Thoughts on Boundaries

One of my ex-professors posted this e-card on her facebook the other day. It made me laugh at first, and then I found myself thinking about the truth behind it. Lately, my therapy practicum placement has caused me to consider boundaries from a new perspective. I think the term “boundaries” gets thrown around a lot, especially with regard to the therapeutic setting.

How much should I share about myself?

Should I shake hands when we meet?

Do I hug them if they initiate it as they’re leaving?

Should I reject all forms of touch?

Do I laugh at their jokes, or should I just be a “blank slate”?

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These are all questions I’ve either heard fellow students ask, or that I’ve wondered myself. There seems to always be a grey area when it comes to answering these questions and I have found that the answers sometimes change. The biggest one that I’ve observed lately has been in regards to self-disclosure. It’s understandable that sharing parts of oneself with others generally helps to establish feelings of closeness. I’ve noticed that it becomes a problem when it’s a therapist/counselor (or person in another position of “authority”) sharing aspects of her/himself in order to feel closer to the client.

This, while possibly well-intended, is selfish and not in the client’s best interests. Sharing too much about oneself can take away from the client’s time and progress in therapy. To be completely honest, it’s definitely been tempting to share details about myself on occasion. Sometimes I feel a strong connection with the client and it feels great to have people know who you are. But there’s always an important question that comes to mind before I disclose, “How will this benefit the client?” Most of the time, it won’t, and I don’t end up sharing. Other times, though, there is a direct benefit and there’s the possibility that the relationship will grow stronger as a result.

That’s definitely not to say that the relationship will weaken if information isn’t shared, though. I think a lot of new therapists have that fear… “If I don’t tell them, they won’t like me/they’ll shut down/they won’t want to come back to therapy!” There’s no doubt that not getting answers when one wants them is a frustrating experience. Understanding why certain information is important for the client to know can go a long way – without you actually having to disclose anything. The client learns that a relationship can continue even when immediate desires aren’t met. It helps the client to tolerate and move beyond frustrations…which is a valuable life skill in multiple arenas!

Along the same lines, it can also be frustrating to not have physical touch when it’s desired. I come from a very affectionate family; we’re huggers, not hand-shakers, we laugh loudly and often, and we embrace for hellos & goodbyes. Hugs are also a source of comfort when someone is feeling sad or upset. While my inherent reaction is to hug some of my clients when they express similar emotions, that isn’t always appropriate. It’s important to recognize that touch can mean so many things to different people.

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For some, touch can be a cultural expression of love, comfort, excitement, and solidarity. For a few, it may mean the beginning of more than a platonic relationship. For others, touch can be a trigger for traumatic events in the past. It’s important to be mindful of this. No, we can never fully know everyone’s story before we offer a touch in-kind, but we can wait for them to initiate. Outside of the therapeutic setting, we can ask for permission…and wait until it is granted, or humbly accept and be supportive when permission is not granted.

It seems that a lot of the time, people have good intentions, but they don’t realize the harm they may be accidentally inflicting. It’s also important to consider cultural backgrounds. For some, hugging is the way they greet each other and being denied is insulting and dismissive of their culture. For others, even a handshake is too forward; a friendly smile will suffice; not to mention all of the variations in between those two points. It’s a disservice to assume that the therapist knows best and that a friendly touch will be well-received. We’ve all gotta do our homework…and keep in mind that it’s not the responsibility of the client to educate the therapist on her or his culture (more on that in another post).

As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of someone who expressed that she wished she had more hugs currently and that it truly hurt her to see so many other people hugging each other, but not getting to be a part of that. She was in tears as she told me this, and I could see just how pained she really was. There was a history of unmet needs for affection, but even if that weren’t the case, her story helped me to realize the immense differences there are in the perceptions of physical touch. To her, someone who felt she wasn’t hugged enough, that kind of touch meant someone cared, that she was worthy, that she was a good person. To the people she was observing, it may have meant the same thing, or it could have been routine and passionless. There’s no way of knowing.

I feel like that is another important part of understanding boundaries: recognizing the impact one is having on others. Inevitably, we cannot be aware of every single interaction and its effects on every single person, but I think we would all benefit if we tried to be a little more mindful of how our boundaries are interpreted, particularly by our clients. Are we really helping, or are we inadvertently hurting them? Are we crossing boundary lines for their benefit, or because it feels good/familiar for us? In understanding our boundaries and how we execute them, we are simultaneously teaching our clients how to assert their own boundaries, and helping them to understand what constitutes “healthy” ones.

Herz am Gartenzaun

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