That Awkward Moment: Maintaining Boundaries With Your Clients

boundariesImagine that you’re at the local drive-through window, picking up a quick lunch. As luck would have it, the person taking your order is also your client. She had a particularly tough session a few days before, and she takes this opportunity to update you on her situation. Awkward? Definitely. Unlikely? Not really.

Psych Central’s “Ask the Therapists” experts Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. and Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, recently sat down to discuss boundaries in the psychotherapeutic relationship, and revealed that they both have had drive-through client encounters.

Read on and watch the video below for tips on maintaining boundaries with your clients when these and other sticky situations arise. And watch out for that drive-through window!

What exactly are professional boundaries for therapists in private practice? Boundaries are clear lines in the relationship between a therapist and a client, according to the book Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skills. They are intended to prevent conflicts of interest and help clarify that—although the client/therapist relationship can be an incredibly intimate one—it is not, nor should it be, a social relationship (Hepworth D et al. 8th Edition: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning;2010).

But what happens if you can’t help but be in a semi-social relationship with a client? What if he or she works at your bank, frequents the same playground as you, or lives in your neighborhood?

“Sometimes I think it’s the same phenomenon that kids have with their teachers,” says Dr. Hartwell-Walker, describing what it’s like to interact with a client outside of the therapy office. “It’s like you’re wheeled out of the closet for their class and then you’re wheeled back in. I think sometimes our clients are really startled to find us in ‘regular’ life.”

When you live in a small community and have these inevitable run-ins with clients, it’s very important to be clear that you are not going to discuss anything you talk about in therapy outside of a session…ever. “That’s not just for my protection, it’s for the client’s protection,” says Dr. Hartwell-Walker. “It’s important for clients to know that there is a protected space called our office, and in that protected space we can talk about things that are sometimes hard, and that they have control over what is said in that protected space.”

The control point is an important one, as this is a key part of the ethical issues surrounding multiple relationships between clients and therapists. It’s very important that when a therapist has a relationship outside of therapy with a client, it is clear that he or she doesn’t have any type of control of power over the person in that context.

The best way to do this is to be very clear about your boundaries at the outset when you see clients on the “outside.” “Keep it very clear that this is not a therapy session,” says Dr. Hartwell-Walker.

If a client does bring up personal issues that are better discussed in therapy, you need to be firm and straightforward that those aren’t up for discussion outside of your office. She suggests you say something like, “I think it’s important we talk about that [issue]. If you think it is so important that we need an extra session, why don’t you call me later and we’ll make an appointment.”

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That Awkward Moment: Maintaining Boundaries With Your Clients

Amy Harding

Amy Harding is an editor at Psych Central Pro. She has worked as a writer and editor in the healthcare field for more than 10 years, in roles as diverse as writing marketing copy for a large hospital system to serving as executive editor at a psychiatry CME publisher. Her career has focused primarily on creating accessible, timely, and reader-friendly professional education for those in the mental and behavioral health fields. You can reach her at [email protected]


APA Reference
Harding, A. (2015). That Awkward Moment: Maintaining Boundaries With Your Clients. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 May 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 May 2015
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