Maintaining therapeutic boundaries are vital to your mental health
By Susan Kolod, Ph.D.
“There’s a force more powerful than free will: our unconscious. Underneath the suits, behind closed doors, we’re all ruled by the same desires. And those desires can be raw, and dark, and deeply shameful.”
These opening lines, spoken by Naomi Watts playing the unhinged psychotherapist Jean Holloway in the Netflix series Gypsy, have great truth. But, from the mouth of Dr. Holloway, they are a rationalization for her disturbing boundary violations of her relationships with her patients. For example, Dr. Holloway initiated a sexual relationship with the ex-girlfriend of a patient, sought out and befriended the daughter of a patient, and allowed a patient to live in a secret apartment she kept in Manhattan.
The show raises interesting questions about how much involvement therapists should have in their patients’ lives. There are times when some contact outside the session is inevitable, such as when a therapist and patient live in a small town.
However, it is a fundamental rule in psychotherapy that the therapist maintains appropriate boundaries between herself and her patient. In fact, psychotherapy simply will not work and can be potentially harmful without these boundary limitations, sometimes referred to as the frame. They are:
- No physical contact with a patient.
- No relationship with a patient outside of the consulting room.
- The therapist should not treat close relatives or friends of the patient.
- No practical advice to a patient.
- Maintain objectivity and neutrality toward the patient and avoid excessive worrying/thinking about the patient.
- Seek supervision if you are tempted to, and before you do, violate any of these rules.
Although not every violation will lead to disaster, and some flexibility may be harmless or even appropriate in certain circumstances, the failure to take seriously the potential for disaster from any boundary violation is a grave error. Trouble happens most often when the therapist is tempted to think she is above these rules, not subject to temptation, or can handle this particular situation. That is when consultation with a supervisor may be most helpful.
The therapeutic relationship is not a friendship because the therapist and patient have no relationship outside the consulting room. That doesn’t mean that the therapist has no feelings towards the patient. In fact, many patients evoke extremely strong emotional reactions in their therapist: reactions of love, lust, curiosity, envy, competition, and even distaste or hatred at times. The feelings evoked in the therapist by the patient are calledcountertransference, and the feelings that the patient has for the therapist are referred to as transference.
Transference and Countertransference:
First identified by Sigmund Freud, transference is one’s reaction to another person based on feelings and patterns of relating that were established in early childhood, often towards a caretaker, usually a mother and father. Transference reactions are not limited to the therapy relationship. In fact, we unconsciously transfer feelings derived from our earliest relationships onto many of our adult relationships.
In psychoanalytic therapy, transference is something to be examined, explored, and understood. The therapist also examines and explores her countertransference feelings as a way of understanding the effects a patient is having on her. This examination of the countertransference gives the therapist insight into the patient and protects her from inadvertently acting in ways that may interfere with her functioning in a non-judgmental and objective manner. Problems ensue when the therapist is unaware of her countertransference.
Psychoanalytically-trained therapists have themselves undergone psychoanalysisprecisely so that they can become aware of their own unconscious patterns of thought and behavior established early in life. As a professional, when Dr. Holloway realized how her patients were affecting her, she should have sought consultation and possibly gone back into analysis.
What is an enactment?:
Edgar Levenson, a preeminent psychoanalyst, notes that therapy truly begins when the therapist recognizes that the kinds of interactions the patient describes as having with other people have begun to occur in the consulting room between the patient and therapist. These situations are referred to as enactments.
For example, in sessions, Sarah often focused on her unhappy interactions with friends and family. She complained they were frustrated and fed up with her and didn’t want to listen to her problems. At a certain point, she began demanding of her therapist in a distraught tone, “What should I do? Just tell me what to do!” The therapist, against his better judgment, felt compelled to give Sarah advice, something which he refrained from doing with his other patients. Sarah never followed the advice and the therapist began to note how frustrated and fed up he felt towards her.
Sam, a handsome and engaging young man, sought therapy because he had been unable to establish a loving relationship. He reported on his whirlwind courtships with one woman after another, which inevitably led to his finding a flaw in the woman and then losing interest. The therapist looked forward to sessions with this patient, in part, because he was so pleasing and complimentary. When she noticed that she was having romantic fantasies about him, she realized she was becoming involved in an enactment of his seductions and knew where it would lead.
The ability to discern and examine the presence of an enactment requires that the therapist maintain the frame and keep clear boundaries with the patient. With Sarah, the therapist realized he and Sarah were enacting the very problem they had been discussing. Once the therapist noticed this, he was able to step back from the advice-giving and explore with Sarah the foundations of her frustrating pattern of demanding and then rejecting advice.
In the case of Sam, the therapist realized that she and Sam were enacting his pattern of seductions. She could then focus on exploring the reasons for this behavior and how it interfered with his development of loving relationships with women.
The therapy relationship can and should evoke strong feelings in both therapist and patient that are vital to effective treatment. But those feelings can only be used therapeutically if they are explored and understood, but not acted on. The rules of the frame, which prevent boundary violations, are critical to therapeutic success. And that is why your therapist cannot, and should not, be your friend.