Boundaries are critical not only to a psychotherapeutic relationship, but, as many clients learn through therapy, are essential to healthy adult-to-adult relationships.
In a good psychotherapeutic relationship, there is a solid contract between client and therapist such that clients know what to expect and when. And part of this knowing by the client is knowing what time the session ends; most psychotherapy sessions last for a ‘therapeutic hour’ or 50 minutes.
Every clinician has encountered what are known as ‘door-stop moments’ with clients – they happen in the moments leading up to the end of a session where a client suddenly blurts out something emotive and important that can throw the therapist and lead them to extend the session by some further minutes.
Unconsciously, door-stop moments have much significance and represent a relational process between the client and therapist. Yes, the content may be important, however, why is it being brought into the room (and relationship) in the final moments?
The client may unconsciously want to control the session by ensuring their therapist has no time to explore the content in detail; they may wish to ‘leave’ something difficult with their therapist to hold for a week; and they may be testing whether the therapist will hold the boundaries. Or all of the above and more.
On hiding an being found
Donald Winnicott, esteemed 20th Century British analyst famously said “it is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found”. Winnicott was making reference to the children’s game of hide and seek, which, is only enjoyable if we imagine that someone is looking for us. If the other game participants give up and leave, we are left hiding with nobody holding us in mind – a disaster. In this quote, Winnicott is talking about many concepts, but amongst others he is making reference to boundaries and holding others in mind.
Even though in the game of hide and seek the winner triumphs by not being found, they paradoxically only win if the other(s) are still searching for them – the game therefore is profoundly relational and based on an agreed set of rules.
Psychotherapy is also relational at its core and based on a set of rules (boundaries). One of these is that sessions end on time. Clients will find all sorts of ways to ‘hide’ from their psychotherapist, however, this is only ‘joyful’ if they believe that they will be found (seen and contained).
When a client presents a door-stop moment to us, it cannot be allowed to derail the boundaries of the relationship or the rules of the game. Otherwise the client gets what they think they want (more time) but feels omnipotent and thus unsafe with their psychotherapist – in other words, the client has hidden so well the psychotherapist has forgotten about them.
It is never about the client even though it seems it is
Extending a session due to a door-stop moment is never about the client’s needs and always about the psychotherapist’s. The client relies on their psychotherapist to ‘hold them in mind’ and thus hold their best interests in mind. It is the latter that gets lost when a session is extended.
How can it be in the psychotherapists interests to extend a session?
Unconsciously the psychotherapist has also ‘got lost’ and is unable to remain separate from the client’s needs. They thus extend the session to try and ‘please’, or appease the client, which fundamentally is about avoiding the client’s anger’ rage and disappointment. And the job of a psychotherapist is precisely to survive these feelings in their client and what it makes them feel.
Don’t become a psychotherapist if you want your clients to like you
Psychotherapy is only happening when a client feels either positive or negative feelings towards their psychotherapist (and vice-versa). If the relationship is neutral, nothing is happening.
It is easy to bask in the glow of a client’s adoration but beware, a fall will come. And so it should. As psychotherapists we are not there to be liked – we are there to remain constant in the face of our client’s emotions.
And being constant means ending the session on time.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –