Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Uhh... can you say NO?

It seems one of the more common buzz-words in the therapy profession is, “BOUNDARIES”.

There are some good books available on the topic – particularly the books authored by Henry Cloud. Mr. Cloud wrote his first book on boundaries and then that book begat about 10 more. (Sort of like the “Chicken Soup” books idea – if one is good maybe I should write a bunch of sequels.) Cloud’s books have a distinct Christian perspective but the ideas about boundaries are quite good.

When one thinks of boundaries a number of examples come to mind, The doors on our homes are a type of boundary; the doors let some people in and when locked they keep others out. The door example is a good one because it also illustrates the idea that usually, boundaries have varying degrees of flexibility – depending on the purpose of the door/boundary. If the door were boarded-up it would be an illustration of a rigid or impermeable boundary. If there was no door or if the door was always open it would illustrate a very loose or permeable boundary.

My patients know my penchant for outrageous and provocative examples so I’ll include a few here. (I’ll start with more subdued examples and ramp up to the more disturbing illustrations.)

Since I’d already mentioned doors, I’ll stay with the theme for the moment. Bathroom doors are a very clear boundary. Usually, one’s bathroom activities are private moments; that’s why there are bathroom-doors. A closed bathroom-door clearly communicates (to most of us) a message; “Stay out. I’m communing with nature.” It’s a boundary. In some homes, some (men more than women), leave the door wide open; the message communicated is, “C’mon in; there’s nothing private going on here”. I don’t know about you, but in my book, the boundaries are way too loose here… but that’s just me. Maybe at your home it’s normal to have communal toileting activity.

This brings us to another aspect of boundaries. The permeability/impermeability or looseness/tightness of boundaries is largely influenced by culture. Example: In some homes, dinner-table conversation may characteristically be a free-for-all with multiple simultaneous unrelated conversations. Other family’s dinner conversation may be characterized by one person speaking at a time. Neither is right or wrong, rather it is just what is typical for a given family. Similarly, during dinner, some families think nothing of taking a bit of food from another dinner-partners plate while in other families, taking food from another’s plate may result in a fork being plunged into the interloper’s hand. These are expressions of differing boundaries. One is a non-verbal communication that what is on the plate in front of me is not necessarily mine but is available for anyone. The other behavior is a clear non-verbal message that communicates, “This is mine – encroach at your own risk!”

Another example: The 60’s 70’s and 80’s was a period of much more diffuse boundaries. In the 70’s, two married psychologists, the O’Neils, popularized the notion of “Open Marriage” and published a top-selling book by the same name. They advocated that in marriage, one should be able to have multiple sexual partners. Many people experimented with the concept of loose permeable boundaries in marriage. Suffice it to say, the experiment was a failure, but it was at the time, culturally congruent. In the late 80’s “The Family Bed” was published, it advocated that parents and children should sleep in the same bed. In many parts of the world, co-sleeping is culturally typical. In the American culture, co-sleeping is much less common and reflects the boundary-attitudes of our culture. Based on my own attitudes and beliefs, I am not an advocate of communal-sleeping. I believe it crosses a parental boundary – I believe it commingles family closeness with a couples intimacy (not just sexual intercourse but snuggling and “pillow-talk” that I believe is essential for good marital health). A quick browse of book-store shelves will evidence that many believe the opposite; again neither is right or wrong – it just expresses variations in boundary/attitudes.

A last example: Many property owners know the importance of being clear about the boundaries of their property. If you don’t know or care, it will be only a matter of time before the owner of the lot adjacent to yours begins a building project that encroaches on your property. I am reminded of the sage wisdom of Robert Frost: Good fences make good neighbors.

Now that I’ve demonstrated a therapist’s predilection to suggest there is no right and wrong, I’ll go on to contradict myself (showing the similarity of therapists and politicians).

Are there examples of right and wrong boundaries? In real life, the answer is a unqualified, “YES.”

Obvious examples of unacceptable boundary violations are everywhere. When a man strikes his mate, he has committed not only the crime of battery but he has egregiously violated a personal boundary. Marital affairs are examples of unacceptable violations of marital boundaries. Sexual activity between a mature adult and an adolescent is a crime and a flagrant violation of cultural and developmental boundaries. Stealing is a crime and a violation of personal, cultural and moral boundaries. Sexual harassment in the work-place is a boundary violation that is only recently being understood. These and many others are blatant examples of unacceptable boundary violations.

Now, let’s venture into the liminal range, the area between personal/cultural preference and obvious unquestioned boundary violations. What shall we call this part of a the boundary spectrum. For the moment let’s just call it “Problem-causing” boundary violations – (PCBV for short).

PCBVs require a fair degree of self-awareness. Being able to identify for yourself that your own value-system is being violated is extremely important.

I used to illustrate the concept of PCBVs with my patients (not for the past five years). I would ask, “Is it OK with you if I come and step on your foot to illustrate a point?” Inevitably, patients would give their permission. (Perhaps because they viewed me as an all-knowing beneficent therapist?) I would then proceed to walk to the patient and place my foot on theirs – lightly at first. Over a period of 20 – 30 seconds I would increase the pressure on their foot. (Remember, I weigh about 250 pounds!) Nearly always, the patient would just smile at me. I can only imagine their foot felt some pain. Why didn’t they say something like, “Get your gosh-darn foot off of me!” Clearly, I was violating a personal boundary; I was causing discomfort – and they were smiling at me! My previous posting on codependency discusses how we can be more aware of PCBVs.

I’ve sometimes heard people report that they’ve thought, “What part of NO don’t you understand." Perhaps they’ve thought it – but have they said it? Have they said it CLEARLY? Has their tone of voice and other non-verbal behavior matched the, “NO”?

Why don’t we say no? Is it because we’ve been trained to be placaters? Is it because we fear another’s FEELINGS will be bruised? (God forbid! They might need therapy for years! Are our feelings so delicate that we will never recover? Have we so elevated our emotions that we fear them like some three year-old with god-like wrath?)

If you aren’t aware of where your boundaries are, stop now and figure it out!

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