Parsing Out the Peculiarities of Boundaries in Therapy and Out

“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking.”
― Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I had therapy again last night. The above quote was sort of the theme for the session, if therapy sessions had themes. Well, actually the theme would be boundaries, as it seems C is now on this boundary kick. But, the quote does relate to the notion of boundaries. For some of us–those who have endured a lot of trauma (or even those who’ve endured any sort of loss or heartache)–we’ve built walls around our hearts. It may be lonely but it is safer to keep the heart walled off than it is to let people in and risk finding out too late that they aren’t the “good” we ought to be letting in, but rather, they are the very monsters we’ve been trying so hard to fight.

The difficult thing about that is, we don’t often know which is which until it’s too late, because they all just look like people. Humans. Fallible. Messy. Perfectly ordinary in all that peculiarity. Looks, however, can be deceiving, so for those of us who have experience deep pain, we hear people knocking at the wall around our hearts, we may even peak out the blinds to catch a glimpse of who it may be, but we don’t answer. Perhaps, for some of us, there isn’t even a door there anymore. Maybe our hearts have become desolate, boarded up, hollowed out, phantoms of what once loved and longed and lusted.

That’s the peculiarity of boundaries though, there can’t be any healing without any doors. And, that’s a risk, to unboard the doors to our hearts. But, which is the greater risk? To keep the heart boarded up, to keep people knocking, or to be alone, to be lonely for eternity? Yes, yes, I’m employing the use of hyperbole. None of us is really that alone or lonely. It can certainly feel that way, though, right? So, what do we do? Where does that leave us?

“Sometimes you just need to go through a door.”
― Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Love me, no give me space:

Last night, I was wearing a shirt that had an astronaut on it that said, “I need more space.” And I was wearing pants that had “love” stitched around the waistband. The irony was not lost on me, nor on C. We had a wee snicker at how my attire mimicked my attitude toward people: the push-pull. The, I want you to come close but I also don’t want you close enough to hurt me. But that wasn’t really the primary topic of therapy last night. Last night we talked more about how I need to learn how to assert my needs. And we talked about how I am either submissive or aggressive. We talked about my fear that if I invest myself in therapy, then I will be abandoned. We talked about how maybe that’s part of why I pick apart the therapy process (though I stand by the fact that she dealt with the changing of boundaries in an entirely insensitive manner; I will continue to stand by that). We talked about how the very things I do to protect myself are often the very things that make people stop knocking at the door. So, I need to learn to have a better relationship with myself. And then, I need to pick a damn door and go through it. But, only after.

Being in relationship with myself: 

This is where boundaries really come in and this is where we see a bit more of my ambivalence. Apparently part of having a solid relationship with myself is having boundaries, having needs and expressing those needs and asserting those boundaries in a healthy way (i.e. not a way in which my therapist deems aggressive. I say she only found my words aggressive because she was on the defense but that’s just me being stubborn and sassy; it happens). So, we practiced this last night. I asked her if she would sit closer; that didn’t happen. We talked about it, she would have, but only if she could stay in the chair where she felt comfortable. This left us with these alternatives:

  1. move the heavy coffee table between us (which I’ve felt has acted as a barrier since day 1) and she move her chair closer to the couch.
  2.  I move from the couch to the other chair where I would have felt uncomfortable.
  3.  Neither of us move and I ignore the need.

Can you guess which one was chosen? Option 3. It seemed like an inconvenience to move the table. Obviously, my moving from couch to chair would have been counterproductive because I still would have been uncomfortable and probably would have checked out even more. So, 3 seemed the easiest. Except, 3 led to some discomfort.

On the note of discomfort, when C saw that I was reaching a point of being dysregulated, she tried to insist that I assert myself, to just say, “I don’t want to talk right now because it makes me too uncomfortable.” I couldn’t even freaking do that. The voice in my head got so angry and critical. It was all “don’t bother, you’re going to be horrible at this boundary stuff and this assertive stuff anyway.” That was probably the nicest of the things the voice said. So, I started really, really checking out.

We paused for a mindfulness activity. C gave some suggestions. I said no to all of them because they were too active and my stomach hurt. So, she asked me to make a suggestion. I said, “no” because I just knew if she wasn’t willing to move from her chair then she certainly wasn’t going to do what I would have asked. When I feel like I’m starting to drift, I like to lie on the floor on my back, and listen to music. But, no way was I going to do that alone in her office while she just chilled in her chair. Too much power differential. So, we threw a pillow and did some observation thing. One other time before I left she tried to get me to assert a boundary. I didn’t. I’m letting the cruel voice win right now.

I’m knocking on my own door and not letting my self in… so, that’s where I am… parsing out the peculiarities of boundaries, therapy, and my damn self.

10 Thoughts

  1. It seems to me like you asserted a boundary by refusing to comply with her request. You knew that you were not in a place to be moved at that moment in time and you asserted that to her. Maybe not verbally, maybe not the way you wanted to, but you still found a way to get your point across. Maybe next time you will be able to say that statement about being uncomfortable. If not, maybe the time after that. I understand your discomfort with the process though. Like you said, it’s a risk. If the boundary is accepted, if your need is heard, the payoff is great. But if not, you have to have and be able to apply the coping skills of your boundary not being validated. Which you also practiced last night by recognizing your thought process in the moment. You and C can continue process those thoughts and feelings together as they happen and see if anything else helps you feel regulated. I’m glad you spoke up about your need for proximity though, that’s so tough to do!

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  2. This was an enormous issue early on in my therapy. I’d sit there floundering waiting for my need for closeness and warmth to be met without saying a word. I had to learn to speak up, and often, so that P could find a way to bridge that distance. Try to tell C what you want, even if it’s a fantasy. Test her ability to hear you and hold the space anyway.

    I have a few questions:

    Is there a way to make the chair that is closest to C more comfortable for you? Can she place a soft pillow there or a blanket? Could you bring those items?

    Have you guys discussed your first few years of life and your mother’s attachment style?

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    1. No talk of early years or attachment in them. Really she knows me by a piece of intake paper with yes and no written all over it. She doesn’t hear me. I do say what I need, I just don’t say it how it’s convenient for her to receive it.

      Sorry, I’m just feeling bitter right now and completely done with it and her. Maybe it will pass. Maybe it won’t.

      Your questions and suggestions are really good though, so thank you.

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    1. I have reached out to another therapist, waiting to hear from that one. Asked about a few sessions to consult first. But, who knows, the change may stick. I’m at the point now where I am just hanging on because I got attached in those several months of texting and super openness from her.

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  3. Oh, KD. It took me a while to sort out my ideas and thoughts on this one.

    Texting and e-mailing is out right? Except for a fee? Is that what I am to understand of her new boundaries?

    These are just my thoughts of course, but maybe could you try this? Write on a little piece of paper before your next session.

    PLEASE CAN WE MOVE THE TABLE?

    Hand it to her as soon as you walk in the door. If she agrees you both win–she gets her chair, you get to stay on the couch and she is closer. Win-win, I think.

    If she doesn’t agree–well that will be another discussion entirely.

    Do you think you could try it?

    I have times, where even though he is right there in the room with me, it takes too long for me to get to where T is; to settle and feel comfortable enough to say a few words. Writing, I think, helps with that sometimes but even that may not be enough and I will feel myself starting to panic and disconnecting from the space and I absolutely hate it!

    Now, a lot of the time T will eventually ask to move closer to me because he can’t hear me (he calls it his senior ears moments), but about a week or so ago, for the first time ever, I felt brave enough to ask him to move closer before he had to ask. My insides were turning and I thought I would barf, but I did it. It was just a little whisper ‘you’re too far away’ and he moved right away (he didn’t say anything or act repulsed or do any of the thousands of things that I thought he would) and like your T, he would never, ever leave his chair behind (good thing it’s on wheels).

    As soon as he moved I immediately felt better. I couldn’t speak much and mostly just cried but simply knowing he was right beside me in his chair helped tons. It makes me feel less chaotic, safer, less alone I suppose, when he is closer. Does it feel strange to ask that of him? You bet your boot-socks it does. I still feel bad and way too needy to have to ask but I feel way worse if I don’t and he doesn’t end up moving for some reason. I am at the point where I am really, really tired of feeling worse.

    I think, having her closer will make you feel better. Don’t you? And if it’s going to make you feel better then it’s worth the discomfort. She didn’t say no, right? I think you said she said yes to moving, but she wanted to remain in her chair. So it sounds like from what you said she wasn’t opposed to it.

    I hope you feel more at ease with all of this soon. It’s so hard to assert ourselves. I’m not good at it whatsoever, but I think one of the most essential things in therapy is asking for what you need.

    It is so very hard to realize that it is our own fundamental human right to want, ask for, and have things our way.

    You most definitely deserve it! ❤

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    1. I actually did assertively ask her to move closer in one of our recent/previous sessions. Out loud. No hesitation. I just did it. We moved the table that time which is why this time I didn’t want to move the table. It was a hassle and also, she still didn’t feel close enough. She barely moved at all. Maybe she just has strong spacial boundaries. Anyway, I think that’s why she is pushing me so hard to assert my needs because she knows I can do it out loud. It’s just that me doesn’t feel like my default me.

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      1. Oh KD, I feel bad for you.

        From what you’re saying and her reactions to you, it sort of feels like she’s setting you up for failure. I don’t like that. It doesn’t seem fair at all. I don’t know if I could deal with what is happening at all. I would probably retreat to my safe place and not come out again.

        I get that she is pushing you to assert your needs, but in some ways her responses feel punishing. I’m not certain she is doing it on purpose, but it’s definitely how it’s coming across, It’s almost like she’s saying, ‘go ahead and ask, but just so you know I’m not going to do what you ask, but I want you to ask anyways’. I don’t know what she’s trying to do but it feels extremely confusing to me. I’m starting to feel like I have whiplash and I’m not even living through it like you are.

        Okay, so let’s say that maybe she might have stretched her boundaries and offered contact in between sessions via text or email and one day reality hit and told her that it would not be sustainable. Maybe, because of her own issues she became unsure of what belonged to her and what to you and maybe she started to feel overwhelmed and inadequate and started to believe that she couldn’t do any good anymore, or she may have developed feelings of anger. And okay, she’s human and that happens, but she is the one who needs to figure her own shit out. It shouldn’t explode all over you and your therapy.

        It feels like she is abandoning you. Not physically, but emotionally and mentally. It doesn’t feel like there is any middle ground there. Does she not realize the pain of abandonment recurring is acute, terrifying, desperately retraumatising and leads to someone being convinced that no one could help them?

        I’m not sure if she is heading there (it kind of feels that way to me) but a burnt out therapist is a dangerous thing.

        Maybe nothing I sense is true and its my own ‘stuff’ oozing out here, but something feels really amiss. I hope you can soon see someone else to get a professional opinion on the matter.

        I just feel like you deserve so much better than what you are getting.

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        1. Thank you! That is most definitely what is going on. I have been trying to get her to realize this but the only way I know how to do that is in writing but she refuses to read them! I’ve read one in session but the one that she really needs to hear, I was too scared to read. I’ll post that one here later.

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