Being affected by our clients is a good thing. We’re human, and a lot of what we witness with clients is pretty affecting stuff. Our clients have an impact on us – from the more immediate of how we feel after a session to bigger impacts like how we see the world, and what we understand about what it means to be human.
I want to continually be moved and transformed by my clients. I want them to feel really seen and loved and understood.
And what’s the best way of ensuring that continues to happen over time? By having emotional boundaries that fit for us. Emotional boundaries help us to protect our emotional energy by allowing us to connect with others without feeling drowned in their pain. They help us to be with someone, and that’s different than being consumed by their experience. Below are three steps we can all take to protect our emotional energy.
How Psychotherapists and Helping Professionals Can Set Emotional Boundaries
1. Conscious Noticing
I find the practice of protecting our emotional energy to be very conscious, especially at first. For me, this meant really noticing how I was doing and where I was sitting with my clients in each and every session. I had to purposefully check in with myself and notice what was happening inside my own body as I sat with my clients. When I started to notice my own heart beating faster, my speech quickening, or a feeling of anxiety, these were my cues that I was starting to take on the emotions of the client. Likewise, when I would feel hopeless, stuck, or unclear, I knew I was taking on the nervous system of the person in front of me. I tracked my body experiences, my behaviors, and my emotions during all of my sessions. I also gave myself enough time during the day and after I finished with my last client to reflect on my experiences and what I was still carrying with me.
2. Reconnecting & Grounding
When I start to notice some of the experiences I listed above, that’s my cue to re-ground myself in my own experience. I’ll take a moment to sit back in my chair, slow down whatever I was saying, and feel my feet on the floor. Sometimes I name what I’m doing as I’m doing it and give the client the opportunity to do the same. Other times I will make the shift while continuing to listen in a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the session. I find it helpful to use my senses to do this grounding. I can notice the things I see from my chair that the client doesn’t see. I can notice the things I feel with my feet and on my chair that the client doesn’t feel. It’s a way of helping my body remember that I am with myself in the present moment not inside the clients’ experience of the past or present.
3. Understanding What Makes It Possible To Stay Connected With Ourselves
Some days, conscious noticing and grounding are harder than on other days. I figured out pretty quickly that if I worked over a certain number of clients per day or didn’t take care of my other needs, it was harder to remain grounded in my own experience and still connected with clients. I found a more easily slipped into taking on their “stuff“. For some clinicians I’ve worked with, that can lead to burnout and disconnection from her work, which I know is where none of us want to end up.
I also had a hard time protecting my emotional energy when I was in pain. If I was really going to be present for my clients in a meaningful way without getting lost in their pain, I had to take care of my own pain. As most of my pain is physical in nature, this meant staying on top of a regular massage and yoga routine, staying within my limits when it came to how many hours per day I saw clients, and finding ways to stay connected to my own aliveness.
We each need something different in order for us to show up as our best, most grounded selves. I know that my hard limit around the number of clients I see per day isn’t going to be felt across the board. But we each have limits that we need to respect, and we each have needs we need to tune to. It’s not enough to tack on a yoga class at the end of a difficult week. We need to set up our lives to allow us to show up for our work in a sustainable way.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries. She can be found at www.
©2018 Nicole Perry. All rights reserved.
Photos from Unsplash.com.
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