Why Boundaries matter in email counselling
I often have fellow counsellors ask me how boundaries can be kept in email counselling.
Boundaries, limits, restrictions – whatever you call them – are essential to be in place in counselling no matter how you meet your client.
It is notoriously more difficult for counsellors to set and keep to boundaries with Email counselling. Many counsellors I know report that they regularly spend longer than the usual 50 minutes on their reply. Chalfont and Pollecoff in Weitz (ed.) (2014) discuss these issues recommending counsellors put boundaries on themselves on how long they will spend writing a reply. I used to find this an issue too; but now, with hundreds of hours’ experience offering email counselling it has become much more natural and familiar to me to stick to a boundaried time frame to write my response.
This is, of course, not an issue with video counselling as the work is happening in real time with a set session end time. However, with video counselling there is the added issue of showing your home on camera as well as the client showing theirs. This is different, not only from email, but also from all other types of online counselling and f2f work. With some of the boundaries being less apparent, online clients can feel like equals, which Suler (2004) talks about as disinhibiting as it minimises authority.
Although Suler (2004) is discussing email in the paper The Online Disinhibition Effect, the points made can also be related to video as the fact that both client and counsellor are in their own home at their computer can feel more like a 'peer relationship' where authority appears to be reduced giving the client the opportunity to be 'much more willing to speak out or misbehave'.
Not being able to see and hear a client when using email counselling can make creating and sticking to boundaries more difficult. (Jones and Stokes (2009) point this out in their book Online Counselling A Handbook for Practitioners where they discuss the importance of a more thorough client assessment and a tighter contract. However, it could be argued that by assuming you have all the cues in the video and voice and therefore having a less rigorous assessment, counsellors working by video may find it more difficult to put the boundaries in place after the initial contracting has taken place.
Email counselling (like other types of online counselling) is a specialist service that requires additional training.
If you are already trained and building your experience working with email sessions my biggest tip would be to stick to the agreed word count and always make sure you send your reply by the time you agreed. It is so important that both you and the client have rules you will follow as these keep the counselling safe, structured and boundaried.
Chalfont, A. and Pollecoff, M. (2014) Challenges and dilemmas in the online consulting room in Weitz, P. (Ed.). (2014) Psychotherapy 2.0: Where Psychotherapy and Technology Meet. London: Karnac.
Jones, G., & Stokes, A. (2009) Online Counselling: A Handbook for Practitioners. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Suler (2004) The Online Disinhibition Effect John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace August 04 (v3.0) http://www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html [last accessed 12 August 2018]