This week I had three experiences that brought the issue of interpersonal boundaries front and center. First, I saw "The Sound Inside"– a Broadway play with Mary-Louise Parker as a creative writing professor and Joshua Chessin-Yudin as her student. When I came home I found Psychology Today (December 2019) with a lead article entitled: "The Power of Boundaries" by Sara Eckel. Finally, I had a session with my patient, Sally, who wants me to read the books she gives me and talk to her about my thoughts about them. The confluence of these experiences made me think about boundaries.
From the opening, "The Sound Inside" explores the boundary between students and teachers. Christopher, the student, arrives at Bella’s office outside of posted hours, but she invites him in anyway. Their relationship violates more and more boundaries as the student keeps pushing the limits and then the professor disregards them entirely. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that the student suffers as a result of the professor’s disavowal of responsibility. She is the authority and it is her responsibility to maintain the limits of the relationship, but she doesn’t. I left the theater feeling angry at her, but I didn’t think the playwrite intended that. I wasn’t immediately sure what I was angry about.
When I returned home and found the article about boundaries, I was eager to read it. But the article didn’t focus on boundaries between unequals. It focused more on friendship, work colleagues and marriage. Disappointed, I realized that I was angry at Bella in the play because she did not protect the boundaries of her relationship with Christopher and put him at risk. Their relationship was not between equals.
The next day I had a session with Sally, who tends to push the boundaries in all her relationships. She began talking about being frustrated because she wanted her boss to explain why he made a decision. That led to Sally’s complaint that she gave me books she liked from time to time, but I did not tell her what I thought of them. Some therapists discuss their reactions to books or movies with their patients and others do not accept any gifts from patients. I have given this a lot of thought through the years and decided that I would accept modest gifts–e.g. a book or a drawing, etc. I accept the gift, thank the patient, and then ask about his/her feelings about giving me the gift. I decided on that because I am primarily interested in analyzing what the gift means and rejecting the gift often closes that off because the patient feels hurt and rejected.
I explained to Sally that my reactions to books are personal, not related to her, and outside of the boundaries of the treatment. Nevertheless, Sally felt hurt and angry. Why don’t you want to share your feelings about the book with me? If you valued me, you would want to share your reactions. I explained that it had nothing to do with how much I value her. It had to do with the limits of the therapeutic relationship and her difficulty tolerating boundaries–e.g. with her boss. But then, after she left, I questioned my decision to accept gifts; perhaps it would be better not to and avoid this whole issue. I decided to discuss it with Sally and see what she thought. Would it be easier for you if I don’t accept any gifts? No, that would make me feel terrible. Please don’t do that! Okay, I said, maybe it’s better for you to decide whether you want to give me a book and tolerate not knowing if I read it or what I think of it. Perhaps it would be easier for you not to give me books so you don’t yearn for my reaction?
We are still discussing this and I think it is valuable to continue because Sally needs to think about managing other people’s boundaries as well as her own. I don’t want to be like Bella in "The Sound Inside". I am the professional authority and I want to take responsibility for maintaining the appropriate boundaries. But I am also a psychoanalyst, so I want Sally to learn to tolerate other people’s boundaries. It will be up to her to decide what feels better to her, giving gifts or not, knowing that the boundary is hit as soon as she gives it to me.