Thoughts From The Couch – The importance of boundaries

One of the most important lessons a parent can teach their child is about setting and respecting boundaries. Something that sets a limit or defines a line that is not crossed. Most often boundaries are a way of creating safety and for children to learn the importance of the words stop and no. Some parents are able to navigate this with ease, for others, setting boundaries is not something they really know how or choose to do. Many parents struggle with being consistent in setting boundaries and so children learn ways of being able to push and manipulate them. This has the potential for them to find it challenging in navigating the rules and boundaries they encounter when they become adults and enter society at large. 

Without sufficient and reasonable exposure to rules and boundaries at home, a child may well struggle in knowing what their boundaries are and maintaining them. There are times when not having boundaries in childhood may have served to keep some of my clients safe as they learned that resisting could mean more pain. Often adults who have problems respecting or setting boundaries have developed these patterns early in their lives. These patterns are often taken into their adulthood causing problems in their relationships. Inevitably these often emerge in the therapy room.

For me, creating a place of safety for my clients and myself is of utmost importance as I have a duty of care for the both of us. I see one of the most important building blocks to that is the ability  to have a synergetic dialogue between myself and my client, that helps to create a psychologically safe setting, from which they can explore and express all they need to. Boundaries are a vital part of this conversation as they set the basic guidelines of how both of us want to be treated and ensures that the relationship is mutually respectful and appropriate. 

Setting boundaries is not something that I do to my client, but something that we create and agree on together. They are put in place to not only protect my client, but also myself. These are vital conversations, especially as many of my clients have had their boundaries violated, whether it be emotionally, physically, sexually or spiritually. As a result therapeutic perimeters are of significant importance in supporting my clients in feeling contained, supported and safe. They protect clients from being taken advantage of, especially as most people come to therapy when they are at their most vulnerable.

Although in some ways therapy may resemble an intimate relationship, boundaries offer a structure that enables my clients to experience the therapeutic relationship as one where there are defined roles This makes it different to that of a relationship with a family member or friend. They remind the both of us that, by being therapy, there are things that our relationship will never be, but what it is can be is totally trustworthy. As a result of the inequality of power between the two roles of therapist and client not only are boundaries necessary to structure the relationship, but to protect the client from the possibility of a therapist’s unfair abuse of power.

There are some boundaries that are never to be crossed. Beyond these fundamental limits, it is also important to be flexible enough to acknowledge that, within a proper structure and purpose to the therapy, there can be some fluidity to others. Always at the forefront of my mind is the welfare of my client. Hence I take into consideration their history, culture, personality and the issues that they bring to therapy. This can allow for us to create an agreement that can, when they emerge, incorporate beneficial boundary crossing interventions that fall on the cusp of ethics and technique. These are tailored to my clients needs in order to support the therapeutic process and the healing.’Boundaries are like fences; they are man-made and are designed to separate. Their function is to “fence in” and “fence out” to include and exclude. Being man-made, they can be constructed or dismantled, heightened or lowered, and made more or less permeable.’ (Zur, 2018)

Therapy is a delicate and mysterious relationship with intense feelings and often intimate encounters that can surface during sessions. There are moments when disproportionate emphasis can be placed on small things in psychotherapy. Boundaries can assume all sorts of symbolic meanings triggering the clients sometimes childlike vulnerability in the relationship. Many times these gravitate towards the boundaries and friction about them. Each client matters enormously to me and I am clear that by having boundaries it does not mean that I have to be emotionally distant or unrealistically rigid. I believe that I can be warm, compassionate, and authentic whilst still maintaining a watchful frame around the work we do together. 

As a therapist there is a fair amount of pressure to be able to hold strong no matter what. As I can never be sure who will walk through my door and what they will bring, I have to be aware of the potential for my own personal issues to be impacted. With the help of supervision I have worked through unsettling times when dealing with erotic transference, projection, transference, counter transference and my clients unresolved attachment issues that have pushed up against boundaries. As a result I am better able to manage the moments where I feel marooned on the rocky ground of intense emotion. I like to think of myself and my clients as fellow travellers, with therapy being instinctive, the relationship dynamic and ever-evolving. I see the work that we do together in negotiating and creating therapeutic boundaries, although not always straightforward, as a privilege. I watch as my clients starting to give themselves the gift of taking care of themselves and, in turn, their relationships. I take a moment to celebrate the miracles that appear.

Zur, O. To Cross or Not to Cross: Do boundaries in therapy protect or harm. Pyschotherapy Bulletin, 39 (3), 27-32. Posted by permission of Division 29 (psychotherapy) of APA (updated 2018).

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