When I was a kid, my parents would send my siblings and I outside to play. I didn’t really mind because I honestly loved being outside. As soon as it was nice enough, I was playing outdoors until the street lights came on. During the cooler months, they’d send us to our playroom – a room that evolved from something for small children (with endless toys) to something more appropriate for older kids (with a cool fold-out couch, TV, stereo, and many posters torn out from the pages of Teen Beat magazine).
I kinda loved having the separate spaces. My parents were often boring, annoying, or outright scary. But, also, they would tell us not to disturb them. Common phrases I heard were, “Don’t bother me unless you are dying” or “That scream better be because your arm was just cut off!”
Whether or not they meant that in the literal sense? Who knows. But I know my siblings and I certainly thought they were serious. And so my very difficult relationship with “needing” pretty much anything continued to develop.
My therapist and I have been having a deliberate conversation around boundaries. This is always the toughest subject for us in session. It just triggers such HUGE emotional pain for me. In a recent session, I asked her two questions that she interpreted as me “mocking the boundaries”. That statement felt very confusing to me because my intent was simply to try and open up a conversation about something that was really hard to talk about. I didn’t experience myself as consciously doing anything at all with the boundaries, but she clearly did.
When we talked about it later on, I realized that she felt that the tone I used and the way I asked is what caused the friction. In one case, I had asked her what she writes in her notebook (that she keeps on the end table next to her chair). She responded by saying, “I don’t have to tell you that.” Which, to be fair, is true. But it was really hurtful to have her respond to me with such sharpness. I felt very attacked and as though I had done something wrong simply by being curious about her thoughts and her process.
Later on in that session, we deduced that what I really wanted was reassurance that she is still wanting to work with me and perhaps more information about how I effect her and what she thinks of me (all true). But I didn’t have the language or awareness at the beginning of the session to just ask for reassurance, so I went about it in what ended up being “provocative.”
Then she told me that if perhaps I’d asked the question in a different way, she may have answered me, rather than responding by protecting herself and her space. I really struggled to understand this because it is a perfect example of the way she holds her boundaries in a very dynamic way. Few things are absolute or rigid. And she’s often talked about how the boundaries are flexible and shift with the needs of the relationship, but I never understand what that actually means.
But I think I have a better idea of what she’s getting at.
Which made me think of the last exchange between Zooey and myself. In short: she’d told me I could reach out to her once I had a therapist. I called her and left a voicemail. She emailed me and said I couldn’t reach out anymore (but in a vague way). I wrote her back, asking if she was explicitly saying I could not speak to her anymore. She responded by saying that since I had not followed some arbitrary rules (which I was completely unaware existed) that, yes, she was telling me to not reach out to her anymore.
She essentially gave me something and then took it away from me when I crossed a boundary that I did not even know was there. And that devastated me. I’ve worked so hard to understand this incident and I always end up blaming myself: If I hadn’t broken the rules, I wouldn’t have lost her.
(I mean, thank goodness I did though, right?)
But, really, that’s not what happened. Zooey had other options. She could have been more clear about the boundaries after termination to begin with. She could have responded with a simple “yes” (sans blaming). She could have said yes and then explained the purpose of boundaries in protecting us, rather than making it punitive and a shaming device (and I actually gave her an example of such a response in my final email to her). But she didn’t do any of that. So the result is that I reached for her, into a space I believed was open to me, only to be completely shut down. Ouch.
Which is part of why I am so careful and anxious around my current therapist’s boundaries. I want to know them and I want to anticipate any potential boundaries we haven’t yet come up against, so that this won’t happen again. I have been terrified of the idea that she could retroactively change her mind and then take something away from me right when I need it the most.
But it’s not that simple.
So I think the reason my therapist holds her boundaries as a living, breathing, changeable concept that can grow and evolve as we do is because sometimes what works early in the relationship doesn’t work later on.
Take my relationship with my “Mom” for example. I met her as a sophomore in high school. She was the school psychologist who was seeing me and paying attention to me. This meant the world and I clung to her as a source of support and love. Once I left school, we didn’t talk for several years. Then I started emailing her a few times a year. Then calling. Then I began to visit. And eventually started staying at her home. Up until recently, we would talk on the phone nearly every week because that’s what worked for us.
But now it doesn’t. Because as our relationship shifts and she is more like an equal/peer/friend than a mother-figure, she treats me less like the child she needs to protect and care for, and more like a container in which to pour all of her very intense emotions. I let things exist that way for a while, but I simply cannot do it anymore. I cannot have yet another parent that needs me to take care of them and absorb all of their emotional dysregulation.
So I don’t speak to her on the phone anymore. For a while I was just not communicating with her at all, but then I finally told her that I’m not comfortable speaking on the phone, but I’d love it if we could touch base via text or email. I know she prefers telephone because she’s inept with technology, but thus far we’ve been able to check-in a few times via text. I’ve been tempted to call because I know she needs it and does better in that medium, but I didn’t. Because what makes me comfortable and what works for me ALSO matters.
Which means that our boundaries have had to shift in order to preserve the relationship and make it work for us as we experience yet another relational transition. I don’t think it will always be this way, but it is helping us stay in contact when otherwise we wouldn’t speak at all.
With that in mind, if my therapist did retroactively shift our boundaries, I think that would be okay. It would hurt and startle me, due to my history, but as long as we were able to talk about it and I understood the way that change was being used to protect our work and help our time together be more productive, I would be okay.
So then I brought up how I’d emailed my therapist a few months ago. I’m not supposed to do that unless it’s about scheduling, but it was a rough evening and I needed her. We hadn’t really discussed it much since then. But when we did talk about it, she didn’t really commit to saying whether or not it was okay that I’d emailed her against our agreed boundaries.
What she said was, “Yes, that type of email goes against the way I use email. And I know you know that, which you mentioned in the email. But you came in and brought it up and talked about it. So it seemed to work for you here and I’m fine with it.”
Wait, what? This was so confusing to me! If I broke a boundary, how can she possibly be okay with it??! I said, “Ah this sucks! I wanted you to just tell me ‘Don’t do that again!'” and I pushed her until she finally said,
“Okay, Andi. Don’t do that again.”
Which, let’s be honest, felt a lot like being slapped across the face. Even though I had pushed her to set that line in the sand, having her actually do it felt horrible. But, also, I felt better because at least I knew the line was there and I knew I could never email her again.
But I think her point was that she doesn’t want (or need) the boundary to be that rigid. I think she sees value in moments like this – moments where I’m spontaneous and challenge the therapeutic space. It gives us a chance to explore new territory. So she’s hesitant to tell me to never do anything because, well, life is just not that straightforward (with the exception of things like dual relationships, etc).
Bringing this topic up again was hard and I started to get agitated. She said, “So, yeah, I think that you really need rigidity sometimes. Because when you see potential space, it makes you very anxious. You wonder what you could or should do with that space. I think you have an impulse to challenge it and see what will happen. So maybe right now, for you, it’s better if you don’t have access to the space.”
“True, but I also think that ‘space’ exists in lots of places!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well like with phone calls. You tell me I can call you, but you don’t say ‘You can call a maximum of once per week’ or ‘You can call during *these* time frames’. So, in that way, there’s also a lot of questions around what you mean and what is allowed, etc.”
“Okay, sure. And I know that that makes you anxious as well. And, yeah, I could say ‘No more phone calls’ because it would make you less anxious, but I think something would be missing from the work because sometimes you need those calls.”
“Well I don’t ever really *need* them.”
“I think you do.”
“No. To me, it’s like ‘Will I die from this?’ I hear ‘need’ and I think life and death. So, no I don’t ‘need’ to talk to you, I just want to.”
“Well then maybe you should be bringing that into sessions in here. This is our space to work on those things, so they really shouldn’t be brought outside of that space.”
And then I started crying.
She asked me to try and give words to what I was feeling, but I couldn’t at first. I just needed to cry. Eventually I said,
“I just…I hear you say that and it really upsets me. I’m trying to talk to you about boundaries, but it seems like whenever I bring it up, this happens – things change or something bad happens. I didn’t bring this up because I wanted to change anything, I just wanted to be able to TALK about it…”
She paused and took a breath. Then she said,
“I know. And I continued to be impressed by how hard you work to talk about these things because I know it’s incredibly painful and scary for you. Nothing has changed. I feel the same way about things right now that I did yesterday…”
I continued to cry.
“Do you believe me?”
I looked up and just kinda shrugged.
“Not really? That’s okay. But let’s keep talking about this. This is so important and things really are okay. So maybe tomorrow we can explore it further?”
I think I responded, but I’m not sure. I know I smiled, because I really appreciated that she encouraged me to bring this discussion back into session, and that she specifically asked whether or not I believed her. Because, to me, that felt like an acknowledgement of how precarious this can feel for me.
She also asked me to try and do some thinking and writing about this (hence this blog post).
What I think is happening is that there is a disconnect between our ideas or “want” versus “need”. To me, “need” really does mean: If I don’t get this thing, I will die.
And, as I illustrated in the beginning of this post, my parents sent the message that I am only allowed to draw attention to myself or my wants or needs unless it is a LITERAL emergency. If I broke that rule, I was essentially obliterated. Needing or wanting anything became a source of absolute terror. And I eventually grew to value not needing anything, or needing very little (including, of course, food).
What has happened historically with therapists (including Zooey) is that I had many needs- big and small. Sometimes that need was a true crisis, such as feeling suicidal, but sometimes it was that I needed to connect with that person or clarify a misunderstanding. But since the message I received from both my parents and the mental health system in general, is that I cannot reach out or be seen/heard unless it is a crisis, I became really really good at being in crisis.
But my current therapist has a way of opening up space for me that signals e that I do not need to be in crisis in order to be allowed to connect with her. It’s one of the most effective parts of our work together, and what allows me to stay out of constant crisis. If I am allowed to be seen and heard and tended to simply because I feel like I need or want that attention, I won’t be tempted to “up the ante” to reach some critical threshold. I can get what I want without having to create an emergency.
But then the question, for me, becomes “Do I need this? Is this a real need? Do I really deserve to have this need met? Or do I just want it? Should I want it? Is it okay that I want it? What does it mean that I want it?” And if the answer is not, “Yes, I am dying and I need my therapist in order to not die” then I feel tremendous guilt about making the choice to reach out to her. Clearly my instinct is to delegitimize my own needs. What I “need”, short of to survive, is transformed into a mere “want” and I certainly don’t feel worthy or deserving of getting something simply because I want it.
Which is why the conversation around phone calls really activated me.
I suppose I’m not sure if connecting with her is what I want or what I need. I know that when I do call it’s because I feel distressed in a way that is specific to her or to something we’ve been working on. So, in that way, I don’t feel like I use reaching out as a default “I need someone to talk to” phone call. I only call her when I feel like she is the one person that I want to talk to, and that talking to her would help soothe some emotional discomfort I’m experiencing.
But, I don’t know…is that good enough? Is that a valid reason to call? I never seem to know.