Creating Boundaries in Therapy: How To Know When You’ve Reached Your Limits
By Shannon Heers
If you are a therapist, you probably know that creating boundaries in therapy is an important aspect of keeping healthy and productive relationships with clients. Creating boundaries can also help you to avoid burnout, which is an ever-present occupational hazard for those that work in the mental health field.
The term “boundaries” refer to the physical, emotional, and mental limits that therapists create to protect themselves when doing clinical work. While boundaries can vary depending on the therapist’s individual preferences and the nature of each therapeutic relationship with clients, they are necessary for therapists to be able to provide effective and compassionate care.
One of the most important aspects of boundary setting in therapy is recognizing when you have reached your limits. For therapists, this can be a difficult task. Therapists just like you are passionate about helping your clients, and you may feel a sense of obligation to continue providing care even when it becomes emotionally, and physically, draining to you.
Here are some signs that you have reached your limits in providing therapy:
Feelings of Exhaustion or Burnout
If you find yourself feeling consistently tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, this may be a sign that you have reached your limits in therapy. Of course you want to rule out any medical issues first, but if everything else is fine, then you may need to consider that you are having symptoms of burnout.
Difficulty Separating Personal and Professional Lives
When your work is constantly on your mind, or you when you find yourself thinking about your clients during your personal time, this may be another sign that you need to set clearer boundaries in therapy.
Inability to Switch Off
It is normal to think about your clients at times in-between your sessions together. However, if you find yourself constantly thinking about your clients, or if you are having trouble sleeping because of work-related stress, it may be a sign that you have reached your limits in therapy.
Feeling Emotionally or Physically Drained
If you find that you are feeling emotionally or physically exhausted after sessions on a regular basis, this may be another sign. Being able to recognize when you have reached your limits in therapy is a good thing for counselors to know.
Loss of Interest in Personal or Professional Activities
Just as we do with our clients, therapists need to assess our overall mental wellness. If you are no longer enjoying the activities that once brought you joy, this might be a sign that you have reached your limits in therapy.
If you experience any of these signs, it is important to take a step back and assess your situation. Setting boundaries in therapy is about protecting yourself so that you can provide the best possible care to your clients. Because your clients need you, and if you burnout and leave the field, your clients and potential clients are losing an important resource to help them get better.
Here are some steps that you can take to create healthy boundaries in therapy:
Communicate Openly With Your Clients
If you feel that you have reached your limits, it is important to communicate openly with your clients about your plan to recharge. Explain to them that you need to take some time for self-care and you will be back when you are feeling better. Of course, ethically you want to provide some appropriate referrals so you are not abandoning your clients. This also models for your clients how to take care of themselves when they are overwhelmed.
Set Realistic Expectations
Be realistic about the amount of time and energy you have to devote to your work. If you find that you are overcommitting, or saying “yes” to too many things, you’ll want to re-evaluate your expectations and prioritize your self-care.
Take Regular Breaks
Taking regular breaks, such as taking a walk or spending time with family and friends, can help you recharge and reduce stress. Even setting aside dedicated time to eat lunch in the midst of your busy day will give your brain and body a much-needed break.
Just as you tell your clients to do, engage in activities yourself that bring you joy and relaxation. Yoga, meditation, and exercise can work wonders to help you recharge and create those boundaries between personal time and work time.
Perhaps it’s time that you find someone to talk to about how you’re feeling! Seeking support from colleagues, friends or a therapist is entirely appropriate and often needed when you’re feeling overwhelmed with work. Talking about your feelings with someone who understands can help you feel better and regain your sense of balance.
Limit After-Hours Contact
Set firm boundaries for after-hours contact with clients. Of course you still need to provide information for urgent or emergent situations with your clients, so make sure all your clients know who to contact and how when you are not available. Avoid checking emails or taking calls outside of your normal work hours.
Seeking out regular supervision to discuss your experiences and to receive support and guidance can go a long way towards preventing burnout and helping you set appropriate work boundaries. Developing a trusting relationship with a clinical supervisor is perhaps the most important, ongoing thing that you can do to protect yourself in the therapy field.
Creating boundaries in therapy is an important aspect of maintaining healthy relationships with clients and avoiding burnout. It is important to recognize when you as a therapist have reached your limits, and then to take steps to protect yourself. By setting realistic expectations, practicing self-care, and seeking support, you can ensure that you are able to provide the best possible care to your clients for the long-run.
How we can help
Download our Free Burnout Prevention Checklist to help you protect yourself and set boundaries in your therapeutic work! You can also sign up for a free phone consultation to discuss options and learn more about us!
Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, approved clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and the owner of a group psychotherapy practice in the Denver area. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Firelight Supervision on Instagram.