussing the competency of:

Maintaining the boundaries of the helping role throughout the session.

In particular, I am going to reflect on my understanding of the relevance of boundaries in the helping role (e.g. disclosure, relationship, ability).

To me, boundaries in counselling represent a sense of personal identity and self-definition that remains constant over time and regardless of the emotional ups and downs of the client or counselling process.

Boundaries, in many ways, are the relational framework within which the counsellor and client work together.  It is these boundaries that make it transparent to the client the limitations of the counsellor and the counselling process, while also distinguishing the self of the client from the self of the counsellor.  In this way, boundaries are a safety net, a way of preventing harm to clients because rules and roles are clearly defined and therefore expectations can be met.  This is also important for the health and well-being of the counsellor.

Throughout my learning and skills practice, I have become more aware of my responsibility for maintaining these boundaries.  Although person-centred counselling comprises an equal expertise between client and counsellor, there is an inevitable power imbalance initially that comes from the client being in a vulnerable position (hence, their need for counselling).  When clients seek counselling they might not be aware of the importance of boundaries or they might have had their boundaries violated in some way.  Therefore, as the counsellor, I need to introduce boundaries and make sure I am consistent with them.

There are some very clear boundaries within the counselling process, such as not having a relationship with a client that goes beyond a purely therapeutic one.  However, through skills practice I have become aware of a number of areas where the need for boundaries may be less clear.  Self-disclosure and physical contact are two such areas.  Over-identification with a client’s issues is also another one that is probably quite frequently experienced within counselling.  In all cases, I feel that self-awareness can help guide the counsellor on maintaining appropriate boundaries.  Where boundaries might seem to be less clear, the counsellor can ask themselves:

  • Is this in the client’s best interest?

  • Is this part of the client’s agenda or mine?

  • Whose needs are being met?

In order to maintain appropriate boundaries, the relationship should always focus on the client and there should be a clear understanding of the ethics and values inherent in person-centred counselling.

The most challenging boundary issue that I feel I will possibly need to contend with is over-identification, since I am naturally very empathic with people who have experienced similar thoughts, feelings, or events to myself.  However, merely by being aware of this risk, I feel I am equipped to manage this.  If it were to happen, I would discuss the issue in supervision and, if necessary and in the best interest of the client, refer them to another counsellor.

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Categories: Counselling, Personal/Professional Development, Psychology

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Brilliant post Nicola, you are really grasping the importance of these boundarys now, making you a better therapist. When I worked as a hypnotherapist, I had a client, who would have an appointment for say, 3 o’clock. He’d ring and say I can’t make it, at the last minute. Because of his late cancellation, he had to pay for that session next time he came, making his fee double. Now, for me, this was inconvenient, but I earned twice as much, and just felt annoyed that he’d let me down. Now when this happened once, it was annoying, twice, I thought ‘he’s taking the ****. A third time, and I began feeling out of control, he was controling the therapy. (Annoying, because I needed the money, but not to the point of him moulding me to his pattern) Alarm bells began to ring, he was getting off on the fact that he was controling me. To top it off, as it was near Christmas, he gave me a card and bottle of wine, (That’s another one, never accept gifts) annoying again, but it’s one of the code of ethics, no gifts; and began saying we’ll have to meet up!!!!!!! EEEEkkkkk, end of therapy for him….. You must be in control at all times. The cheeky man even tried to begin therapy again. Always protect yourself, these stalkers can suddenly switch and end up sueing. They are looking for therapy because there is a problem. Excuse the long reply, but I’m proud of you as you are getting stronger….

  2. Quite a daunting story, Susan! It makes me wonder how many counsellors/therapists find themselves with a client who tries to stretch the boundaries. It is probably quite common to a certain degree, but how many find themselves with stalkers? Quite a safety issue.

    Out of interest, Susan, do you muss being a hypnotherapist? I know you are content in what you are doing now, but I wonder if you look back on that role with fondness?

    • Hi Nicola, it was a wonderful experience, and so interesting. I’m sure I’ll go back to hypnotherapy some day in the future. Almost all my clients went away cured, lots of hitches along the way though. The trick was to stick with them, and always keeping in touch with my supervisors was crucial. It was lovely to help people, and as you’ve cleverly picked up, I slightly miss it, but happy where I am at the moment.

  3. Interesting article and ways to think of boundaries.
    Your wrote “there is an inevitable power imbalance initially that comes from the client being in a vulnerable position (hence, their need for counseling).” I think the idea of the inevitability of power imbalance is a myth, some clients are more powerful than their therapists when they have more money, status, educations, etc. Then some clients are vulnerable. We need to know the difference and to remember that not “all clients are created equal.” I wrote about it at http://www.zurinstitute.com/power_in_therapy_counseling.pdf and at http://www.zurinstitute.com/inherentpower_clinicalupdate.html

  4. Sorry to gatecrash this post Nicola, but I don’t think you have an area on this blog for general comments, so I’m putting it here. I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award. Don’t feel obliged to do anything more than just accept it as a compliment! Details here: http://vanessa-chapman.com/2012/03/13/the-versatile-blogger-award/

  5. my confidentaulality has been breached by my worker what can i do

  6. Kevin, somehow this message snuck through and I missed it. Have you been able to deal with this situation? Confidentiality should not be breached unless the worker feels you are of harm to yourself or someone else, even then it is advisable that they discuss this with you first. I would be interested to hear how this has turned out for you if you are happy to share. Breaking confidentiality can be a huge knock to trust, so I am concerned for how this has impacted you.

  7. This is really interesting and informative as I am about the take my exam for the counselling skills course and boundaries has been a big topic during training. It’s taken me a while to be able to set time boundaries and to take proper money for giving tarot readings. Since embRking on this course I am much strong and realise that setting boundaries is important for both parties.

    Thankyou x

  8. I have been through 12 years of homelessness because of depression and anxiety. Now I am taking WRAP and NAMI classes and am planning to take P.E.T. training to become a peer support specialist and eventually go to college for drug education. But for now I am in the beginning stages and found that when I speak about what I’ve been through it sparks admoration in people in my class that are currently going through the homelessness, hopelessness, depression, exaustion that I have gotten out of. They ask of They can call me for support. I need to learn about boundaries. I know I cant leery anyone live with me which makes me feel bad that I have to let them out in the streets. But I have to put my mental and physical recovery first or I will not be effective in helping others. What are other boundaries I need yo put in place. I am not a professional. I am just friends or an acquaintance to them.

    • I am a Certified Peer Support Specialist and I would like to welcome you to the club! You are right setting boundaries can be hard when you can relate to what someone else is going through. I have set up business hours I let all my peers know that I am available from 8am until 5pm M-F If I do not answer their call/text that I am probably working with someone else and will try to get back to them as soon as I can. All my peers have the crisis phone number and I have made it clear that I am NOT who they call in crisis (per our agency rules).
      Our job is to help our peers help them selves as well as encourage them to look at their inner circle to find support out side of us. In the case of homelessness I would ask them… where do you think you could stay? If they don’t know you could then throw out some ideas and share part of your story like… When I was in this situation I stayed at….. If they are fearful of going to the shelter by them selves for check in and it’s in you ability you could offer to go with them. I also encourage my peers to ask for what they want or what they need but to keep in mind that the answer maybe no. Hearing no is part of life right so when I have to tell someone no I let them know why but I also tell them how great I thought they did with asking as to not discourage them for asking for other things of me or others in the future.

      Part of my training for Peer Support covered Ethics and Boundaries we did role playing and shared our lived experience. I refer to my training binder when I have concerns or a reminder of what my role is in helping my peers become the best them they can be. I know I may only play a small part on their journey to recovery so I want my part to be as encouraging, supportive, and healthy as it I can make it.

      So keep it real, honest, and focused on role modeling recovery. You’ve totally got this!!

      I typed this all up then realized that this post is three years old…. I hope you have accomplished all you set out to do and that you are enjoying being a peer support specialist

  9. I am a Certified Peer Support Specialist and I would like to welcome you to the club! You are right setting boundaries can be hard when you can relate to what someone else is going through. I have set up business hours I let all my peers know that I am available from 8am until 5pm M-F If I do not answer their call/text that I am probably working with someone else and will try to get back to them as soon as I can. All my peers have the crisis phone number and I have made it clear that I am NOT who they call in crisis (per our agency rules).
    Our job is to help our peers help them selves as well as encourage them to look at their inner circle to find support out side of us. In the case of homelessness I would ask them… where do you think you could stay? If they don’t know you could then throw out some ideas and share part of your story like… When I was in this situation I stayed at….. If they are fearful of going to the shelter by them selves for check in and it’s in you ability you could offer to go with them. I also encourage my peers to ask for what they want or what they need but to keep in mind that the answer maybe no. Hearing no is part of life right so when I have to tell someone no I let them know why but I also tell them how great I thought they did with asking as to not discourage them for asking for other things of me or others in the future.

    Part of my training for Peer Support covered Ethics and Boundaries we did role playing and shared our lived experience. I refer to my training binder when I have concerns or a reminder of what my role is in helping my peers become the best them they can be. I know I may only play a small part on their journey to recovery so I want my part to be as encouraging, supportive, and healthy as it I can make it.

    So keep it real, honest, and focused on role modeling recovery. You’ve totally got this!!

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