“I think you’re very fluid with your boundaries!”
That’s what my last therapist told me, his eyes following mine as I tried to look away, him steadily patting the miniature pinscher on his lap. At first I wanted to take it as a compliment but the emphasis on “very” made me realise that he actually meant “overly”. Boundaries are one of psychology’s pet ideas (and a bit of an ankle biter for some of us). My therapist at the time was the quintessentially boundaried therapist – the one that sits across from you, nodding his poker face back at you, asking “But, how does that make you feel, Jason?” And, no matter how irritated I got with that cliched question, I have to concede, it was exactly what I need to be asked. Over and over again. I had to be asked it in order to find out what was going on behind my very own poker face. Far too often, I take refuge in the role of the blank faced therapist. This role spills over into the rest of my life and I never end up showing what I really think or feel. I am starting to realise that whether I am therapist, client, husband, friend, son or father, the question of “How do I feel” is probably the most important question I could be asking myself at any point in time. You see, I really struggle to talk about my own feelings and becoming a therapist gave me a place to hide from my own vulnerability.
Most of us avoid the vulnerability of being with our feelings. Brene Brown gives a very compelling argument for how we have become a culture that attempts to numb vulnerability. What is most compelling about what Brown says is that when we numb vulnerability, we numb feelings – the good and the bad ones: “You can’t selectively numb emotions. When we numb the dark emotions, we numb vulnerability and fear and shame of not being good enough, which by default numbs joy”.
At the risk of being a bore, I can’t deny the usefulness of boundaries. We blur boundaries in order to escape vulnerability. There is a necessary boundary between me and the bottle of wine (or 3) on the dinner table. Or, between my child lying on the floor of the supermarket, embarrassing me as he kicks and screams, and the chocolate he wants on the shelf. But, especially, when it comes to relationships, boundaries play a very important role in making room for vulnerability. This is especially true for the boundaries of how we treat each other in our relationships. Boundaries provide trust, trust allows vulnerability and it’s through vulnerability that we find emotional freedom. This is also true for the oddity of the therapist client relationship. Why on earth would you pay someone to stare back at you, their poker face nodding back at you like one of those toy dogs on a car’s dashboard…”But, how does that make you feel?” Ultimately, I am prostituting my time to you so that you can find the freedom to explore how you really feel. To some extent, however, I think relationships have the potential to provide that same freedom to us. We sometimes just need a bit of help in achieving that.
When couples come to see me, they have usually crossed important boundaries. They have most probably crossed them a long time before they came to see me (and repeatedly). When a vital boundary has been crossed, especially through verbal or physical violence, it is difficult to shrink back from that boundary and return to behaviour that is acceptable to each other again.
We might have simply started speaking to each other in ways that we shouldn’t have or stopped speaking to each other in ways that we should have. Often one of us has done something we know we really should rather not have (usually more than once). Sometimes we build up emotional walls around us to protect ourselves or, alternatively, we completely lose who we are in each other. That’s another one of psychology’s pet concepts: Enmeshment. Enmeshment is just another way that we numb our vulnerability. As we gradually share our lives with each other, we often entwine our sense of who we are in each other. Ironically, we don’t get any closer to each other in this way. we drift galaxies apart. When we are everything to someone else, we become nothing to ourselves. We lose the compass to our own emotional landscape. If I lose myself, then what do I have to really share with you?
This is why the idea that the presence of someone else in our lives “makes us whole” is life threatening. My wife and I were once on an Imago Therapy worship, and the presenter shared a quote that stuck with us both: “The moment you think you know who I am, you have killed me.” My wife still hangs that one over my head (and rightfully so) because I am forever deciding for her what she is thinking and feeling. I am even arrogant enough to believe that I am qualified to do so. We waste a lot of headspace assuming that we know what our partners are thinking and feeling, instead of simply asking them – “How does that really make you feel?”
But, it’s not easy to hear what someone is really thinking and feeling. In fact, a partner will often storm out of the session when things get really honest. The door to my consultation room gets slammed behind them in a final gesture of disapproval on their way out but, as they make their way down the driveway, they realise they can’t get out the gate. Yes…I keep couples hostage until the session is over. Why? Because it is at this point that the real work starts. Therapy is the creation of a boundary. A boundary that the couple is struggling to create on their own. Held within this boundary, the real conversation begins. A conversation about the things that have been thought but never said; asked but never answered; said but never really heard. It is through the vulnerability of these conversations that a genuine connection is nurtured.
Don’t fall into the trap, either, of thinking that these boundaries are just for those of us living out monogamous marriages from behind the boundary of neat white picket fences. Even the most polyamorous among us seem to do better when there are boundaries in our relationships. The definition of those boundaries may differ but relationships, of all kinds, require an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. Ultimately, when we have boundaries, we make space for vulnerability and when we can be vulnerable we connect with each other, whether this be through our joy or sadness.
“If vulnerability is a sharp edge, there may be nothing sharper than joy. To let yourself soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately – that’s Vulnerable.” – Brene Brown