This week we learned about Boundaries, both personal and professional. Personal boundaries are generally limits on how people prefer their interactions with others. For example some people may enjoy giving hugs and appreciative touches, whereas other people may not like any physical contact at all. Boundaries in the context of a client/counsellor relationship refer to limits that should be made clear from the outset of the relationship, and adhered to for ethical and professional reasons.

The following are questions I was asked about how we perceive our own personal boundaries in our day-to-day lives, and they are followed by my answers.

What are the boundaries that you draw in your own everyday life?

I draw my own boundaries from experience and personal preference in my own everyday life, and these include the distance I position my own body from other people, the amount of physical contact I have with other people and my own personal circadian rhythm (such as what time I like to get up and how long I like to have in getting ready for the day, and what time I prefer to go to sleep). I do need to work those boundaries around those regarding my son; he has a daily routine which helps keep him settled. My boundaries also include how I feel on sharing my thoughts and opinions with others, and how much other people’s opinions matter to me. I also have boundaries about how I like to treat my possessions and my home.

I feel my boundaries at work are quite different, in that they pay me to abide by their boundaries. I have a contract with them that says, in black and white, that I have to be at my place of employment for so many hours a week, on certain days, and at pre-arranged times. This is a standard agreement in relation to any employment. I work in a supermarket at a service desk, so I do have a physical boundary between me and my customers for the most part, except when I go out onto the shop floor, and at those times I can feel a little vulnerable.

What are the qualities or characteristics of these boundaries?

The boundaries based on time are generally quite loose, depending on things like how tired I am. Sometimes I can be asleep at half eight, sometimes I don’t go off until after ten, so there is a lot of variation there. Working within the routine of my son gives me less leeway than I was used to in my pre-child days, for example his bedtime schedule is to have a bath at 7pm, to be read some stories and have some warm milk at roughly 7:30pm, then be up in bed at about 8pm, so I can’t go off to bed myself before that. I do need to remember to take into consideration that he usually wakes up at around 8am, so I need to have slept enough myself to feel refreshed and ready for the day, and be showered and ready to rock. To be quite honest I think I benefit from his routine as much as he does.

I am quite a quiet person, so it is not often I feel I need to express my opinion, unless it is something I care greatly for, have a wide degree of knowledge of, or feel it would help the other person to know. By that same token, I can get annoyed easily when other people offer their opinions without being asked. If I have already decided to do something, and someone pipes up with an irrelevant, unwanted and/or unwarranted opinion, I can get irritated.

I like to be organised with my possessions, and I prefer my home to be clutter-free. My boundaries regarding this do mean that I spend time tidying and filing things, but I do feel a sense of satisfaction once it is done, almost like my boundary being transgressed sets me on edge and I feel uneasy while things are disorganised.

Work boundaries are different, again, in that they are part of a contract. One boundary is to not steal money from the till, and a characteristic of that boundary on my part is to be an honest, trustworthy person. A quality of time keeping as a work-related boundary is that if you transgress it enough times, you could find yourself without a job. If you have a contract of employment with a company then all of the conditions of employment are boundaries and they have very clear dimensions, and the ramifications can be severe if a line is crossed.

How would anyone know that a boundary existed for you?

I guess that with a personal boundary, people wouldn’t really know what they were unless I expressly told them about my principles and values, or if they knew me well enough. Strangers on the street don’t really come up to me wanting hugs. If it was someone that I had a long-standing relationship with, I would hope they knew my boundaries by experiencing my way of being around them. In personal relationships people do tend to treat others how they would like to be treated themselves, so after a few years of me not really being comfortable as the kind of guy who gives out random hugs, they should definitely have the impression that I am not a naturally tactile person. But then with my son, he can come and hug me (or even clamber all over me to be quite honest) whenever he wants, so different levels of comfort exist even within the same boundary.

How would they know when they had transgressed that boundary?

Sometimes it could be revealed that someone had transgressed a boundary in a civil manner, sometimes it could be in a hostile manner. I don’t think I would necessarily tell the other person of every transgression. If they hugged me and it made them feel better, then I would rather them feel a little better than me let on that I felt violated by their physical contact. To use another example of someone transgressing one of my boundaries, such as someone expressing an unwanted opinion; to be honest, most of the time I would just ignore them and they probably wouldn’t even know that they had annoyed me. In an attempt to keep the peace I would definitely rather not say anything and allow the other person to feel that they had not said anything that annoyed me. I think I may need to work on that, and further explore the reasons why that is.

A ‘boundary’ can be defined as the edge of a territory or space – where that territory meets another territory. What other words or images do you use to refer to this kind of phenomenon?

The words I would use to refer to boundaries are: Lines crossed, or crossing the line, limits, barriers, defences, acceptable/not acceptable, wilful antagonism or needless aggression, or “none of your business”. Images that spring to mind with boundaries would be things like brick walls, chain-link fences, windows and super-hero force-fields. Feelings I would associate with boundaries would be comfortable and uncomfortable, and agitated and calm. When my boundaries are respected, I feel comfortable, and calm. When they are disrespected or ignored, I feel uncomfortable, and agitated.

When you meet another person for the first time, what do you do to establish your mutual boundaries?

At first, you stay back physically, and don’t expose your personality to them too much. Little by little you reveal a little bit of information here and there, while subtly forming an opinion of the other person by taking the little bits of information they feed you. It’s a slow process, only disclosing a small amount to see if they are comfortable and accepting of you before you reveal too much. Body language can play a big part in establishing boundaries too. A tentative touch can be used to gauge the other person’s reaction to physical stimuli.
In a formal situation the socially accepted guidelines are a lot more rigid, for example you wouldn’t hug someone in a job interview.

With someone you have known for some time, how do boundaries become re-negotiated or re-defined?

Communication and honesty are two key points when it comes to re-negotiating and re-defining boundaries, an event which usually comes just after a line has been crossed one too many times. A real motivator in the need to re-define your own personal boundaries with another person is your boundaries being disrespected over a long period of time. Some people are good at immediately making it clear when they feel uncomfortable but others can try to ease the short term pain by not saying anything, possibly making the problem worse in the long term. In a work situation, boundaries can be re-defined by a clear and structured disciplinary process. Or maybe reinforced is more accurate word to use in that case.

What kind of boundary do you seem to need, in different situations?

I definitely prefer having concrete boundaries in my job. It just makes things easier to know that I have to be there from 8am until 5pm on a Wednesday, or that helping yourself to a Mars bar is not allowed, and that there is a procedure that is followed if one of those boundaries is broken. Most, if not all, of my work-related boundaries are clear and very reasonable, and I have no problem abiding to them.

In terms of personal boundaries I like being flexible but consistent. For example with my son and his behaviour, I do tend to be quite flexible with him and let him off for minor transgressions that he may not even realise he has made such as getting carried away whilst watching a cartoon and inadvertently standing up on the sofa. A gentle reminder goes a long way. By contrast if he consciously does something that he knows he is naughty and that he is not allowed to do, he will be put on the naughty step for three minutes, I am very firm with that.
With regards to the exploration of my own personal boundaries in terms of the implications of how I am (or how I would like to be as a counsellor), I see that I need to work on my assertiveness in relation to maintaining my boundaries, and my confidence to stand up for myself when my boundaries are broken. My personal boundaries are, at times, non-existent, and I do sometimes feel like I am treated like a doormat. As a counsellor I would like to come across as being firm but fair in terms of boundaries, but I am sure it is often not as straightforward and easy as explaining the professional boundaries fully at the start of a therapeutic relationship, and making sure the client understands them.

Professional Boundaries in relation to counselling are very different to your own personal boundaries. These are maintained for ethical, legal and professional reasons, and they clearly distinguish the differences between a client/counsellor relationship and one in which someone casually listens to someone else’s problems.

Time is an important boundary in counselling. If a client is late, the time cannot be recouped at the end of the session. A session is typically 50 minutes long, and if a client is five minutes late, the session does not end five minutes later – it ends at the originally scheduled time. Once a counsellor starts giving time away it can be difficult for them to get back to an even ground. For example, if a client is ten minutes late, but the counsellor knows he has no appointments after, he may decide to allow the session an extra ten minutes. This presents a difficulty in that the client may expect to be able to turn up late from now on, and expect the missed time to be added on every time.

On the other side of this, the counsellor has to be on time for the appointments as well, their professional reputation depends on it. Our tutor explained that as you gain experience as a counsellor, you will gain a sense of how much time has passed, and it becomes easier to gauge when a session is nearly finished. Having a clock on the wall behind a client, or a small digital timepiece on a table between you are both handy ways to monitor the time.

Confidentiality is a fundamental aspect of counselling, and really helps build a trusting relationship between client and counsellor, as it is on this that the whole therapeutic process depends. The fact that everything they say stays between the two of them, in that room allows the client to really be honest, both with themselves and with the counsellor. Confidentiality also extends as far as record keeping, contact details and note-taking.

There are a few reasons confidentiality could be broken by a counsellor, and they are:
1 – When it comes to the safety or well-being of a child
2 – When a counsellor believes that a client may self-harm themselves
3 – When a counsellor believes that a client may harm someone else

If a counsellor suspects any of those things happening, they must pass the information on to their supervisor or a safeguarding officer. Supervisors know the exact route to take to ensure the well-being of a child, the client or someone the client may hurt, and safeguarding officers are trained to recognise and record concerns about children in particular, and most importantly, know the correct way to report such concerns. There are legal obligations relating to confidentiality as well, such as if a client had knowledge of a terrorist activity, or were a driver in a road traffic collision.

It is up to the counsellor to decide if Personal Disclosure would be useful in a client/counsellor relationship. If it were in the client’s best interests, and not the counsellors, then it could help. We were advised not to disclose any personal experiences until we have a lot more experience as a counsellor. It is unethical to Receive Gifts when you are a counsellor, you must decline all offers. If a client insists, then the items must be disclosed to your supervisor, and if possible donated to a charity. Things like tins of biscuits should be placed in staff rooms for the enjoyment of everyone you work with, while a potted plant could be placed in a communal area of your agency. Physical contact is often a hard boundary in counselling. For example, if you started the first session with a handshake, then ending each session, or perhaps the final session, with a handshake would be appropriate.

There are some other issues as well, such as the client turning up drunk or under the influence of drugs. If this does happen then it would be unwise to continue with the session, instead suggest that they skip this week’s session, but you would be happy for them to come back sober next week. If payment is required, it is usually taken before the session, typically by a receptionist. Another thing to consider is how you would greet a client if you met them in the street. I think the best practise would be to ignore them as best you can, only saying hello if they did first, and if they come over and start talking, do not disclose anything about yourself, tell them this is not the time or the place for problems to be discussed and remind them about their next appointment time if you can.

The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) is very thorough in its laying out of professional boundaries, of which you must adhere if you want to be a registered member of said association. This takes the form of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions. The BACP also publish Good Practise in Action Resources, which aren’t contractually required, but are there to support practitioners by providing information on and relating to the core ethical principles, values and moral qualities of the BACP.

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