The central premise of all professional practice is ‘to do no harm’. Boundary violations are always to be avoided, they can be defined as harmful, or potentially harmful, actions or behaviours that negatively impact a service user or client. It can be something significant like the exploitation of the person, or something less dangerous; however, it will have a significant negative impact.
Boundary violations are always unacceptable practices and should not be confused with what we are advocating for here which is a compassionate approach to professional boundaries. The pushing, crossing, and breaking of boundaries could potentially increase the risk of harm to others if this is undertaken in a haphazard and careless way. However, the implementation of strict, rigid and uncompassionate boundaries also risks causing harm. It will not always be advisable to break boundaries and will very much depend on the service user’s needs, the professional’s capabilities, and the context of the situation.
It is also important to distinguish between intentionality and impact. It is no good to defend decision-making with good intentions when the impact of those decisions caused harm. In this respect, it is better to draw on a variety of sources of information and support when making professional boundary decisions.
Intentionality and impact.
When something has gone wrong, part of a relational approach to boundaries involves being open to complaints about our practice. The right for people to complain about a person’s behaviour or service is embedded within professional value systems and service user rights. Professionals can often view complaints from a place of fear expecting a complaint’s process to deliver additional hostility and confrontation; however, from a relational perspective, complaints are an opportunity for feedback, to learn about our practice and to develop better relationships with whoever is complaining (especially if the complaint response is managed well!).
The understanding and management of professional boundaries within a relational approach to practice is complicated because boundaries are often associated with distance and barriers. There is always going to be an element of risk in combining these aspects of practice together. It is likely that on occasion things will go wrong! In these circumstances, it is important to review what happened, why it happened, what can be done to fix any damage caused and what could be done differently next time.
Why Did It Happen?
What Can Be Fixed?
What Could Be Done Differently?
When things go wrong ...
“She stepped over boundaries and reached into my world. She reached me in a way no one before had cared to try. It was more than a job to her and I sensed that”