Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Why Boundaries Are Important

Setting limits can be hard sometimes, but not setting them can be worse

Mathew* was in psychoanalysis to explore the deep recesses of his internal world. For a number of weeks he had been regaling me with stories of kinky sex with the latest in a series of women he had been dating. One day I asked him how he felt about her. He was quiet for several minutes, which was not at all usual for him. After a while, he said, “I’m having all sorts of thoughts, but I don’t really want to talk about them.”

As I try to explain to all of my clients, I told him that he did not ever have to talk about something he did not want to talk about in therapy. Although Freud said you’re supposed to say everything that comes into your head, I have found that the process works better when you try to understand what makes something hard to discuss rather than try to force yourself to put it into words. So I asked Mathew if he could try to tell me why he did not want to tell me about his thoughts.

“Sure. They’re really personal. I just don’t know you well enough to tell you these things.”

Now it was my turn to be silent. I found myself wondering what could be more personal than all of the sexual stories he had been telling me about. I asked him, and he said, “Oh, sex – anybody can talk about sex. Other stuff – that’s a lot harder to talk about.”

Glenn Gabbard is a psychoanalyst and author who has written extensively about boundary violations in psychoanalytic work. He says that the very nature of the work leaves both clients and therapists vulnerable to such transgressions and that setting clear professional boundaries is crucial. I have found that boundary-setting is often part of the therapeutic process itself. Many clients come into therapy with a sense of confusion about their right to set limits with other people. That confusion can show up in both rigid, inflexible and permeable or nearly non-existent boundaries.  I have found that one of the best places to begin to work on healthy boundaries is in a discussion of what a client feels comfortable and uncomfortable talking about in therapy.  

As many of my regular readers know (I’ve written about this on other posts) I believe that privacy is extremely important to our psychological well-being. Finding boundaries that are strong enough to protect us but flexible enough to allow us healthy connections to others is key to psychological and emotional health. But it’s not always easy to figure out just what is and isn’t a healthy boundary.

And to me, trying to find healthy boundaries is an important part of the work of psychotherapy. That’s why I was more interested in trying to understand why Mathew felt comfortable talking about sex and not about how he felt about the young woman with whom he was having sex than I was in what he was keeping back from me. In my experience, understanding and accepting that he needed that boundary would help him decide whether or not he wanted to push himself to talk about some of his more uncomfortable feelings sometime in the future. In fact, feeling that he had my permission – my encouragement, in fact – to keep some things to himself turned out to be an important part of his therapy.

What we learned as we explored the boundaries he had set was that Mathew felt okay talking about sex – that was “man talk,” he said, and made him feel strong and masculine. But feelings? That was “girl talk.” He didn’t like to think or talk about how he felt – about anything. But, he said, “Maybe that’s part of my problem. I guess that’s probably why I’m in therapy, isn’t it?”

Interestingly, the discussion of his boundaries opened up many other areas of significance – not only his discomfort with feelings, but some other areas that he thought of as “girly – not masculine.” Like many clients, Mathew found that his boundaries were an important part of who he was, and that they served important purposes. Sometimes they got in his way, of course; but as he learned to accept the need for setting limits, with himself and others, he also found that he was better able to have meaningful and intimate relationships with other people – which was in fact one of the reasons that he had come into therapy in the first place.

 *names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

IMAGE SOURCE PAGE: lotusevolution.blogspot.com\

References:

Boundaries and Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis by Glen O. Gabbard and Eva P. Lester

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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