Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Boundaries and Borders

In the degradation of the great way
come benevolence and righteousness.
With the exaltation of learning and prudence
comes immense hypocrisy.
The disordered family
is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society
is full of loyal patriots.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching – A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way

To oversimplify a highly complex issue, let me attempt a definition of a personal boundary:

The point beyond which I cannot move without some degree of physical, emotional, or mental discomfort The point beyond which another person cannot move, in relation to me, without my experiencing some degree of physical, emotional, or mental discomfort A spontaneous "yes" or "no" based on instinct and personal values.

These are natural human boundaries.

For many of us, our natural boundaries were so violated in childhood that we are no longer clear about them. In this condition of ignorance we override our own boundaries and the boundaries of others, or we rigidify and become inflexible.

Let us assume that if our caretakers had been more sensitive and respectful, we would be more respectful of ourselves and each other. This would be reflected in our interpersonal, professional, racial, and religious relations. If our natural boundaries were intact, we would need only four guidelines as practitioners:

Respect and honor for ourselves and who we are Respect and honor for our clients and who they are Clear intentionality about the purpose of our being together Willingness to be in the truth of the relationship wherever it takes us

Our discipline is always the cultivation of awareness, relaxed alertness, respect, and sensitivity to one's self and the other. (This is work of the West in the Peruvian Medicine Wheel.)

In addition to our own natural boundaries, we also carry with us false boundaries - these are ideological, dogmatic, and fear-based boundaries which prevent us from authentic relationship with ourselves, our clients, or anyone. These "boundaries" favor rule-based thinking over critical thinking.

Beyond real and false boundaries, we each have our own boundary styles that lie somewhere between fixed or fluid. Whatever our style, these boundaries can become a source of difficulty. If our boundaries are too fixed, we will meet with resistance; if too fluid, we will feel run over time after time. Negotiating these pitfalls is the discipline of a lifetime.

In place of our lost or disowned natural boundaries we have created codes of ethics, many of which fail to honor the complexity of human relationship, fate, and the gods. Ethics come from a far deeper place in us than the rules of a bureaucratic, paranoid culture.

Each of the major healing professions has a code of ethics whose spoken intent is the protection of the client.

The unspoken intent arises from the culture's fear of litigation. Jung says that these "laws" are "a defense against our humanity." And as religion serves to keep us from having a genuine religious experience, these codes of ethics keep us from having an authentic relationship with our clients.

These sentiments are expressed clearly in the Tao de Ching cited above. To paraphrase: when the great Tao is forgotten, codes of ethics are born.

Many of the codes of ethics are urban-based rules that fly in the face of community life - the shaman remains a part of the everyday culture. S/he works side by side with those who come to be healed. In Michigan, where I spent my first forty years, my therapists, my trainers, and many of their students and clients were part of my social life as well. We became adept at stepping in and out of our respective roles. We were a community.

Ofer Zur, PhD, makes a distinction between a boundary crossing and a boundary violation. He speaks intelligently about the uses and abuses of dual relationships. He asks that we base our treatment plans on the needs of the client, and not on our fear of litigation. I highly recommend his website and articles.

Lest I continue to reveal my predisposition to oppositional defiance, let me simply ask: why attend to a code of ethics at all? First, because the protection of the client is always paramount. Second, considering our possible early damage, it may be vital.

In addition, we attend to these codes because they point to difficulties that we might not foresee until we are deeply enmeshed in them. As always, this caveat applies: critical thinking must supersede rule-driven thinking.

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy