When we enter into a therapeutic relationship, we as clients agree to let our defenses down. We check our protective armor at the door. This is necessary for therapy to work. If we stay guarded, we may be safer, but we are also less likely to benefit from therapy. Therapy works when we are open to the therapist and the process. This makes us especially vulnerable, and, as a result, we count on the mental health professional to maintain boundaries in therapy, providing a safe space in which to work.
Transference happens when we attribute feelings to our therapist that are meant for significant others in our lives such as a parent or caregiver. A skilled therapist can use these misdirected feelings to help clients work through unresolved issues. Sometimes the transference can become quite intense. When this happens, the therapists become the epitome of everything we didn’t get as children, everything we desperately needed and never received.
Clients might begin to see the therapists as some version of savior or angel. When there is a significant age difference between them, the therapists may start to feel like replacement mothers or fathers. This extreme attachment can be a benefit to therapy or a detriment all depending on what the therapist does next.
Boundaries in Therapy with an Ethical Therapist
Ethical therapists will use this emotional attachment to benefit the patient. They will receive or recognize the newfound affection, but they will put parameters around it. They will help the clients see that the feelings they are attributing to the therapist are not actually about them.
They will let clients know that their feelings are totally normal and acceptable. In addition, they will remind them that the feelings are temporary. Ethical therapists explain that, in time, as the clients heal, they will begin to discover the true origins of the intense feelings and work through them.
In healthy therapy, the therapists will guide clients towards self-sufficiency, thereby decreasing the dependency the clients feel towards them. They do this only when the clients are ready for this step, of course. Ethical therapists won’t rush the process but will have the clients’ best interests in mind in every decision they make.
Boundaries in Therapy with an Unethical Therapist
Unethical therapists, however, will use the attachment and the transference to foster an even stronger dependency. They will offer to be the mother that the clients never had. They will swoop in and play the role of savior knowing full well that they are crippling their clients in the process.
They will engage in parental nurturing through physical contact—hugs, holding hands, cuddling, or stroking hair. They will allow unlimited contact outside of sessions via phone, email, and sometimes in-person meetings. They will claim to satisfy their clients’ deepest voids, and at first, this can feel exhilarating to those on the receiving end.
The clients may start to feel better. I’ve heard some victims say they felt like they were floating as they left therapy sessions because they felt so overwhelmingly loved. Many abusive therapists breach these boundaries to satisfy their own need to be needed. Other therapists have more sinister plans in mind, but whatever the reason it is never ethical, and it always harms the client. To read more on how therapists harm clients, click here: https://amynordhues.com/two-prominent-ways-an-abusive-therapist-harms-clients-in-therapy/
Lack of Boundaries in Therapy Endangers Clients
Not all of us experience powerful attachment issues in therapy. But many of us do. I have seen therapists who trigger this childlike longing in me and others that never do. When we have abuse in our backgrounds or abandonment issues, those of us who failed to bond with a caregiver can become overwhelmed when we suddenly encounter a loving and compassionate therapist.
Add the complications caused by transference and the natural emotional intimacy that develops when two human beings engage in deep, meaningful interchange, and the risk of exploitation becomes very high. I want to add that the therapists that triggered the most childlike longing in me were those who breached boundaries and encouraged dependency. Each time, it felt exhilarating at first and each time it left me more injured.
To paint this picture more clearly, I have written two letters to a therapist. In both letters, I have combined my personal experiences as well as that of many other survivors of therapist abuse.
One letter is written from the viewpoint of a client just beginning therapy, whose needy child is crying out to have his or her needs met. In many cases, these clients have been working with therapists who have not upheld tight boundaries, whether intentionally or not, and therefore have encouraged the attachment to some degree.
The second letter is written from an adult perspective, a client who has some healing under her belt. The client speaking from the adult viewpoint has been in therapy for a while and has been fortunate to work with an ethical, emotionally mature therapist, a therapist who put the client’s needs ahead of her own.
We want you to love us. And we want you to like us, more than your other clients. We want to be special to you, really special. We want you to show us that we mean more to you than just a paying client. We don’t really want to be a client at all. We want to be more like a daughter or a friend. We hope you show us that too, in little ways—gifts or comments or longer sessions.
We love it when our sessions go over time. We love being your favorite. Deep down, we want you to adopt us. Some of us wish you could be our mothers or our fathers or at least our special person. We hope your other clients do not have you as their special person. We hope our relationship is unique, set apart.
We like it when you touch us in nurturing ways through hugs or a hand on the arm or a stroke of the hair. We appreciate that you hug us when we leave. We like it when you sit closer to us especially when we are upset.
We like it when you show emotion and let us know that we affect you on a deeper level. We hope that you are as attached to us as we are to you. We hope that you think about us outside of sessions and look forward to seeing us again. We pray that in time you will let us into your inner world too. Share with us as we have with you. Be real, authentic, vulnerable.
We want our relationship to move outside of the confines of these office walls and merge into our regular lives. We dream of the day that we’ll get to be more a part of your life—maybe see you outside of the office, maybe go for a walk or out for coffee. We’re not sure if you’ll ever love us as much as someone in your real life, but we are desperately competing for one of those slots.
We wish that we could have a part of you with us all the time, day and night. We love when you give us something small to hold onto when you are away, a stuffed animal perhaps. We wish you could call us on the phone just to chat. We wish you could text us every evening before you go to bed just to say good night.
We hope that our relationship is something we’ll have forever. We believe that we can’t live without you, and we hope that you can’t live without us. We trust that in some fashion we will always be together.
We love when you confide in us, when you share your deepest fears and insecurities with us, things that even those closest to you don’t know. We love being the keeper of your secrets as you hold all of ours.
We love that we can call you if we need you, and that you are always there for us, day and night. We want to get so close to you that we feel a part of you so that you can be with us forever and always.
Please don’t give us these things. Please don’t give us what we want. We are in no position to know what we want. I’m begging you. Give us what we need. We can’t tell you this now because our childhood voids are begging to be filled, and our emotional needs are screaming to be met. And we’re depleted and desperate and tired, so tired.
On top of that, you seem like the perfect person to fill these gaping wounds, to heal us. You appear to be a savior of sorts, the one we’ve been searching for our whole lives. The one who will finally meet our emotional needs and make us complete. The person who will make it all better. Scarier yet, we believe you just might be the only one who can do so.
And I’m not going to lie, if you fill these voids and meet these needs, we will feel happier than we’ve ever felt in our lives. We will feel more satisfied and complete than we’ve ever experienced. We will adore you. We will worship you. We will keep coming back. We will be forever indebted to you. We will be your biggest fans.
But hear me out. Soon, we will want more than one session a week, more than phone calls between sessions. It will never be enough. We will want more of your time and attention. We will become jealous and insecure and anxious.
We will begin comparing ourselves to other clients, to other people in your life. We will become obsessed and neurotic. We will think about you day and night and wonder if you are thinking about us. We will hope that it pains you to be apart as much as it pains us.
We will worry about you. We will tell you that we can handle it, this dual relationship, but we can’t. In reality, we are being crushed under its weight. And we resent it. We feel satisfied when we are together and utterly destroyed when we are apart.
We will lose our ability to function without you. We will wonder how we can even survive without you. What if you retire or die or fire us? Who are we without you? We couldn’t survive without this special bond, and we won’t find it again anywhere else. How could we? It was heaven-sent, a unique connection that comes along once in a lifetime if we’re lucky. You said so yourself.
So, please, therapist, give us what we need no matter how much we beg and plead for you to single us out. Ignore us when we ask you to adopt us and make us your chosen one, your favorite. Don’t indulge us with your secrets. Don’t allow us into your inner world. Don’t give us longer sessions or gifts. Don’t tell us how special we are to you, how you have never met anyone quite like us, and that it would kill you if we ever left. Please deny our requests, all of them. It will hurt. It will sting. We won’t like it. We may pout. A lot.
If you do this…if you put our well-being ahead of your own and give us what we truly need, one day in the not-too-distant future, we might begin to think of other things besides therapy. We might find other activities that hinder us from coming every week. We might even begin to see ourselves as special.
We might find deep meaningful friendships outside of therapy that meet our desire for connection. We might learn to reparent ourselves. We might discover a loving God who fills our emotional voids far more than any human possibly could. We might find strength in ourselves we never knew we had.
We might not panic if you say you need to go out of town and won’t see us for a week or two. We may decide we’d like to skip a week or two. We might discover new interests. We might even decide that we don’t need anyone else to make us happy. Even you. We still don’t want to leave, but we know we could if we wanted to. And we know that you would miss us terribly, but we also know that your happiness does not hinge on whether we stay or go.
And then we will look to you and say thank you. Thank you for not giving us what we wanted. Thank you for setting aside your own needs and agendas to focus on ours. Thank you for your unwavering boundaries despite how hard we pushed back.
Thank you for not using our obsession with you as a way to bolster your own ego. Thank you for seeing through our wants to our true needs, needs that we didn’t even know we had. Thank you for not making us responsible for your happiness. Thank you for not sharing personal details about your life with us so that we could be the center of therapy. Thank you so much for saying no. It was the most loving answer we could have received.