6 Strategies for Setting Boundaries with Your Therapist

A young person in a therapy session looks upset

Source: iStock

Most relationships – whether they are platonic, romantic, sexual, familial, or professional – eventually require setting boundaries. And if you see a therapist, that relationship is no exception.

For me, that realization came when I was in college and seeing a therapist for my depression.

I related my struggles to her every week, but she never gave me much in the way of concrete techniques I could use to cope or feel better. Finally, after hearing my latest story of bursting into tears at some little disappointment, she said, condescendingly, “You just need to learn how to self-soothe.”

Self-soothe? I thought. That’s a term I usually only hear in the context of babies learning how to stop crying when their caretaker leaves the room. I felt like my therapist was speaking to me as if I’m a child who cries when my mom leaves for work, not an adult struggling with a serious mental illness. Besides, even if I did need to “learn how to self-soothe,” isn’t that why I was in therapy? to learn how to feel better?

At the time, I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing. I didn’t realize that I had the option of telling my therapist that I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way and that this way of working together just doesn’t—well—work for me.

Years later, having learned much more about assertive, direct communication (as well as trained to be a therapist myself), I understood that we always have the right to let our therapists know that we need them to do something differently. And often, that means setting boundaries.

Setting boundaries with anyone can be hard.

Many of us worry that people will react angrily or defensively when we let them know that something they’re saying or doing is hurtful or uncomfortable. Sometimes people worry that their boundaries aren’t “legitimate” or that they don’t really have the right to ask and expect to be treated better. (All boundaries are legitimate, by the way, and you always have that right.)

Setting boundaries with an authority figure can be especially difficult, because it can make it even harder to trust your feelings.

For many people, a therapist is an authority figure because they have training and expertise, and because  sometimes, they do have tangible power over their clients. If a therapist is asking an invasive question, don’t they know what they’re doing? If the therapist thinks you should talk about a particular sensitive subject, don’t they know what’s best for you?

It’s true that therapists know a lot about psychology, mental health, and recovery, but they don’t know everything. They also don’t know you as well as you know yourself.

You still have the right to have control over the process of therapy and choose the pace at which it happens. And if you’re not ready to talk about something yet, that’s okay. If you don’t want to talk about something ever, that’s okay, too.

Strategies for Setting Boundaries

Sometimes, setting a boundary is as simple as saying “Please don’t say that to me” or “I don’t want to talk about that” in the moment. But other times, it doesn’t feel that simple.

So here are six strategies might help you set boundaries with your therapist.

1. Find the Words

There are a different types of boundaries you might need to set with a therapist.

One example is when therapists ask questions or bring up subjects that you’re not comfortable talking about. Another is when they offer unsolicited comments or advice that is offensive, hurtful, or irrelevant to you.

Although there are all sorts of different boundaries you might need to set, and all sorts of different reasons for needing to set them, the important part is always the same: being clear about what’s not okay for you.

Since boundary setting isn’t something most of us ever get taught directly, it can be hard to know how to actually do it.

Here are some examples of scripts you might use, substituting your particular concerns:

“Please don’t ask me about my weight or dietary habits. It’s a trigger for me because of past issues with disordered eating.”

“Actually, I didn’t ask for advice. Please either ask me before you give advice or wait for me to ask for it myself.”

“The issue I came here to work on was my depression, not my relationship with my parents. Let’s keep our discussion focused on my depression as it’s affecting me right now because that’s what’s causing the most problems for me right now.”

“It sounds like you’re being judgmental about my decisions regarding sex. I’m not comfortable with this, and I didn’t ask to hear your personal opinion about who I sleep with.”

“I’m not ready to talk about the stuff that happened with my brother when I was little. You can ask me again in a few weeks, and I’ll let you know if I’m able to talk about it then.”

“My identity as an atheist isn’t the reason I’m struggling with depression. If you continue to suggest that my mental illness is caused by atheism, I won’t feel comfortable coming here anymore.”

“I need you to stop suggesting that it’s my fault that I’m being bullied. Even if there were some truth to that, it feels like you’re putting all the blame on me, and it’s preventing me from opening up to you about things.”

Knowing ahead of time what your conversational options are might make it go smoother.

2. Take Your Time

Often, when people cross our boundaries, it feels like we need to be able to respond perfectly right away. And this can be especially true in therapy, since you usually only see your therapist once a week.

If it’s the day after your session and you’re kicking yourself because you didn’t think of the right thing to say yesterday, try to be patient with yourself. It’s okay not to have all the words right away.

It’s always okay to bring things up with your therapist, even weeks after the fact. If it takes you some time to think of how to set your boundary, you can say, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about weight loss a few weeks ago…”

A competent therapist understands that sometimes we need time to process something and respond to it, and they’ll be glad that you were able to bring it up.

3. If You Feel Comfortable, Tell Your Therapist Why the Boundary Exists

To be clear, you never owe anyone an explanation of your boundaries; they should respect them even if they don’t understand them. Even if you don’t tell your therapist why you don’t want to discuss, say, food or religion, your therapist should respect that.

They’re likely to ask you to tell them more about the boundary – a therapist’s job, after all, is to learn about you – but if you’re uncomfortable, you can choose not to discuss it.

However, if you can, it’s a good idea to tell them why you’re setting your boundaries where you’re setting them. This will help your therapist work with you more effectively, and it’ll let them know to be careful with related topics.

For instance, if you say, “Please don’t talk to me about my weight because I have a history of disordered eating,” your therapist might know to tread carefully with questions about food or body image, too.

4. Let Your Therapist Know If You Might Be Willing to Discuss the Topic in the Future

Sometimes boundaries are temporary.

You might not be comfortable talking about a sensitive subject with a therapist you’ve just started seeing, or you might be going through a particularly difficult time that makes certain topics too stressful to talk about.

If that’s the case, let your therapist know.

You can say “I can’t discuss this now, but ask me again in a month” or “I’m not comfortable sharing that with you yet, but I’ll let you know when I am.”

5. If You Feel Nervous, Role Play with a Friend Before Your Next Therapy Session

For many people, the idea of verbally setting a boundary with someone is daunting, especially for anyone who struggles with social anxiety. While that’s not the only option for setting boundaries – I’ll get to others in a moment – there are things you can do to make it easier.

Finding a trusted friend to role play with can help – but make sure to let your friend know how you’d like them to respond as the “therapist.”

For instance, if you expect that your therapist will react appropriately and just need to practice saying what you need to say, you can ask your friend to role play a therapist who respects the boundary.

Alternatively, you can role play a “worst case scenario” in which the therapist is unsupportive and not respectful. For some people, preparing for the worst helps; for others, it doesn’t.

6. Put It in Writing

If journaling is helpful for you, try writing about what happened in therapy and how you felt about it. This can help you clarify your own feelings and figure out how you want to move forward in therapy.

Another way to use writing to help you set boundaries in therapy is to write down what you want to say to your therapist.

You can bring this to therapy and read it aloud if that helps you, or you can e-mail it to your therapist if that’s a mode of communication you use together.

Keep in mind, though, that therapists usually won’t discuss things like this over e-mail. Instead, they’ll bring it up with you in person in the next session. But if you know you can’t bring yourself to say it in person, saying it via e-mail is better than not saying it at all.

What If Your Therapist Won’t Respect Your Boundary?

Competent therapists know that you can’t earn a client’s trust – much less actually help them work on their issues – if you don’t respect their boundaries.

Unfortunately, though, therapists have flaws just like anyone else.

Some were taught old-fashioned, ineffective therapeutic techniques that emphasize pushing clients to open up before they feel ready to; some might have their own personal insecurities that they haven’t worked through in their own therapy or supervision.

Whatever the reason, here are some ways you can respond when a therapist doesn’t seem to accept your boundaries.

1. Try the Broken Record Method

When someone keeps pushing after you’ve set a boundary, it sometimes helps to just keep repeating the boundary until they start to feel a little awkward.

“Actually, I just said I’m not comfortable talking about that.”

“As I said, I’m not okay with talking about that.”

2. Be Transparent About How This Is Making You Feel

Well-intentioned therapists may keep asking questions because they don’t realize that it’s making you anxious or uncomfortable with them.

It can help to say something like, “When you keep asking questions about something I’ve said I’m not ready to talk about, I feel like I can’t trust you.”

3. Consider Looking for a New Therapist

If you can’t trust your therapist to respect your boundaries, unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for your work together.

According to research, the strength of the bond between a therapist and their client is the best predictor of how effective therapy will be. That bond can’t grow strong in the absence of trust and safety.

It’s always okay to “fire” your therapist if they’re not doing their job in the way you need them to.

Even though it may feel like your therapist has power over you, they are, in fact, working for you. If you hired someone to care for your children or remodel your kitchen and that person clearly wasn’t able to do the job, you would probably fire them and hire someone else. Therapists are the same way.

However, it’s also important to acknowledge that that’s not a choice everyone gets to make.

Some people are mandated to attend therapy for any number of reasons, and they may not be able to switch to another one. Some people have very specific concerns that few therapists can address adequately, and some might have difficulty finding another therapist they can afford.

If you’re able to search for another therapist who respects your boundaries, I encourage you to. Remember that just like with jobs, you can keep seeing your current therapist until you’ve found a better one. But if you can’t switch to another therapist, that’s not your fault.

You deserve respect from the therapist you have, and it’s your therapist’s job to make sure that they’re respecting boundaries.

***

Luckily, many therapists will be receptive and understanding when you set boundaries with them.

A good therapist might thank you for letting them know about the boundary. They might show care or concern about the circumstances that made the boundary necessary, and they’ll want to do their best to understand you better. A good therapist will care how they made you feel, and will apologize if they’ve accidentally hurt you.

Most importantly, a good therapist will remember this conversation in the future and treat you and your boundaries with the respect you deserve. If they cannot work with you in the way you need them to, it’s their responsibility to refer you to someone who can.

Your boundaries are always valid, even – especially – when the other person has power over you in some way. Good therapists understand the power they wield and use it responsibly and respectfully.

Miri Mogilevsky recently graduated with a Masters in Social Work and is starting a career as a counselor in Columbus, Ohio. She loves reading, writing, and learning about psychology, social justice, and sexuality, and is working on her cat photography skills. Miri writes a blog called Brute Reason, rants on Tumblr, and occasionally even tweets @sondosia.