Setting healthy boundaries with clients
Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 10/05/2023
You know the feeling. It’s 10 p.m., you’ve just settled into bed, and your phone starts buzzing. It’s a client, maybe the same one who always calls you after hours.
You’re torn on what to do. If you answer, you might be sending the wrong signal about when you’re available. On the other hand, what if they’re in crisis? You suspect they’re not, but still. You answer, only to hear that the client is having the same argument with their father-in-law…again.
Therapists are experts in helping clients set and maintain boundaries in their lives, but sometimes it can be difficult to create and enforce boundaries in your own practice. Clear, healthy boundaries are critical to building a strong therapeutic alliance—and, if done properly, they can help prevent those late-night phone calls and self-doubt.
Here are some ways to set new boundaries or reimagine existing ones.
Start with the simple things
Latasha Matthews, MA, LPC, CPCS, CPLC, the author of several books on boundaries in a clinical setting, offers the following guidelines on how to prevent client overreach.
Create a consistent work schedule. Set clear hours for your practice, then post them on your website and include them in your intake paperwork.
Have a backup plan. Every clinician should spell out what a client should do if they need emergency assistance after hours. “If a client cannot reach out to the clinician, there should be a backup plan in place,” Matthews says. “Whether it’s 988 or another facility, clear directives help clients who may be in crisis.” This plan can also be spelled out on your website, in your paperwork, and in the outgoing message on your voicemail.
Be clear about the phone. “Most clinicians don’t have money for a landline and a cell phone. So if you’re using your cell phone, you need to be very clear about what it’s for,” says Matthews. Specific guidance like “Phone calls are for scheduling and emergency use only” can help manage client expectations.
These rules should be spelled out in detail in your intake paperwork and on your site. Matthews also suggests reviewing them in person with your client within the first few sessions, just to make sure they don’t have any questions.
Should you answer the phone?
You’ve answered that buzzing phone and done your best to explain your boundaries to the client. But they call again two days later, right around dinnertime. What do you do?
“Do not answer the call,” says Matthews. “I would not answer in that moment. However, I would answer their question in session. And if it happened again, I would do the same. It’s important to keep the cadence of only responding to the client in session.”
The same advice applies to texting and emailing: Try to respond to email only during work hours, and never respond to texts outside of work hours (unless you decide to implement a different policy).
To self-disclose or not to self-disclose
Boundaries help clinicians prevent overreach from clients, but there are times when a clinician is tempted to self-disclose. That in itself might risk crossing a boundary. How do you know when to share your own story to help a client?
Matthews suggests using a kind of litmus test when considering how much of yourself to bring into a session. Asking yourself these two questions can help clarify whether self-disclosure is warranted.
Who is this for—me or the client? “If you’re a parent and you had a horrible night with your teenager and your client has a similar story, that disclosure is probably more for you than for the client,” Matthews says. In this case, your experience can still inform your work and your empathy, but sharing your story isn’t necessary.
Will this information help my client? “When you see that a patient is struggling and you have a good therapeutic bond, meaning you’ve built rapport, you may use part of your story to help move the client along,” says Matthews. For example, if your client describes feeling judged or isolated, you might use an anecdote from your own life to help validate their feelings.
If you really want to self-disclose but are unsure how the client will react, Matthews offers a third option: finding other creative ways to connect. “You can self-disclose without self-disclosing,” she says. “You can use a story that has nothing to do with you, or use your story but change the content a little so that it’s not about you. Then you could say, ‘Here’s this story,’ and have them come up with their own discovery.”
When you do decide to self-disclose, Matthews suggests checking in with the client first to make sure it’s okay: “Reading the room is important, and getting permission is part of that.” Asking a simple question like “Is it okay if I tell you about my experience with a similar scenario?” can give the client agency in the decision.
Boundaries can prevent burnout
Matthews notes that clinicians often worry they’re not reaching enough people, so they take on too many clients, which can contribute to burnout. Boundaries are necessary and healthy in this situation as well.
“The key is knowing your sweet spot and understanding you need to take care of yourself and your body,” says Matthews. Checking on your own physical and emotional health—and recognizing the trauma you’re helping others carry—takes time, and it’s important to carve that out for yourself.
“You need to know that you are valued,” Matthews says. “What you’re doing is enough, and you don’t need to do more.”
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is a senior writer at therapist.com. She is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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