Do you struggle to set your boundaries? I think boundary setting in private practice is a real challenge to many people, and the reason for this is that there’s quite a lot at stake. It’s difficult enough to recruit new clients to your private practice, let alone have to deal with some of the difficulties that come up that might mean they end up leaving. And I think this extra dimension of needing to earn your living through your counselling can actually make boundary setting quite a scary prospect. But what I’m going to do today is just have a little think around the subject of boundaries and believe me I’ve made the mistakes and I’ve been burned out and this is where I learned my lessons about setting boundaries in private practice.

Let’s get started. The first thing I’m going to tell you about is the mistake I made when I was booking people in and I shall never forget one of my clients turning around to me and looking at me and looking at how tired I looked and she said to me, oh, what are they doing to you?’ It was a rather ironic conversation, a) because she was the client and I was the counsellor, and b) because it wasn’t what anybody else was doing to me it was what I was doing to myself. And what I was doing was running myself ragged for two reasons. The first is that I hadn’t set my fees at the right rate, so I was seeing a lot of clients, And the second was that I was seeing clients all the way during the week and I was fitting them in when I could fit them in, rather than having boundaries around the times where I was actually fully available. And what happened is I got really tired, a little bit burned out and I had to actually give myself a bit more of a break and reconsider what I was doing and that did result in some changes.

I’m glad to say I put my prices up and I also limited when I would see people. Now one of the things was I was really scared that if I said no to clients when they asked me for my availability and I didn’t have availability for when they wanted, I thought that would mean that I would lose the client. But what I found was that clients were very willing to fit in with what I had to offer. They knew they wanted to see me, and so when I said no, but I’m available at this time, they usually made arrangements so that they could fit in with me. And all the time, I’d been thinking that I had to fit in with them and it turned out that by setting my boundaries they actually agreed to fit in with me.

So let’s have a little think about why it’s really important to set your boundaries and I would say it’s for many reasons but it’s because self care is really the foundation of therapy. You can’t pour from an empty cup and I know you know this but I’m going to remind you of it again. You cannot adequately support your clients if you’re not supporting yourself. And believe me, counselling is a very demanding activity and you do need to have your self care in place. And, hopefully, something that you’ve picked up from me and which I will talk about in a later episode, is that it’s really important to think about your fees as part of your self care.

But you need to think about what you’re going to do to support your own health, and so setting boundaries is actually an integral part of that. You need to have time off. And my example was that I wasn’t getting enough time off because I was spending a lot of time. It was bitty. I was seeing people here, there and everywhere.

It was really bitty and it meant that I couldn’t have a good chunk of time to myself and what actually made a big difference was after that happened I actually gave myself a day off a week during the week when everybody was out of the house and I actually just said, right, Thursdays is my day off and I’m not going to do any housework or shopping or anything like that. I am going to use it as a day off for me, and it made such a difference to my life. And I think a lot of why I’m here doing what I’m here today results from those Thursdays off. But if you have self care practices in place, that’s gonna help you support your clients. It’s going to model to them what good health looks like and it’s gonna help you to be more resilient as well because you’ve got that core of self care that will stand you in good stead and will keep you going in what is a really, really demanding job.

So, let’s just have a little think about why we find it so difficult to say no. And I would really like to share this lovely quote that I came across when I was struggling to set some boundaries a little while ago and what this quote says is you can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no. Kindness actually starts with yourself. You have to prioritise your well-being to provide the best support that you can to your clients. But the problem is so many of us have been brought up to believe that kindness actually means saying yes to everybody.

And why is it why do so many of us as therapists struggle with this basic dilemma of being able to put ourselves first and why do we struggle to say no and it’s because we believe that we have to say yes. And these are some of the reasons why we might believe that’s the case. One of the main reasons why we find it difficult to set our boundaries is that we’re naturally empathic and compassionate and the fact is is we do genuinely care about our clients and we want them to know that we accept them and care for them and that can often lead to that guilt in saying no because we don’t want them to think that we don’t care. We want them to understand that we get their problems. And so saying no, sort of, we worry about actually the impression that that might give them, that they might think that we’re not being caring towards them.

And then another reason is the expectations around being a helping professional. We might feel the weight of expectations on us that we should always be available, we should always be supportive. There’s this belief that therapists should sacrifice their own needs for the well-being of others and that just gives us this obligation to say yes even if it’s at a cost to our own mental, emotional, and physical health. We believe that that’s what you do in the helping professions. And often, you know, we don’t even think about it.

It’s just there within our DNA. So I’d really love you to question yourself and think to yourself, you know, do I have those expectations? Am I joining in with this societal expectation about the helping professions? We worry that saying no means that we’re going to feel inadequate. We worry that saying no means that we’re going to lose clients and we’re worried that saying no is going to actually damage the therapeutic relationship.

And with that fear of rejection, that fear that we might lose our clients, that can actually override our logical prefrontal thinking about why we need to actually set that boundary because, as we know, fear can just take over. Another reason why we might really struggle with saying no is all to do with our own personal values and our identity. So, often many of us have values that are deeply rooted in the concept of helping others and saying no actually challenges that self-concept, it challenges those values, challenges our identity and this conflict between our values and the need for self care can create a sort of internal tension and a sense of guilt. I think it’s really helpful to be able to do a reframe on this and to actually think about how helping ourselves actually helps our clients and that’s a really important reframe to make. And then finally, I think it’s really important to consider what our past experiences are and these may well lead into that sense of fear of rejection.

So it might be really difficult for us to set boundaries because of our past experiences. There could be childhood experiences in there where we weren’t allowed to have boundaries or our boundaries were constantly pushed. And if we didn’t give way we perhaps suffered in a physical or emotional sense. And so that actually makes it very difficult for us because it leads to that fear that’s inside us that’s very deep rooted and so it makes it very difficult for us to prioritise our own needs. And this could be particularly true if you’re someone who’s, say, lived with a narcissistic adult.

Those are some of the reasons why you might be feeling guilty and I think if you are someone who feels guilty it might be worth, perhaps, journaling around this subject, seeing which of these things that are coming up. If any of these speak to you? Take them away and have a bit of a journal around it, and maybe take it to supervision the next time you’re in supervision. Now let’s just have a little think about what you can do in order to help you with your boundaries setting. And first of all, I’d really, really like to talk about this concept of reframing.

Reframing why you are setting boundaries. So it might be really helpful to say to yourself, setting boundaries is not about being unkind or selfish, it’s all about ensuring that you’re in the best state of mind and you’re in a position of good mental health to be able to offer the support that your clients deserve. If you’re saying no to things that overwhelm you, you’re saying yes to being fully present with your client. It gives you extra energy, compassion, and enthusiasm. And usually, if you’re beginning to feel burned out that may be a question for you.

Is it because of your boundaries? Are you lacking in enthusiasm, energy and compassion because you’ve allowed those boundaries to be a bit elastic? So ultimately, by setting boundaries you’re enhancing the quality of care that you provide to your clients. So that’s a really effective reframe for you. By looking after you, you’re actually looking after your clients.

So let’s have a think about how you can help your clients to understand your boundaries. So communication here is obviously key and of course you’ll be aware of the value of setting your contract and having a written contract that people can read and digest in their own time. When I’ve trained we would just do verbal contracts, but of course you wonder how much a verbal contract actually goes in if a client is sitting in front of you in their first session feeling absolutely so it’s really helpful to make sure that people maybe have a view of your contract before you start so they can read it in their own time and then come back to you and you can reiterate aspects of it or ask them if they’ve got any questions because that means they can read it when they’re not feeling too nervous and they’re more likely to be able to understand it at that point. It’s also really helpful to explain to them actually why you have boundaries and how it can help. So boundaries are there to help ensure that the space is safe for clients, that they can actually make the most of therapy and that you’ve got particular boundaries because that enables you to look after them safely as well.

So that might be a good reason for you explaining why you wouldn’t, sort of, communicate with them about what’s happening in the session, outside of the session, because you need to communicate that with them in the session so that you can communicate it safely. That’s one example of how holding your boundaries can actually help the client. But if they understand the reasons why you’re setting boundaries, then they’re more likely to respect them. And obviously, you know, with things like charging for cancellations, part of the thinking behind that is that that is respectful not getting paid and that means you’re not able to offer counselling if you’re not getting paid. So that’s the reason why you might explain why you charge if they have late cancellations, for example.

And, obviously, setting boundaries at the beginning of therapy, that sets the ground rules which can be really helpful and it helps to set the tone for your therapeutic relationships. If you wait too long, you know, there might be confusion or they might be resentful because they’ll say, well, you know, it was okay before, why isn’t it okay now? So it’s really helpful obviously for you to think through what your boundaries are before you start. Obviously, when you’re using boundaries as well, it can be really helpful to use those I messages where you start the sentence with I. I prefer not to be contacted outside of our sessions.

This can help to stop it sounding too accusatory or dogmatic. You can if you use those ‘eye’ expressions that can really help clients to hear them and then also, obviously, as well, to explain what would happen if the boundaries aren’t followed. So, for example, you may have a social media boundary and you could explain why that is and what would happen. Say, for example, you’ve got a social media boundary, you don’t accept people as friends, but they’re able to comment on your public posts, if you’ve got, say, some sort of public facing social media page, you may have boundaries around I won’t actually answer what you say if you comment on my public posts And the reason for that is that I don’t want people to realise that you’re actually a client of mine. It’s all in order to maintain your confidentiality.

So being clear and discussing the consequences, that can really help people as well because they can understand why you’re doing it. And then the other thing I’d say as well is that it really helps to remind people. Because with the best will in the world, if you’ve contracted at the start of the session, 3 or 4 months in, people will have forgotten the boundaries. And so it’s just helpful to reiterate them. So, for example, if you send a confirmation email when you’re confirming appointments or you’re sending them, say, the Zoom link or something like that, you could have a standard sentence in there that says that gives them a reminder about late cancellations, for example, and then they see it every time they see your confirmation.

And that could just be a standard paragraph that goes into your email template and that can help because it reinforces that message around your boundaries. Those are just some a few ideas as to how you can help with those boundaries and what I’d really like to end with is just a little bit of encouragement for you because this is after all a podcast called ‘Good Enough Counsellors’ and I think it can be very easy to be blindsided when we accidentally find it difficult to set a boundary, we forget to set it, or we make a mistake with a boundary, or even that we are just struggling and the whole subject of boundaries is something that we feel a bit nervous about because we’re not very good at it. And the thing to remember is that you’re not going to be perfect and that it takes time and practice and persistence and learning to do all these things. By listening to this particular episode you’re showing that, you know, you do want to set your boundaries, the willingness is there and you’re setting your intention to work on your boundaries and that’s a great start, isn’t it?

It’s taken me a very long time to set my boundaries and it is still a constant thing that I have to keep going back to and that’s partly to do with people pleasing and past trauma and it’s also to do with learning how to do it. And I think as you work on your own stuff, as you work on the things that are maybe causing you to find it difficult to set your boundaries, you’ll actually begin to find that they come much more naturally to you. It becomes much easier to be assertive when you’ve actually built yourself up inside. So don’t be perfectionist about it, don’t listen to that inner critical voice who’s gonna tell you off for not having your boundaries all sorted already because it takes time and especially if you’re just starting out on private practice. This is a whole new learning curve, but it is part of the fun.

You don’t have to get it a 100% right at the start, it takes time and people like myself, 10, 12 years in, are still working away at them, still finding new challenges, so you may like to just go through some of the things that I’ve suggested, have a bit of a reflect on them, maybe take them to supervision and see if you can improve your own boundaries. But I just want to repeat that sentence that helped me a lot. You can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no. I hope that helps. Thanks for listening.

Do come and join my Facebook community Good Enough Counsellors and for more information about how I can help you develop your private practice, please visit my website If you found this episode helpful, I’d love it if you could share it with a fellow therapist or leave a review on your podcast app. And in closing, I’d love to remind you that every single step you make gets you closer to your dream. I really believe you can do it.