When I went to session on Friday, I opened by telling the therapist that I got her email.
I explained that I was impressed by how quickly and professionally she responded, but that it was also a bit activating to be emailing back and forth. She nodded and said, “Right, I can see that. And also, I said in my voicemail that we could just talk about it on Friday.” Which was true, so I appreciated that she understood why that subtle change might be difficult for me.
We talked about why she decided to write me back. She said she thought it would be easier for me to see the proposed session times in writing and compare it to my own schedule before we met again in person. That way we’d both know what did and did not work and could start there.
That makes sense because I could tell that neither of us really want to use session time on scheduling stuff. She also reminded me that this is the way she uses email, so she doesn’t see our exchange as anything more than administrative.
I agreed with her, but it still brought up a lot for me. I told her as much and she said she was glad I brought that into session so we could talk about it. This email conversation allowed us to talk more about boundaries.
When I first saw her, this therapist told me that therapeutic boundaries exist to “protect the work.” I remember thinking that was total bullshit. Boundaries never made sense to me. I talked about the contrast between having virtually NO boundaries at home and then entering mental health care, where the boundaries were both rigid and not.
Many of my clinicians have had very strict boundaries. As I’ve mentioned before, they would flinch at even basic questions, such as their birthday. This was hard for me – especially considering that I’d never had boundaries modeled for me. It felt arbitrary and punitive. And hurtful. Psychiatric hospitals are very lonely places.
The therapist said, “And, also, I’m sure it was this very ‘one-way’ experience for you, right? You were expected to be vulnerable and share so much of yourself with these people and yet you couldn’t know anything about them.”
I almost jumped out of my chair, “Yes!!! And that felt cruel. The boundaries were strict in that one direction – as if the staff needed ‘protection’ from us crazy kids. But then, in the other direction, the boundaries were impermeable. They had unlimited access to me. There was no one to protect my boundaries or to tell me that I could put a limit on who and what I allowed in my physical or emotional space. And I didn’t know how to do that for myself.”
Then I explained that I have often been accused of pushing boundaries, but I’m not sure I see it that way. I can understand how I’ve ended up in a place I shouldn’t have been, but I was often invited to that space.
My therapists would start out with specific parameters around the relationship; parameters that I was fine with. If anything, I am over-mindful of respecting boundaries and sort of obsess about it (something this therapist has pointed out to me more than once). But then, those other clinicians would begin to bend their rules and expand the boundaries.
I explained that a former therapist (from about six years ago) had an answering service for out-of-session contact. You had to call the service and someone would take your name and number and call her. She would call back, usually within 30 minutes. I was totally okay with using this service and found it to work well for me.
But then, for whatever reason, that therapist opened the boundaries further and gave me both her cell phone number and home phone number. I never called them, nor would I ever call them.
The therapist asked me why I would never call those numbers. I said, “Because I didn’t trust that she really wanted to give that information to me. It felt impulsive and as though it came from a place of helplessness. I didn’t believe she really wanted me to call her at home or on her cell phone. I didn’t want to risk calling and having her regret giving me those numbers.”
She paused for a moment and then said, “But sometimes the boundaries are allowed to expand and open. That actually can be part of the work, too. I wonder if we could do an experiment at some point – where we change and expand the boundaries in here – and see how you feel about that.”
I flinched. “Uhhhh…no. I mean, maybe. Probably not.”
She said that we could think about it and maybe explore that more a little later on.
I told her that I’m beginning to understand the ways that boundaries can, in fact, “protect the work.” It’s difficult to explain, but something about the way she holds boundaries feels less punitive and more protective. It’s like the dam that holds the water back – you need it to be strong and reliable.
She also has a way of using boundaries that doesn’t feel arbitrary. I get the sense that she absolutely uses boundaries as one of the many tools at her disposal that helps her in her work as a therapist. Most of the clinicians that I’ve encountered talk about boundaries as if they’re this annoying thing put in place by a third party. Either it’s the “agency’s rules” or just this broad idea of “the rules of psychotherapy”. They never took responsibility for the parameters around our work, but rather put the onus on some generic enforcer that they were helplessly bound to.
Which had the effect of making it seem as though they neither supported nor agreed with those rules. And, in many ways, I don’t think they did. Because I don’t think most (or at least many) therapists really understand what can be useful or even therapeutic about having said rules.
So if these clinicians don’t even understand or agree with the boundaries, how am I supposed to feel about them? And if they’re constantly pushing and shifting the rules around our work, why do they get upset or overwhelmed when I do the same?
The therapist said, “Boundaries are not perfect. They can change and shift and evolve with the work. Sometimes that works really well. Sometimes it doesn’t. And if a therapist makes a change that doesn’t seem to help the process, they need to talk about that. They need to say, ‘You know, now that we’ve tried this out, I don’t think it works too well for us so I’d like to try something different.’ They need to be willing to admit that and take the lead.”
To which I replied, “AND I WOULD HAVE BEEN TOTALLY FINE WITH THAT!”
She laughed. We both laughed. Because we both know that it’s true – if any of these previous therapists had admitted that they no longer felt comfortable with the expanded boundary, I would have absolutely handled it. I would have still been hurt and probably felt rejected or abandoned, but I also would have talked about that with them and worked through the emotions around such a change.
Then I explained that on top of having a growing understanding of the usefulness of boundaries in the therapeutic space, I believe that having this relationship with her is allowing me to develop my own boundaries.
“How so?” she asked.
I explained that when I was drafting the email to her, I’d written out all of my activities, so it basically looked something like this:
Thursday: Ortho 8-12pm, Neuro 12-2pm, Doctor 3pm, Concert 8pm
But once I copy and pasted the draft into an email for her, I changed it to look more like this:
Thursday: Class 8-2pm, Unavailable 3-4pm, Unavailable after 8pm
I realized that I didn’t need to share every detail of my schedule with her. And that didn’t come from a place of shame (i.e. “She won’t care about my life”), it came from a place of wanting to protect my own space. I realized I could draw a simple, but meaningful line around myself.
Then I said, “And to juxtapose that very small boundary with a much larger boundary – I did the same thing on Tuesday when I asked you to promise me you would never sexually abuse me. I was setting a boundary around myself and taking a stand for my own safety, rather than relying on you to hold that line.”
She smiled and said she thought this was all so great. Then she added, “I’m reminded of ‘Dr. Christmas Tree’ (the shrink who sexually assaulted me). It was his job to hold that boundary and he didn’t. But you didn’t know better because you’d had no one to show you how to protect yourself. So this is a big deal for you to do that – to create a boundary that keeps you safe.”
Yes. Exactly. So although boundaries are still very difficult for me, I have such renewed appreciation for them. I can see now how they do protect the work. And, perhaps more importantly, how they protect me.