Why are boundaries important?

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The subject of boundaries frequently arises in counselling. Sometimes it’s a person’t own experiences of being at the receiving end of another person’s lack of boundaries. What we would generally call abuse. Sometimes it’s the reverse. That a person might feel their life is overly restrictive to the extent that even the boundaries around timing and payment for counselling feels challenging for them.

It’s not always clear what a boundary is. Yes, there are social conventions that mean we don’t take liberties with other people’s bodies. But what about things like confidentiality? Is it OK to put photos of our children up on social media? Is it OK to ask someone questions about their private lives? Is it OK, even, to repeat something said to us by another person. What we might call “gossip”?

Soft boundaries like these are rarely clear, and often we have to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t. Or, indeed, whether the risk of being found out is sufficiently low. Boundaries can therefore feel very restrictive.

In counselling, I believe that boundaries aren’t restrictive but are in fact very enabling. A counsellor will be clear about boundaries in the first session. Typically these cover the circumstances under which information from the session might be repeated or recorded elsewhere. During supervision sessions, for example, or in any notes the counsellor might keep. Plus any circumstances where the law requires disclosure, such as when the person is going to be a danger to others or themselves, or because of the contact tracing currently in place during Covid 19 restrictions. And many counsellors will have no interactions with clients other than during the session itself (unavoidable admin like bookings and cancellations excepted). Why is this?

The counselling session is a place where two people can “do the work” together. Both need to feel secure enough to trust each other with what goes on. A client experiences the counsellor in ways that will feel very different to other relationships they might have. This can be overwhelming at times, and the counsellor will help the client process the emotions in an accepting and empathic way. If the counsellor can be experienced as someone who can tolerate these emotions, the client will feel more comfortable with them too. Can this happen if the client and counsellor have relationships outside of this “transitional space”? Possibly, but the therapy works more effectively if the counsellor is ONLY experienced within the counselling relationship.

The consequent relationship is described as “transferential” within the psychoanalytic tradition. I personally find the term rather dehumanising – but that’s probably something for another article. Essentially, the counsellor can become at different times the best and worst of people for the client. All based on early experiences of relationships. A counsellor receptive to these ways of being experienced can help clients understand how they relate to people generally (and some in particular) and how they defend against overwhelming emotions through unconscious processes, which are made conscious in the session.

The counselling relationship is special and it’s important for both parties to keep it that way. This is why the boundaries of the relationship are especially important.