Whether we like it or not, no amount of talent or skill will keep a therapist immune from wanting to be liked as a person. We all have our favorite clients, and because we are human we may find ourselves wanting certain people to like us more than others. The problem occurs when we let that basic human need to be loved and appreciated inadvertently impact the boundaries we set with our clients.
In professional development, therapists are often reminded that being too friendly with a client and ignoring boundaries is unethical, but what we often forget is that it’s unprofitable as well. For example, imagine a client you genuinely like has to reschedule at the last minute, or he or she wants to go a few minutes over the scheduled time to chat about their weekend plans. It can be all too tempting to make those exceptions when you enjoy being in the consulting room with a client and helping them meet their goals.
At first glance, accommodating clients might seem like a good strategy for keeping them coming in the door. But blurring boundaries can leave you emotionally and physically exhausted as a therapist and it can deter financial growth and success.
Why is this? When the human need to be liked influences how and when you make accommodations for clients, you can lose some of the focus of your goals as a clinician. When your focus is on how someone else responds to you rather than what is best for the client, you’re not doing your best work. And only your best work can keep people coming back. When you charge a client for a cancellation, you’re not communicating that you don’t like them. You’re letting them know that you value your time and your abilities, and that they should as well.
Also, constantly making these accommodations will cost you the time that you can be seeing other clients, planning for your practice, or engaging in some necessary self-care. When you set the standard that it’s okay to reschedule at the last minute without paying or go over a few extra minutes, then you’ve sent the message to your client that these rules aren’t important. And perhaps that you don’t take the work very seriously either. We all probably know from experience that enforcing these policies midway through a therapeutic relationship is much harder than simply setting them at the beginning.
Finally, the ethics codes recommend that we don’t counsel our real life friends for a reason. It’s impossible to be objective when a relationship is always a two-way street and when we might be personally invested in the outcome. Even though we’re as human as our clients, the therapy room is no place for us to work out our own needs and interests. A client might feel temporarily relieved because you make an exception for them, but what keeps him or her coming back is how committed you are to helping them change. And a therapist who’s only committed to being liked is about as far from that position as you can get.
The next time you’re considering letting a client into the friend zone, stop and pay attention to your thinking. Are you allowing an exception because the circumstances require it, or because you’re afraid that a client will be upset with you? Setting boundaries means that you might not always be liked, but this practice inevitably gets easier and easier over time. And in the end, the most successful therapist is the one who is clear with his or her expectations, because he or she understands that happens in the room is powerful enough to speak for itself. A person who likes you may feel good, but a person who listens to you is best for you and your practice.