Therapist's Boundaries - Fed up and need insight, please--

You helped me once before and I am grateful. I hope you can find time for this one. I have seen this therapist for almost two years for depression. When I first went, I had no idea about therapy and the rules so I first made the doctor mad over me asking questions about his life. To me, they were just what a person says to another like I do to my lawyer or dentist or vet such as, "How was your weekend?" if it were a Monday or "Nice carvings; you collect African art?" I did not know not to ask but when he got mad and told me you don't do that with a therapist, I stopped and I never have since although he now tells me things about his life. I think it is weird but I make sure I follow the rules. Three months later at holiday, I gave him exactly what I gave my kids' teachers, chocolate pretzels. Again he got mad. I told him I did the same for the teachers, etc. and always do the same for the vet, the paper carrier--everyone. I had no idea it also was taboo. I apologized and asked about other rules I needed to know. He said clients must never touch him so I was glad to know that and take great pains not to even walk close to him. I never have even tried to shake his hand and am glad I knew that rule because in my business, I shake hands all the time. I pay on time, go on time, do the things needed to improve, and just try to do what I should. I am better and I like this doctor overall but here again is this boundary thing over a holiday card with nothing but my name on it and a peace on earth graphic. He never said a card was not allowed and now I guess I should have known but I cannot believe this. I do not understand it and it makes me feel like I am some needy person but I am the opposite of that. I have many friends, a successful business, dates after a divorce, and people always say how private I am. I have made a point all my life of not needing anyone so I do not understand why this doctor thinks I am trying to intrude on his boundaries! I am fed up and want to quit going there because it makes me feel humiliated. Even writing it makes me feel ashamed like it is a minefield. Please do not think I am acting like I am in love with him; I am not and I watch my every move not to break any rules. What am I missing? No one ever has said I was needy!

Ben's Response:

Your therapist seems to have some issues about boundaries and seems to consider his boundaries to be more important than being sensitive to your desire for a normal human connection with him. In the U.S. there are ethics and rules around client-therapist relationships but most are not written on any stone tablets, and a little wisdom and human judgement is necessary to decide what is appropriate in any given situation. Giving an expensive gift - not appropriate. Giving chocolate pretzels for Christmas - yes please (I hope I get some).

One of the bedrocks of psychotherapy is a healing relationship in which there is warmth, empathy and unconditional positive regard for your client. Shaking hands does not violate any code of ethics. And a therapist who "get's mad" about your gestures of kindness towards him, is acting unprofessionally.

I will say however that if you have an established relationship with this therapist, it is probably worth having a direct discussion with him about your feelings of humiliation and discomfort about his rigid boundaries. I assure you, not all therapists take that rigid approach, but therapists are people and we each have our own personality. It's not a therapist thing, it's a human thing. Talking about this might lead to a deeper connection between you, or it might lead you to realize that a different type of therapist might be a better fit for you. There is something to learn from every experience.

Take Care,
Ben Schwarcz

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Dec 21, 2013
Blessings to you
by: Anonymous

Dear Ben,

Thank you for helping me. You are a blessing to this universe. I feel so much better and will address this with the doctor and find another if things do not improve. You deserve many chocolate pretzels! Thank you for your guidance; I thought I was not seeing something.

Thank you very much!

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