When I saw R last week, we discussed how I have a really long list of things to talk to T about and work on in therapy. The list felt overwhelming and I wasn’t really sure where to start. In the end I just picked one.
Boundaries vs. Humanness.
I often feel like people are on a sliding scale, one long line with ‘Boundaried’ at one end and ‘Human’ on the other. It often feels like everyone I love seems to slide up and down that scale depending on what I’ve done. If I’m good, then people slide towards human and if I’m bad, too much, too dangerous, too dirty, people slide towards boundaries. I hear and read all the time that boundaries are a good thing – if you Google ‘boundaries in relationships’ then it comes up with pages and pages and pages of how healthy boundaries are etc – but I just can’t understand how they can be good, because everyone who’s ever had any boundaries with me has used them to take big steps back away from me. It feels like boundaries are never about protecting me, but instead they’re about protecting the person behind the boundary wall.
I hear everyone telling me they’re a good thing but I can’t understand how. I feel stupid for not understanding it but I don’t understand how anyone having boundaries can make them or the people they love and spend time with safe. I don’t understand it and I wish I did because it would stop making me feel like everyone was leaving me because I’m bad.
T and I spent our session and our emails talking about this. There have been a couple of times recently where I’ve felt like her boundaries have been in direct contrast with how much I want her to care for me. I find impossibly hard to connect the person who cuddles and reads me stories and replies to panicked texts at bedtime, to the person who can let me leave her house totally hysterical and sobbing my heart out and not want to check in, the person who can hear me talk about suicide and not ask me to please not harm myself etc.
It has helped, a little, to understand how T feels differently to me. T feels like she shows me love through her boundaries. She wrote in her email yesterday,
“For me boundaries mean clarity and transparency so that you are clear what to expect eg you know when the session begins and when it ends. For me that means that there is a safety in that. Sometimes a client will choose to bring something up towards the end of a session knowing that it is the end of a session and there is only a limited time to look at it. They then have the choice to bring it to the next session. It feels really important to me to respect that and trust the person.”
She talked a lot in session about how she wants to be sure she is giving the best of herself. How, for example, she doesn’t want to reply to emails if she knows she is tired and she isn’t going to be able to give me what I need. How she wants to be really clear about her availability so that I am not unsure about time she has for me. I asked what boundaries she had with her children, she said the same as she has for me – she wants to give the best of herself and so wouldn’t reply if she knew she wasn’t in the right space.
Her other example was with her grandson, when he wants more toy cars. He will scream and shout and tantrum but if she’s said no then she means no and it’s her way of showing she loves him. That if she gave in when he tantrumed then that wouldn’t make him feel safe. This doesn’t feel the same to me as where I’m coming from, this feels like a behaviour boundary as is part of helping someone to grow up into a normal human being. I definitely know that there are times with Sass/Little where a firm NO is what they actually need from T – it’s part of helping them grow and understand societal norms which they weren’t taught when I was younger. I guess the boundaries that hurt me more are when I feel like I’ve been emotionally “too much” and she has kept her boundaries (or, even worse, enforced new ones) in spite of that.
I don’t feel like I have any boundaries with people at all. I show love by giving all of myself. I have behaviour boundaries, e.g. I will not tolerate somebody yelling at me, but I have no emotional boundaries. I show love by trying to be permanently available to those I love. I show love by trying to make sure that I give people what I can. I can’t always manage it – if I’m tired or overwhelmed it’s hard – but I hope that the people who I love and who love me know that if I can’t be what they need, it’s because I CAN’T and not because I won’t. That to me, is love.
I also feel that when we, as a society, talk about love, we measure it’s intensity by it’s lack of boundaries. Think about the phrases we hear – I’d do anything for them. He’s my everything. I love them unconditionally. I’d take a bullet for them. I love the bones of them. – everything we say about love, both romantic and parental, comes from it’s crossing of boundaries and how uncontrollable it is. We don’t say well I love you but only when you fit within my boundaries.
I asked A (GP) about this. T will accuse A of having no boundaries with me, but then I feel like A and I are very similar in our expression of how we care. A described them as “some arbitrary concept which puts a limit on the closeness of a relationship”…. which is the most perfect description I could get to how I feel about boundaries.
I feel like perhaps A and I are “can’t” people, whereas T is a “won’t” person. If I let someone down, it’s because I couldn’t do what they needed. It wasn’t a choice – my choice would have been to be everything to everyone – it was a “can’t”. A is the same – I know that if for example he didn’t reply, or couldn’t meet up or whatever, it would be because he couldn’t, not because he wouldn’t. T is a “won’t” person. She will make a choice. And maybe T has got it right! I know that both A and I get battered by our desires to help others professionally, to be everything the person needs. T doesn’t seem to in the same way. Maybe she is right, maybe being a “won’t” person is healthier. But I know that I feel love much more easily from “can’t” people, and I cope much better with rejection if I feel it was because someone couldn’t, rather than because they wouldn’t.
Understanding more about T’s perspective has helped me feel less unloved and rejected by her. Even if it’s not how I would want her to be with me, understanding it more has helped soothe the damage it causes when she chooses not to do what I am desperate for her to do. It has helped that she has talked to me about her feelings when we haven’t been angry and emotional. She wrote, “I do care what happens to you and I feel sad when you are upset. I don’t feel that I show it more by checking in with you. I try to respect and value you in your process and trust that you are able to ask me if you need something.” Maybe moving forward from this is about remembering these conversations and adjusting how I behave, about remembering how she cares for me and adjusting my behaviour in consideration of that. It feels like understanding her more might be the key to moving forward with our relationship.
“I wonder whether you are seeking a demonstration that I care and if I don’t show a big demonstration then you are scared I don’t care. Do you know the story behind King Lear about a king who asked his three daughters to tell him how much they cared for him. The two eldest gave huge descriptions of how much they loved him and the youngest told him she loved him like salt. The king was very upset that there were no grand gestures from the youngest whom he loved a lot and did not like something so ordinary as salt. He was so angry and rejected by her that he banished the princess from the kingdom and then divided his kingdom in two between his two eldest daughters. She managed to get a job in the kitchens where he was living and managed to serve a meal totally without salt. When the King tasted it he realised how important salt was and then realised that his youngest daughter did care. What if I care for you like salt? In an ordinary way?”
Hearing this from her really helped. I hate the use of ‘ordinary’ but I can see how this relates to us and how we respond to each other. I also feel though that it isn’t right to be dismissive of the other two sisters. T would say that she feels A does this – the big gestures, the swooping in to save the day, the knight in shining armour thing – which is unfair to him. He is relentless in his care and it’s not just wrapped up in ‘saving the day’ stuff (though that is the stuff that makes T a bit resentful and jealous when I openly adore him for it) – he does the daily grind, the constant reminders, the everyday soothing with me. He isn’t a pantomime act, saving the day on stage then stripping the outfit off and walking away – he’s a constant, a heartbeat I breathe to and a relentless hand hold. I get angry with T when she talks of him as that fleeting saviour because I know he is so much more… But I appreciate the acknowledgement of the different ways of showing love. Open, giving, big gestures love is easier for me to see and hold and use to prove to myself that they care and won’t leave… but I understand a bit more now how her love is different, quieter and definitely more ‘boundaried’, but still very much there. We’ve got more work to do on this, but this helped.
It did make me wonder whether one way of helping me cope more with relationships would be by having clearer definitions of the boundaries within them. Almost a list of the rules we play by. I say that I have no boundaries, and T would say that A doesn’t, but actually, we all do. All of my relationships do.
I asked my husband earlier what boundaries he thought we had. He immediately said ‘none, of course’, but then when we talked about it, we do. Here were the few we thought of.
- We respect our wedding vows and work to keep these every day.
- We acknowledge each other’s need for space and time to be alone.
- We make any decisions that will effect us both as a team.
- We respect our sexual and physical boundaries. Anything we do is discussed first and agreed by both. Changes to consent are allowed and respected.
I’m sure there are more, too. It helped me to see that these are boundaries but none of them put us on separate sides of a wall. They’re just rules we both play by.
Then I thought about A. There are ‘boundaries’ there, too, rules we both play by.
- There is a boundary about contact – that I can get in touch any time, and he will do his best for me. That’s a boundary – it’s not got strict times and rules like T, but it’s our rule of play – he will do his best and I will respect that (and inevitably love him anyway).
- He does not touch me without my consent. Ever. He never assumes consent and understands that consent is fluid and changing – he still asks every time to look at my tonsils, even though he must have seen them thousands of times. He is immensely clear on his respect for me and my body in that way and I totally trust him because of it.
- I will tell him if/when he triggers me (even if I think it will hurt him).
- I hope he will tell me if he’s not coping with me (even if he thinks it will hurt me).
- The specific details of my abuse history, the things I’ve told him that they did, are private and not to be shared without my consent. General overviews to other professionals (and I guess to personal relationships if he needs support) and in my notes are or course fine, but the specific details are private.
I’m sure there are more for us, too, and I am sure he has others. I’d be interested to know.
Then T. We’re redefining our list at the moment, but I do think that having clarified boundaries will help me to understand our relationship more. I’m wary of writing a list until we’ve discussed it together in session but I think it will help.
So I feel further forward now than I did last week. Seeing boundaries as less of a punishment and more as “rules we play by” seems to help me feel that people aren’t sliding up and down a scale of humanness but are actually human all along. Clarity of those rules of play and an understanding of T’s emotions and feelings behind them has helped – I definitely find her harder to understand that A because she is so different to me and he is much more similar in some ways.
I haven’t wanted to kill myself now since Monday night. That part of my brain has been quiet for days… I feel like I’ve got ever so slightly more control back, a slightly tighter grip, less dramatic spinning in a marginally calmer whirlwind. Progress.