“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing
Often patients in therapy seek help due to the pain they experience in relation to others. This can sometimes be the result of an absence of clear boundaries. In Part 1 I looked at ways we hurt one another and the simple language we need in order to name and describe this hurt. Once we can label the source of our pain, we can then begin to identify what is acceptable and unacceptable in the other’s conduct, which then allows us to begin to form more effective boundaries that help us protect our interests, regulate and stabilise our experience in relationships, and keep us from being stressed.
Once we figure out how we were hurt and what we know instinctively is good and bad for us, we can then decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable conduct in both ourselves and in others. Implicit in this decision are our values: beliefs, principles, morals and codes by which we choose to live. Being clear on our values is a core task in developing personal authenticity and a firmer sense of our identity, as this clarity then allows us to make choices with greater awareness, purpose and effectiveness in line with our conscience. Living according to our conscience is a direct means of affirming ourselves as individuals, distinguishing us as individuals in our own right, separate from other peoples’ identities.
Person or Behaviour?
It’s often – but not always – important to make the distinction between the person and their behaviour when forming boundaries. Most people are capable of a wide range of behaviours, choices and a variable capacity to learn and modify their behaviour in relation to others. Some individuals, however, appear to have very limited ability to change their behaviours towards others, such as individuals who have deeply ingrained patterns of passive-aggressive, narcissistic, sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour. Depending upon the status of the relationship we have with someone – how important it is to us – we can either decide that their behaviour is unacceptable and form a boundary against this behaviour, or in the case of those people who do appear unable or unwilling to change the way they treat us, we may need to exclude them from our lives altogether. Often, simply forming a healthy boundary does the job for us.
“Mark was a friend who continually lied to me. He even stole from me. I never challenged him about it because I was anxious about losing a friend. Until I realised that his behaviour wasn’t true friendship. In the years I’d known him he’d told me dozens of lies, disrespected me and was disloyal. Finally, when I stopped contacting him he telephoned me to ask if I was ok. I explained in a calm and respectful way that I was tired of his lies and knew that he had stolen from me, as well as failing to return things he’d borrowed from me. I told him I wanted to remain friends but that I was unwilling to tolerate his behaviour. He actually thanked me for being honest with him and said he’d ring me to arrange to meet up. That was the last I heard from him.
I allowed this situation to develop because I didn’t have boundaries rooted in my own values of loyalty, openness, and personal authenticity”
Boundaries in Psychotherapy
Responsible psychotherapists tend to go to great lengths to clarify their own personal and professional boundaries for the simple reason that it helps us form effective working relationships with our patients or clients. Boundaries that are ‘healthy’ are constructed in the service of protecting and respecting both practitioner and patient alike, helping both people feel emotionally and psychologically stable and centred, whilst ensuring self-care. These rules of engagement are the therapist’s means of being clear, open, and honest, so that the patient knows where they stand without having to learn by trial and error. Explicit boundaries empower the patient by allowing him or her to engage or disengage, agree or disagree, accept or reject the therapist’s ways of operating prior to the commencement of therapeutic work. For this reason it is important that you, as a patient, are able to know what the therapists’ boundaries are prior to working with them. These often come in the form of an agreement or Terms and Conditions that serve to protect the interests of both you the client, and the therapist.
Forming Boundaries with Others
Boundaries help us minimise stress and vagueness in relationships, help us empower ourselves to protect our own interests, meet our needs for respect and consideration, and allow us to regulate our experiences of ourselves and the others’ impact upon us. They also help us avoid confusing our responsibilities to ourselves with the responsibilities others have for meeting their own needs: something that many of us confuse to varying degrees. Failing to establish healthy boundaries can increase stress, ambiguity in relationship, disempower us, and ultimately impact upon both mental wellbeing and the health of the relationship. Boundaries that protect us can be implied in our actions and speech, but it is sometimes necessary to explicitly convey our boundaries in clear language so that others understand our needs and personal limits. Being able to say difficult or sensitive things in an inoffensive manner is a skill that can be developed with practice in order to be able to let others know what we are willing to accept and what we aren’t.
If your friend is always last to pay for anything and seems to be leaving you to cover the cost of each meal or drink, then it may be important for you to be able to introduce your boundary around fairness. This could be dne by hinting e.g. ‘Oh, I paid last time. I think it’s your turn.’ If her behaviour continues then being a little more direct may help e.g. ‘I notice that I’m paying for most of the meals and drinks whenever we meet. How about we share expenses equally or just start paying for our own orders to keep things fair?’.
A neighbour who insists on repeatedly dropping round at inconvenient times may well have good intentions, but may not be sensitive to your need for privacy and space, so being able to say ‘Do you think you could maybe give me a ring before you come round next time, just to make sure I’m not tied up with something?’. Degrees of difficulty clearly span a wide spectrum in human interaction, and some boundaries need to be enforced with some degree of confrontation.
The unwelcomed interest or contact of a manager towards his employee, for example, may require a combination of diplomacy, knowledge of workplace policies and procedures, and a friendly witness willing to help ensure that your message is heard. Each of these skills in establishing and enforcing boundaries can be practiced as part of your work with a therapist.
Boundaries are thus only as effective as our willingness to repeatedly enforce them. This means that the second stage of boundary formation after developing my awareness of ‘what is acceptable and what is unacceptable’ is what action I am willing to take in order to accept the acceptable and reject the unacceptable. Without actions, boundaries are merely empty gestures that will usually be ignored as the other encroaches upon your personal demarcation line. ‘Testing or pushing boundaries’ is a phrase often used to denote attempts by an individual to disrespect or ignore what we have declared to be right or wrong. If we fail to take action against this then we have no effective boundary. On the contrary, if we continually enforce consequences of violations to our boundaries then we show others that we mean what we say. Deciding what the consequences are is a personal choice. But clarity on consequences prior to attempts to breach our boundaries is in itself an important feature of boundary formation.
For example, if it’s unacceptable for a work colleague to put her hand on my shoulder whilst talking to me, I need to be clear both with myself and her what I’m willing to do to keep her hand off my shoulder. Is it enough to use words, such as ‘please don’t put your hands on me’? If not, then am I willing to physically remove her hand from me? If she persists, despite my requests, do I need to take some other form of action, such as making a complaint, changing my work pattern, or even changing jobs? Only you can decide what is the right course of action to take for any given situation. In this decision it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of your potential action in terms of whether your best interests are being served, as well as implications for you and others of any inaction.
In the end, boundaries are lines of demarcation that signal our rules and limits of engagement with others. These lines are most effective when made through clear, explicit and honest discussion, and when reinforced by consequences following their infringement. Without clear boundaries we can find ourselves overwhelmed and imposed upon by the needs and desires of others, soon occupying the role of victim. Victimhood must be seen in this context as our choice; a choice to refrain from enforcing boundaries that serve to protect our best interests. And like a fence around a house or garden, it is our responsibility as individuals to keep our boundaries well maintained if we are to effectively manage our mental, emotional and physical space and stability.
- Personal Authenticity Part 6: Responsibility (and boundaries)
All written material on this website (including original artwork) is subject to copyright and cannot be used or reproduced without permission and clear attribution being made to the author. Please contact me if in doubt.