The relationship a person has with a therapist is unique. Some people question why they should seek professional guidance when they can talk to their loved ones for free, while others who are already in therapy wonder about the unspoken etiquette, ethics, and rules of this special relationship. It is critical for those in or seeking therapy to understand the dynamics and boundaries of the therapeutic relationship. The distinction could mean the difference between a deeply healing experience and wasted time and money or, worse, retraumatization and new relational wounding for the person seeking help.
Dynamics That Bring About Healing, Change, and Growth
Unlike relationships with friends or family, the therapeutic relationship is a professional one that happens to be based on deeply personal material. Much like other health or medical professionals, therapists are bound by codes and ethics that not only lay out rules about confidentiality, but also ensure the relationship maintains the emotional safety and best interests of the person seeking help. This is different from the relationship with family and friends in that therapists have nothing to gain personally from the relationship. Any advice, questions, and even opinions expressed by a therapist are based solely on the best interests of the person in therapy. In return, people in therapy owe therapists only a sincere willingness to work toward their goals, basic relational courtesy, and previously agreed-upon fees. Although loved ones typically have your best interests at heart, they also often have their own biases based upon family traditions, cultural understandings, personal history, and the effects various outcomes may have on their lives.
Additionally, while those closest to you may know you better than a professional therapist (at least at the beginning of a therapeutic relationship), this can be a drawback when it comes to getting clear or unbiased feedback. Those who have known you over a period of time may have preconceived notions of who you are, what you should do, or how you should behave.
In contrast, therapists endeavor to see people in therapy as clearly and objectively as possible, allowing for growth, change, and healing to occur in a way that best serves a person’s needs and well-being. Specifically, therapists are trained to maintain a nonjudgmental stance with unconditional positive regard for the basic humanity of the people who seek their services. Through skill, expertise, and their own self-awareness, therapists hone their ability to support and guide people so they may achieve their highest potential. Through the therapeutic relationship, people in therapy can experience a nurturing presence that helps them feel they are being seen, heard, and responded to appropriately.
Why Boundaries Within a Therapeutic Relationship Matter
In order for the therapeutic relationship to work, it is important the therapist maintain an unprejudiced stance by setting orderly boundaries. In the absence of such boundaries, it may be challenging for the therapist to maintain neutrality and for the well-being of the person in therapy to remain the priority over the duration of the therapy. Additionally, without clear boundaries it can be harder for people in therapy to feel safe, build trust, and focus on their needs.
Boundaries are based as much on judgment as they are on guidelines set forth by various professional codes of ethics. As such, it is less helpful to describe specific dos or don’ts here, as those can be found elsewhere. What should be understood here is the intent and effect of boundaries. Yet, anytime a person in therapy feels uncomfortable about boundaries, whether they consider them too strict or too lax for their needs, they should address their concerns with their therapist. In turn, therapists should respond to conversations about the therapeutic relationship in an open and non-defensive manner so the person in therapy feels their concerns or questions have been heard, answered, and addressed fully and respectfully.
When Boundaries Are Violated or Cause Relational Disconnect
Through the therapeutic relationship, people in therapy can experience a nurturing presence that helps them feel they are being seen, heard, and responded to appropriately.
While therapists are bound by codes of ethics, and must carry state licenses and malpractice insurance, some therapists may exhibit behavior that disregards best practices and violates boundaries to the point it can be harmful to the therapeutic relationship or to the emotional well-being of the person in therapy. If you have experienced therapy in which you felt misunderstood, upset, or used in any way, it is important that you tell your therapist. It may be a simple misunderstanding or feelings that are being projected onto the therapeutic relationship, providing a tremendous opportunity for a breakthrough conversation that leads to growth and healing.
However, if you do not get a genuine and satisfactory response from your therapist or your feelings continue over a period of time, you may choose to find a therapist who better meets your needs. Ultimately, the therapeutic relationship should be nurturing, fulfilling, healing, and reparative for you, the person in therapy, within the context of professional boundaries and mutual respect.
A Professional Relationship That Comes from the Heart
Finally, I want to make a note about the therapeutic relationship from the therapist’s perspective. Although it is a professional relationship and there are clear boundaries and parameters, the connection and desire to help is no less heartfelt or genuine than in any other relationship that exists outside the office.
Appropriate boundaries allow therapists to do good work in a safe manner, but they should not be a barrier to meaningful relational connection within the therapeutic setting. Ultimately, finding a skilled therapist with whom you feel safe and connected can provide the foundation for a powerful and life-enhancing therapeutic experience.
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