What Are Boundaries Anyway?
In the therapy world, it's no surprise that a word like "boundary" dances in and out of my room like bristles in a brush factory. I probably say the word boundary or some rendition of it at minimum five times a day. But as I have said in my podcast, I learn so much from the individuals I sit with. So it makes perfect sense that I would again be challenged to consider that everyone in the world does not necessarily encounter a lightbulb moment when this buzzword comes into play in the therapy room.
Attachment and trauma work is long-haul therapy. That's the whole gist of attachment therapy, you, in essence, attach, and the work plays itself out as this ongoing, hopefully safe relationship challenges old patterns and offers an environment to test out new ones. Within that work, I introduce concepts for my clients to consider and develop a curiosity for without necessarily a push of expectation. I can generally stay pretty darn still as my clients determine the pace at which they are willing to move. Though I like to believe I am right there with my client's, I think I sometimes assume a little too much on where my clients may be in the process.
A week ago I was sitting with a client who has been in therapy for at least a year. This day in therapy was different. I could feel a shift within her. People have the ability to bring this stuff to the therapy room. I can't explain it but it's as though every circumstance has the power to evoke an energy that can be collectively shared among people who are willing to "listen" to the emotions an experience is expressing. In her shift, my client opened herself and stated, "I still don't know what healthy boundaries are, but I do know I can't keep ignoring my own needs." I had to write that down and take it home that night to chew on. I have been sitting with my client for a year now and she is communicating to me that she does not know what healthy boundaries are.
This information is extremely important to me. That evening while I sat with what my client expressed to me I realized how easy it can be to take big concepts for granted by tying them up into a beautiful buzzword bow.
I think my client is extremely right. Culture has really embraced the mental/emotional health movement (THANK YOU ALL BY THE WAY!) It's great that this is happening after centuries of control and suppression. What my client taught me, though, is that sometimes despite all of the best buzzwords that we love to throw out like candy in a parade, everyone doesn't just instantaneously get it.
Perhaps something important to consider is that in our desire for those we love and care for to be ok, we desire to feed them very well-intentioned advice that simply didn't translate because people have the right to go through their own journey. For instance, in my client's case, I believe a repetitive loop in her life is one of consistently saying "yes" in hopes of gaining reciprocal love and connection. My client said yes to enough people she cared for until, one day, she said yes one too many times and recognized that her yes had empowered something within others that was causing her grave emotional harm. Because she was believing in the power of yes, she moved forward with that mantra hoping to prosper in love. But despite all of her yes's in her intimate relationships, she was never able to experience the love she fantasized would be on the other side of all those yes's. It was in determining her theory to be wrong that taught her the value of no.
The funny thing about my client's "no", however, is that she still didn't feel all that great saying the word. I remember about this individual that a while back she had even shared with me that she doesn't want to shed off the part of herself that says yes. While she was experiencing some negative consequences of her yes, one thing she genuinely loves about herself is how much she cares for others and her willingness to give. Why would we work so hard in therapy to oust a good part of someone merely for the hope of protection from hard emotional experiences?
I think having that past information my client shared and getting the new information regarding boundaries helped me realize something about my client. The concept of boundaries is not necessarily translating into something workable for my client. But in her individual journey as a human who is testing the complexities of relationships, it appears to me what is translating is that, more important than confirming she has boundaries, she realizes she needs balance. My client is doing her work to discern the right balance for her when it comes to Yes and No.
Perhaps for some individuals a boundary is too much of a barricade. I am not exactly sure if this is what my client is trying to communicate to me. I could only assume though, knowing her own interaction with this world, the idea of a boundary may be too distant and too rigid for the connection she desires within her personal life. What I think she could get behind is a softer word like balance. Balance suggests no such things as walls but instead remains open with the right to examine each experience both individually and collectively.
Perhaps you are in the same boat as my client and you need to receive the same permission to not know what healthy boundaries are, but instead are willing to live out your journey listening to the wisdom your experience offers you in establishing balance.