Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Where Is The Boundary?

Navigating an ambiguous line

“It’s a boundary issue,” I said to my supervisee, for what seemed like the hundredth time. 

We were reviewing her therapy with a couple that reminded me of an old Jules Feiffer cartoon. Feiffer’s minimalist approach captured it perfectly: the wife leaning in toward the husband, pleading, “but I love you!” as he backs away, hands up in a self-protective gesture…”don’t you threaten me!”

“It’s a boundary issue,” the supervisee noted, when she described the friendly neighbor who caused her client to feel as if she were being stalked. The neighbor had cheerfully confided her habit of checking to see whether the lights were on in the client’s window…indicating that she was home. The client was “creeped out” to learn that someonefriendliness notwithstandingwas keeping tabs on her. It was a boundary issue.

Boundary issues come up frequently in clinical practice. And here’s why:

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In young children’s drawings, boundaries are always clear and distinct. Their human figures are enclosed in hard, continuous outlines. Not so with mature artists. The artist’s figure fades gently into the space around it, the way “real” edges do in our perception. Nature doesn’t have clear boundaries: the sea overlaps the land, and the seashore slips under the waves, with no line between them. And where is the boundary between day and night? That moment evades capture: day fades through twilight into night. Night eases its way to dawn and day.

The hunt is still on for the boundary between life and death. Despite our efforts to pinpoint it, that boundary remains elusive, as does the moment when life begins. The best we can do is to agree collectivelywhich we do with considerable uneaseon the social, technical, legal, and ethical boundaries for the beginning and end of life. Boundaries are often ambiguous. 

Boundaries are places of vulnerability. They are dangerous places, abutting the unknown.  Beyond the boundary may lay hostility, domination, aggression, and chaos. In other words, danger. Only in our most intimate relationships, when we feel particularly safe and secure, can we risk breaching our boundaries or even dissolving them...for a while.

Like boundaries between individuals, boundaries between countries are places of vulnerability and therefore fear and danger. Sometimes even death.

· When U.S. authorities opened fire at Mexicans throwing rocks from across the border, a young Mexican boy was killed. It is not clear that he was involved in the stone throwing.

· When Israeli border guards felt threatened by a 38-year-old man who tried to seize their rifle, a Jordanian-Palestinian magistrate was killed. It is not clear what his intentions were.

· Men from desperately poor Sub-Saharan Africa tried to enter the Spanish town of Ceuta, in North Africa, by swimming around a fence that separates it from Morocco. Spanish border guards shot rubber bullets at the swimmers. Fifteen Africans drowned while still in Moroccan territory.

Borders and boundaries are perilous places. Read more at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/boundaries-barriers-and-bridges/

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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