I couldn’t wait to ask my friend how her new private practice was going. We had spent hours over the previous months consulting and planning, sharing tips and tools and getting excited about how this move would improve her life.
She’s a fantastic counselor, and I just knew she’d be successful.
“Well….” she said, “I just can’t seem to get started.”
“Well my old job knows my end date, but they keep giving me clients anyway, and even though I set aside time to work on marketing, things keep coming up at the last minute to do …. and the time just disappears. And I have some new clients, but they keep canceling at the last minute…”
Stuck and Stressed
I became aware that my friend’s lack of boundaries in her business was keeping her stuck and stressed. We talked about what she needs to say no to, how to carve out and defend the time she needs to spend on her business and her self-care and the fear that arises when she starts to get clear on these boundaries.
She kept saying “I know this stuff! I teach it to my clients all the time; how have I let it slip for myself?”
As therapists, we may be incredibly adept at teaching the concept of boundary-setting to our clients, but we often model it poorly when it comes to our business.
Concepts like saying “no” to what you don’t want, getting clear on what you do want and setting some definition around your time/energy/identity do not just apply to your personal life. They are vital to a healthy business, and thus to the clients you help.
Signs That You Need Better Boundaries in Your Business:
- Your sessions aren’t ending or starting on time.
- You haven’t had a haircut, massage or vacation in months.
- You’re making “special exceptions” of your policies.
- You’re starting to feel annoyed with your clients for having problems.
We need to set clear boundaries around our time, our policies, our identity as counselors, our self-care, and our space.
Why are Boundaries So Vital to Your Business?
- Boundaries force clarity. Success happens when we are very clear. Clarity is attractive to our clients, to our referrers, to our energy and thus to the money that follows. Clarity tells us exactly where we’ve been and where we want to go. Lack of clarity keeps us unfocused and swimming in circles. Most importantly, People trust clarity. Clarity helps clients know what to expect, which is very attractive since they are often feeling vulnerable: nobody likes surprises when it comes to something as personal as therapy.
Clarity often triggers fear for therapists in private practice— because getting clear might mean “losing out” on potential clients by limiting our niche, challenging our tendency to want to be all things to all people, and kicking in our “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out). Being aware of the fear can help us stay clear despite it.
- Boundaries reduce stress. When we set clear boundaries, we are reducing the number of minute-to-minute decisions we have to make, thus reducing stress. Our brain’s decision-making power is a depletable resource: our energy for creative thought and decisions is vastly reduced when we waste it on small decisions. This is why Steve Jobs wore the same turtleneck and jeans outfit every day, and why President Obama only has one style of suit (except for that one tan oddity). Knowing our “yeses” and “no’s” ahead of time saves energy.
Setting clear boundaries also reduces the stress of pressure from others. The conversation goes from “Um, let me think about it” to “This is how it works,” a magical phrase which depersonalizes the decision while holding the boundary (ex. “This is how it works: I only see clients on these days, hours, etc.”).
- Boundaries are built in self-care. Saying no to that extra client on your “no-client time” keeps you from flirting with burnout. Saying no early and often also acclimates others to your boundaries; at some point people just know and accept your boundaries and stop asking.
When my friend started shutting off her phone and computer during self-care time, she was less stressed and after a while people’s “urgent” last-minute requests tapered off. Her guilt at saying “No” more went away as she realized she was becoming a better therapist (and person).
- Boundaries increase your sense of worth. Saying No is a way of saying Yes to better things; it clears a path for what we really want and communicates: “My business and my time are valuable.”
Professional organizers often notice that when their clients start de-cluttering their spaces, their confidence goes up. “It’s like they’re realizing ‘I’m worth holding out for better things; I don’t just need stuff anymore’,” says one organizer. The “stuff” we’re willing to say “No” to to protect our business and personal life communicates that they’re worth more, too.
Asserting that “My business and time are valuable” can feel a little scary. Why? The higher the value we place on something, the more vulnerable we feel to loss or failure.
My friend and I both realized that her poor boundaries reflected that deep down she was terrified. A lot was riding on her practice succeeding: her financial stability, her professional reputation and her sense of confidence and worth as a counselor.
Once she named and worked through her “Who do I think I am?” fears, she was able to move forward and serve clients successfully and joyfully.
- Boundaries serve your clients. When you set and keep healthy boundaries for your business and for yourself, you model these practices for your clients. You also have more energy and attention to give them, and bring less resentment and stress into the counseling office. You also attract more clients to your practice, which means more people are being served by your amazing skills.