Why Are Boundaries So Important for Sensitive Therapists?
How often have you let a session run a few minutes over or answered emails in the evening from home? Maybe you’ve scheduled a client session on your day off or said yes to a lunch invitation from a colleague despite feeling tired or needing to get notes done. I am definitely guilty of breaking my boundaries in all of these ways and know all too well the consequences of bypassing my needs in an attempt to accommodate others.
Most often in these instances, I feel resentful that I wasn’t able to get enough downtime or complete an important task which usually leads to exhaustion or feelings of frustration, self-doubt and overwhelm if undone tasks pile up. My inner critic loves to chime in at this point to tell me I cannot manage all my responsibilities as a therapist (which is not true, of course!). Not being capable enough is a common worry for the Highly Sensitive Therapist who is already more prone to feeling overwhelmed and emotionally burned out.
As Highly Sensitive People, we are wired for empathy, to notice subtleties and to process deeply which makes us more likely to get easily overwhelmed. The antidote to this struggle with overwhelm and exhaustion is having clear, firm boundaries for how we allocate our time.
Why Do Sensitive Therapists Struggle With Boundaries?
Maintaining solid boundaries can be a huge challenge for us, especially when we are sitting in our therapist seat (literally and figuratively). In an attempt to be a caring and responsive therapist, we often overextend and sacrifice our own well-being in an attempt to show up for others. So why is it so difficult to say “no”?
We’re Empathetic: Our brains have more active mirror neurons which means our capacity for empathy is higher than the other 80% of the population who don’t possess the HSP trait. When others suffer, we suffer, therefore we often feel guilty when we cannot offer support or say yes to a request.
We’re Conflict Avoidant: We get overstimulated easily and feel everything deeply which makes conflict and criticism very difficult to manage. It can often feel easier to bypass our needs than set a strong boundary and risk confrontation or disapproval.
We Doubt Ourselves: Highly Sensitive folks have often been told that our needs are not valid or unrealistic, so we have learned to ignore or override our needs.
Why Is It important for HSTs To Set Firm Boundaries?
It may seem insignificant to answer a few emails in the evening, for instance, instead of using that time to decompress and recharge, but we become a little more depleted each time we let a boundary get blurred. Not only will we miss crucial opportunities for downtime, but also increase time spent transitioning between tasks and time needed to process our experiences afterwards. It’s an avalanche of overwhelm and exhaustion waiting to happen because we all know that answering an email is not simply answering an email! We’ll analyze what to write and then think about it afterwards.
In addition to using boundaries to protect your downtime to avoid eventual burn out, it also helps create predictability and calm. Since our brains are wired to pause and reflect before acting, we thrive on routine and are stressed by sudden change. You can use boundaries as a way to prioritize what’s important and then protect your needs.
If you need further convincing, I also like to remind myself that setting boundaries is clinically relevant. I firmly believe that it is important as clinicians to model healthy boundaries for our clients. This allows them to experience these boundaries in action and also feel a deep sense of safety because the therapeutic container is predictable.
How Can We Model Strong Boundaries?
Whether you’re at home or in the office, there are numerous subtle and more overt ways to set a boundary. Below I list a few of my favorite ways to make sure I am upholding my boundaries in the office to be able to do my best work:
Taking regular breaks throughout the day to recharge
Limiting personal calls while I’m in the office so I can stay focused on my work responsibilities
Prioritizing what’s important for my practice/business goals instead of paying attention to what others are doing
Starting and ending sessions on time
Maintaining my late cancellation policy
Creating set times to answer client calls and emails
Having set appointment days and times throughout the week
Being direct during communication with clients and colleagues
Granting requests on my own terms such as my policy to only provide superbills once per month
Since Highly Sensitive Therapists have this great capacity for empathy and perception, we are more easily overwhelmed and prone to burnout when we don’t get enough downtime. Therefore it’s important to set firm boundaries and be intentional with how we use our precious energy and time. Setting boundaries is key to being able to focus on our priorities and show up to our clinical work feeling energized.
Questions for Self-Reflection
How are you currently setting boundaries in your clinical work?
What gets in the way of setting boundaries for you?
What is the impact when you set a boundary? What about when you don’t?
What specific steps can you take to slowly begin to strengthen your boundaries?