Getting Real About Workplace Boundaries: A Three-Part Series

Part Two – Boundaries with Clients

Social service professionals, those who promote the welfare of community members, are everywhere – in schools, offices, mental health clinics, and courtrooms. Some social service professionals find it most effective to provide services in homes, meeting clients in the space where life happens.

“When you go in the home, you are entering a space that is familiar to clients, instead of providing services in an office environment which is unfamiliar and may cause increased stress,” said Allen Goold, Functional Family Therapy Clinical Manager. “It’s a very intimate and real environment that helps everyone to get to know each other and build trust quickly.”

From the moment he walks through the front door, Allen focuses on creating a safe environment for everyone so that healing and growth can occur.

“People can get intimidated by going in the home, but safety is created by preparing well, building rapport, and collaborating in understanding solutions and environments,” said Allen.

Building rapport starts with inquiring about what concerns people have and listening deeply to not just their words but the emotions underneath. This relationship-building process is non-pathologizing and is focused on helping families recognize their strengths and do more of what works to address their concerns.

“We move away from blame and shame, which can often keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns,” said Allen. “Understanding the strengths and concerns of a family helps to clarify how family members want to interact with each other. The focus is on the family – the children and the parent – and not the problem itself.”

This framework or boundary around how issues are understood and discussed can increase hope and identify opportunities for growth. According to Allen, when you follow that kind of boundary, the other things fall into place. It helps everyone involved see that growth is not only possible but that it can be done safely.

Another important aspect of creating safety is establishing predictability from the start of treatment.

“If I can predict, I can feel safe, and if the things I’m doing are predictable, then others can feel safe,” said Allen. “We want the therapeutic experience to be predictable and safe from beginning to end.”

For Allen, viewing this work through the lens of the Sanctuary Model helps him to understand the role safety has in creating change for his clients, especially those impacted by trauma. 

At the core of the Sanctuary Model is safety, which is broken down into four components: physical, psychological, social, and moral safety.

Moral safety can be summed up as “feeling safe to do the right thing,” and for clients to experience this type of safety, they need predictability. When we can predict what something will look or feel like, we can more easily find a sense of safety in the present moment.

Once that safe therapeutic space is created, therapists maintain it by keeping clear boundaries between the client and the practitioner.

“Meeting with families in their personal space is a very intimate experience,” said Allen. “Families share their emotional issues and processes, topics which are not usually shared with the outside world.”

Our instinct as humans is to respond to families with the same level of intimacy and to share our emotional life. However, Allen cautions against this type of connection with clients.

“What that can do is take the focus away from our role as helpers, and it can unknowingly result in us “joining the family process” or, in effect, become a member of the family – and that doesn’t help anybody.”

In his management role, Allen oversees four Functional Family Therapists and believes in the importance of supervision as a way for mental health professionals to review cases and navigate challenging situations. Allen has been working in the mental health field for over thirty years but continues to share his cases with his team for review and seek counsel in sticky situations.

“It is so important that a therapist models, demonstrates, and supports a family as they practice healthy communication skills,” said Allen. “Part of that work is setting your own boundaries with clients and saying, “Look, this is uncomfortable, or this is not okay.”

Because setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult for people, Allen also emphasized the importance of actively seeking feedback so that clients can voice any hurts they may have experienced in therapy and learn to set their own boundaries in response.

Practicing this in session helps clients to normalize boundary setting and builds their confidence in their ability to have open and healthy conversations about boundaries. If we can demonstrate this in a way that does not engage in shame or blame, we share with families an incredible experience to carry forward into the future.

Check out the rest of our "Getting Real About Workplace Boundaries" series: