Crossing Boundary Lines

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It’s summer and we are in the middle of the cricket season. The game represents past and present glories for so many people. It’s part of Britain’s culture of and one that the British can still be proud to have exported. It brings national teams together and that can only be of benefit. If there’s a game that  unites us in these turbulent times, we need to encourage and enjoy it.

I played the game myself years ago and still have strong memories of warm sunny days consisting of a mixture of fierce competition and fun. Good times.

Strangely, I can’t remember most of the cricketing terms I must have known then. Wickets, overs, LBW are all words or phrases that meant something to me once but I’m no longer entirely sure of how they’re defined.

There is one word I do remember clearly. Boundary. A sweeping hit to a far-off boundary meant you were guaranteed a four or – joy of joy – a six. What an achievement! What exhilaration!

The word “boundary” has come to mean something different for me in recent years. It is less joyous, more constricted and more prescriptive than reactive.

In the world of counselling, it is a useful way to help clients understand and separate from another. “You need to have boundaries”, you may hear someone saying, or a reminder to: “Keep a firm boundary.”

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This advice can be useful for a client who may be described as a “people pleaser” and who has come to counselling looking to change their life for the better.  Part of a healthy development from baby to child to adult is developing a sense of self which separates us from the (m)other.

Sometimes people find it hard to separate and it may be they need to learn to consider their own needs as well as others; they may have forgotten to give themselves space to consider what it is they want, rather than what they want to do for another. In such a case, it might be an idea to give a gentle reminder and/or explanation of boundaries to the client who perhaps has not realised that might be part of their problem.

An example could be the client feeling under pressure to do something they don’t want to do because they fear not complying might disappoint their friend or loved one. Asking them to explore their feelings about saying no and what they imagine the implications might be if they do is useful and may lead to setting some sort of boundary that will provide a successful balance between continually responding to others while ignoring their own desires.

This type of conversation is important within the therapy room where our aim is to help the client learn about themselves and so to make choices that will help them to feel happier or, at the very least, more contented in their lives.

Unfortunately, as with “safe space”, the “boundary” word seems to have overstepped its own boundary. It seems to have snuck out of the reasonably secure therapy room. It has now multiplied like some wild virus and is to be found spreading itself much further into the community that is the western world.

We have children being stabbed in London streets because they have accidentally strayed across a boundary into the wrong postcode. And then there’s Brexit which officially restored our boundaries but continues to create an emotional open wound throughout the country.  Those boundaries don’t seem so positive.

I read articles where the writer explains why people need to protect their boundaries, telling the reader – quite rudely in my opinion – that he or she has to stand firm. This is all about the individual (or small group) and their rights, their needs and freedom to control their life as they see fit.

This is fine if you are hermit or a hermit-style family, but what if your boundaries overspill into mine or, heaven forbid, my boundaries overspill into yours? What happens then?

I’ve heard of families falling apart because of rules imposed by other members whose boundaries extend way beyond that six-rule ball and encircle the whole village. That, too, would be fine if it just involved adults but it often involves children who have no choice in the matter. They might wish to create or expand boundaries of their own but how can they. They have no power.

I sense there may be a new breed of client in years to come who will be seeking to learn how to connect with people and unsure of how to have fun of their own. This leaves me feeling a little depressed. I find it ironic that a good counsellor is usually best pleased when they see their clients leaving for good. It’s a sign of achievement from both parties when a client feels strong enough to move on from their counsellor and to go it alone.

There is a separation, however, between the therapy room and the world outside. That is why a client may have a regular commitment to spend time looking at themselves and gradually coming to understand what works for them as a person and how they can move forward.

A genuinely safe space within the therapeutic relationship is created by trust between the client and the counsellor. As that relationship evolves, there is time to look within and talk about complicated matters such as boundaries and the idea is that, by the time a client feels ready to re-enter the real world as an independent fairly fully functioning adult, he or she will have much more of a sense of self.

Within this sense of self, there needs to be a knowledge that they are a human being who is part of something much, much bigger. From that knowledge, we an only hope the client feels ready to approach the world in a more hopeful way than previously.

A recent study of 18,500 UK adults reveals loneliness is a higher risk to the heart for patients with diabetes 2, as other known lifestyle risk factors.

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry wisely tweeted recently: “We are all on a spectrum of understanding ourselves, our world and other people and putting ourselves, or others, in a box tends to close down enquiry to the detriment of learning to cope or recover.”

Having an awareness of boundaries can be useful to us as individuals but I think we need to be careful how widely we extend that imaginary barrier.

I can’t help feeling how sad it would be if we made ourselves so rigid and inflexible that those who might have loved us and wanted to enter our space are too fearful to try and find some way to cross that self-imposed dividing-line.