Issues of Personal Boundaries in Counseling - Part III

How should counselors respond to the client's boundaries?

In our two earlier installments, we highlighted the importance of counselors carefully guarding their own personal boundaries while working with troubled people.  Respecting the boundaries of those we seek to help is equally important.  Here are a few thoughts on the topic:

  1. We must teach and model healthy boundaries - People who grow up in dysfunctional families tend to believe that they are not allowed to have personal boundaries. Though abused and mistreated, they do not feel they deserve anything else. As mentioned earlier, a personal boundary is, essentially, the line that divides me from you.  Without boundaries I can't tell what's my stuff and what's yours. Something as simple as saying "No" to drugs and alcohol - or to sin in any form - is a boundaries issue.  To do so takes a commitment to caring about myself, while seeking to maintain a growing relationship with God. So, teaching and modeling healthy boundaries is vital if these folks are to begin the road to recovery.
     
  2. "Fixing" vs. "Empowering" - Healthy recovery cannot happen until an individual is able to establish a program of "self-care." At the Pool of Siloam, Jesus said to a crippled man, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." (John 5:8)  In a very real way, this illustrates how we ought to minister to troubled people.  The goal is not to carry (or enable) people through the rest of their lives.  We don't want to do their part for them.  Our part is to give them the "tools" they need in order to make good decisions.  Their part is to take those "tools" and learning to live sober and godly by applying them to "real life" situations.  Of course, imparting the tools can be a very lengthy process, which also involves removing the many "roadblocks" to recovery, such as denial. Still, we need to be mindful about keeping the focus on each individual taking responsibility for their own lives, helping them to understand fully the consequences of the decisions they make.
     
  3. Allowing People to Feel - The return of the emotional life is a signal that people are beginning the road to recovery. Repressed emotions, some very scary and painful, often begin to surface.  These can include anger, sadness, loneliness and fear.  Christian workers sometimes do not feel comfortable with strong feelings being expressed by others. By dismissing, rejecting, or shutting down those feelings, we can end up sending the same signals they received in their dysfunctional families.  Instead, in a kind, supportive manner, we must allow them to talk their way through those feelings, even when they don't seem very realistic or accurate reflections of their current situations.  
  4. Clear Expectations - Every well-run program needs written policies, rules, and procedures.    Setting appropriate boundaries begins the moment the client walks into our facility.  Each of them comes to us with a different set of needs and different expectations about what we can do for them; what participating our program really will be like.  So, a formal orientation procedure is essential.  This is most easily accomplished by creating an actual checklist of the rules that apply to all program participants, along with the program's expectations of those who are involved.  And, we must be sure that once we have informed them of our policies and expectations of them, we must be sure to enforce the rules in a fair manner.  
  5. Individual Attention Given - Clients need to know that we have their individual best in mind.  The mission is there for them, and they not are just there to give their labor to keep the mission going.  Along with providing one-on-one counseling sessions, establishing personalized, written goals and objectives provides clients with a sense of purpose and direction in the recovery process.  They need a set of objective measures for their own progress (or lack of progress).  Efforts expended toward adequate needs assessment and development of individualized written plans tells clients that they are truly important to the program staff.  This is so important because if people in your program are feeling used or ignored, they will certainly shut themselves down to the recovery process.  

An important element of the mission's "therapeutic environment" comes when we give residents all the dignity and respect that they are entitled to as children of God.  And even though their defenses are up and they are angry, still they are God's children and deserving of every bit of dignity that we can give them.  Respecting their boundaries is respecting them.  Doing for them what they should do themselves is not affording this dignity.  Instead, the message we just may convey the message that we don't believe that they can actually change.

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Copyright 1996-2012 by Michael Liimatta. All Rights Reserved.
Mr. Liimatta is the past President of Christians in Recovery® 
and currently serves on its Advisory Counsel. He is a Social Entrepreneur, Consultant 
to Nonprofit Organizations with OneAccord, Chief Academic Officer at City Vision College 
and has been involved with drug and alcohol counseling and recovery education for 30 years.
Visit his web site

This copyrighted series originally appeared in RESCUE Magazine, published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, October 2001, December 2001, and February 2002 issues.  Reprinting without permission is prohibited.