“Boundaries” is a word that seems to get bandied around an awful lot and I wonder if there might be value in looking at what boundaries are in a general sense, what being boundaried (or not) might feel like, and also what the term might mean in a therapeutic sense?
I wonder what “boundary” conjures up in terms of imagery? A barbed wire fence? A no man’s land? A wall? A springboard? It might be worth just taking a minute to be with that - what shape a boundary might take; what that space between “self” and “other” might look like?
Would it be appropriate to think of a boundary as the space between edges - the edges that contain “self” and also “other”? Sometimes that space can feel very narrow, or even non-existent, and at other times it can feel vast. Sometimes this space, regardless of how big it might seem, can feel comfortable, and sometimes quite uncomfortable. For example, we can feel accompanied or seen, or we can feel isolated or invaded. So perhaps there is a sense of fluidity to “boundary” in that it’s dependent to an extent on the personal history, and present day contexts, which influence it.
In the therapeutic relationship, boundaries can be experienced as concrete, defined parameters creating the nuts and bolts framework within which the therapeutic work is done. These might include boundarying around regular meeting times, payments for missed sessions, physical contact such as handshakes or hugs, encounters outside of the therapy room. By helping prevent the relationship between client and therapist from tipping over into the social, they can thereby facilitate the work done in the room. Different therapeutic models might well have different ways of working- and this could have an impact on how the relationship might feel. For example, a therapist working predominantly with one therapeutic model might have a different way of approaching handshakes or engaging when a client is met coincidently out of the practice setting to how another therapist, working in a different way, might boundary here. And this might be worth exploring at an initial meeting.
These boundaries can also be experienced metaphorically in terms of how they help create the emotional container in which therapy might be facilitated. This might well have an impact in terms of how the therapist experiences the client and how the client experiences the therapist, both as people in the room and also in terms of what they might represent of historical dynamics; whether the therapeutic process is felt to be co-created and how that co-creation is enacted. If boundaries are influenced by personal history as well as here-and-now context, then how might a client anticipate therapy and “the therapist”? How is that space between self and other experienced and how does it change as therapy progresses?
The experiencing of boundaries within the therapeutic relationship can provide a truly rich vein to mine. As that experience evolves, it can illuminate how “self” might be seen, how relationships in general are formed, what has influenced them in the past, how this might have created a pattern and how that pattern can be managed more healthily if needed. Boundaries, and the space they define between self and other, can be really helpful and enlightening to explore.
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About Merri Mayers
Merri Mayers, an MBACP registered counsellor, works near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Merri is an integrative therapist employing the most effective aspects of person centred, gestalt, psychodynamic, systemic and TA models. She works relationally, understanding that how we engage with others can illuminate how we see and feel about ourselves.