Boundaries.... repost

One of the things I do when working with a client is an interpretive exercise about boundaries. Clients are given a roll of masking tape, my chair is moved out of the way to give them as wide a berth as possible, and they are asked to “give us a visual representation of your psychological/emotional boundaries”. I almost always get a “what?” kind of look, confusion, worry about “getting it right”, and lots of questions. I leave the instructions as vague as possible so as not to influence what might come about. I usually offer:  “there is no wrong or right, no good or bad, this is about where you end and the rest of the world begins”…. And off they go. I have done this exercise with almost every client over the last 15 years and have witnessed something different every single time. That’s kind of why I love doing it. It’s fascinating! 

Some examples: taking the tape and taping the entire office, leaving me to stand outside in order to continue with the exercise (because I will NEVER stand inside your boundary!); staying sitting in the seat and taping just the peripheral around the self; putting the tape around one’s waist, chest, finger, ankles; making boxes so tiny one needs to stand on their tip-toes; making the box so small one’s arms can’t move; taping around one’s neck or one’s head; putting the tape across one’s mouth, making a shape that includes a back door, a front door …. Some people have handed the roll of tape back saying they have no boundaries.

Boundaries are what protect us from other people’s stuff. If I have no boundaries, and you are anxious, I will be anxious. If I have no boundaries, and your are sad, I will be sad.  If I have no boundaries and you have a need, my need will be secondary, or gone altogether. Boundaries are what give us the strength and ability to say no, to say I matter, what I need is important, I have needs, I count, this is me, I am capable.

For the longest time in doing this exercise, I understood it as the “other” coming into my space, transgressing my boundary … but the other day I had a bit of an epiphany … sometimes we bring the essence of the “other” (mother, father, lover, husband, kid, friend….) into our space without them even being conscious of it. It’s as if their spirit inhabits us (this is just an analogy) – so that within our boundary there are now two. In doing so, I allow this “spirit of the other” to subsume me, to render me less important, in the end to render me powerless – I render myself powerless. We become angry because “if they cared” they wouldn’t expect this of me … but they aren’t conscious of what I am doing – there’s the catch.  I come home from a hard day, feel it would be great for me to go to my yoga class, step in the house and feel that would not be ok with you, I would be dismissing your need for my company, my care of you… and I drown out my own need without even noticing .. except for the part about getting angry… angry that your needs come first, that mine get dismissed ….  And I haven’t even said hello.

That’s a very different stance than being overwhelmed with the “other’s” emotions, or being made responsible for them.  It’s a different stance than having to suffer the emotional contagion from another – that emotional energy that you get affected by.

So how to shift, how to begin healing a compromised sense of self?  The hardest thing you will ever have to do is believe that you are worth it. If you begin to cultivate that belief then you will have to begin saying no; you will have to start recognizing when some feelings are yours and some don’t belong to you; you will have to tolerate someone else’s sadness, anger, loneliness and not take responsibility for it. No small feat! You will have to speak up to make your own needs known. You will have to do the work of getting to know yourself to know what those needs in fact are – because you have been putting them aside and dismissing them for so long that you are somewhat out of touch with them.

Take heart though, the work is worth it. Inside that boundary that would go around your own physical being is something spectacular … you! Someone who is curious, lovable, deserving of respect, unique, worthy, beautiful …. No I’m not making this up. All that you are, all that amazingness, all that potential, all that worthiness, lives inside your boundary and very much deserves your attention. We are all so very worth it.


A landmark is defined as “a feature of a landscape that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location” (Oxford Dictionary definition from a simple Google search). I can translate this into psychological/emotional language as “an emotional landmark is a place inside of us, our psyche, that can be brought back to memory in the right circumstance, that comes also with all the feelings that moment once came with, reminding us of who we were, where we were, how we were at that moment in time” (by me).

Emotional landmarks will “reverberate” when the circumstance is right. If you have had a challenging family life, it’s very likely that no matter how much therapy you will have done in your life, finding yourself within the family context will “feel like something”. Therapy can do so very much in helping us understand ourselves, where we came from, how we were taught to respond. It can help us see ourselves from another perspective, it can help us understand our parents, siblings, partners - ourselves so much better. It can help us forgive and accept. All great stuff.

What therapy can NOT do is erase these landmarks. I will never have different parents. I will never have a different family story. But what I can do is recognize that when the circumstance “looks” like what my history looked like - in my case chaos, alcoholism, violence - I’m going to have a very understandable reaction. What therapy has helped me do is notice this - so that I can make a different choice for myself should the need arise. One that serves me, a choice that is not reactive, a choice that recognizes my person and respects and honours that. A choice that recognizes my strengths - so that I don’t shut down in fear like I did as a child. Among other things, that is what therapy helped me do. 

So clients come to therapy and say when will this be gone - and we all need to learn that we are all like a tapestry, with ALL of our stories weaved in to create a fabric that is us. We can’t remove the threads of this fabric or we lose our integrity, we lose our strength and risk unravelling. We can lean on the fact that we are made up of so many different parts, stories, threads - strong ones, reliable ones, so that the challenging ones can be carried along and no longer be the central force behind how we feel, react, see ourselves in the world. But they will always be there. We all have the strength to change our “relationship” to those parts, to those memories, we really do … But they will always be there. 

Therapy, in my humble opinion, is better thought of as a tool to learn how to live in the world with who we are. The image of walking around a “landmark” and knowing what it once was, and seeing beyond ourselves and recognizing how far we are from it - can help a lot in managing our feelings. Of course change happens. It really does. And also, we come with our stories and we need to honour and respect those stories, not erase them - because that’s not possible. 

Peace to you.

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