A good reason for being consistent with boundaries is that you will be more inclined to notice when you alter them. It’s a red flag when you step outside your professional boundaries, and encourage others to treat you as if you’re not a professional. One of the main ways people get into big trouble with clients is through treating the client as special in some way. Keeping boundaries when it concerns our own time off from work is a great example.
Distinguishing between a client who is sincerely in a crisis and a client who has a pattern of being manipulative can be a difficult judgment call, but there are often clues. For example, a client may call and say that she is in terrible distress and must be seen right away. If the practitioner says, “I can’t see you Sunday, but I have an opening at 10 a.m. on Monday,” and the client responds, “Oh, I can’t then. That’s when I get my hair cut,” or needs to take the dog to the vet, or provides another seemingly flimsy response, the client isn’t being straightforward.
Other clients may describe awful pain and want to be seen immediately, but when the practitioner asks how long they’ve had the pain, they’ll say, “Six years.” Their pain may be real, but you don’t need to rearrange your schedule to see them right away. You don’t do clients a favor when you let them hook you into ignoring your own policies.
A therapist in my practice told me she’d like Thursdays off. For several weeks, she appeared on Thursdays, harried and aggravated. I said “I thought you wanted to be off on Thursday.” She said “I know, but so-and-so can only come on Thursday.” I assured her that was not true, and that as soon as she said “I’m not available on Thursdays, let’s see what other day we can get you in,” she would see they would find another day after all. That turned out to be true, and she started being able to enjoy her day off—and her work—much more than when she was trying to be accommodating and ignoring her own boundaries.
Steadfast rules may be an ideal rather than reality, but honoring our own boundaries is actually a kindness to the client, so we can keep enjoying the work we do instead of becoming resentful of it.
For more good lessons in professional boundaries, consider Laura Allen’s course, The Educated Heart, on our website.