Boundaries, order, and common understandings

Boundaries can be useful, but they can also be misused. Photo by Eduardo Taulois on Unsplash


In my original training for counselling, much was made of boundaries.  The word ‘boundaries’ was used as a kind of weapon against any loss of composure or order on the part of the therapist, the client, or in the counselling relationship as a whole.


It was as though counselling were a vegetable patch, and the answer to chaos in the vegetable patch was to implement better fences between the vegetables.  It didn’t make complete sense to me.  It seemed dangerous – prioritising order over freedom.

In a true gardening situation, the most important thing is to nourish the plants, and find them a space where they can grow happily.  In counselling, the client is as much a gardener as the counsellor.  We mustn’t objectify anyone as ‘the thing consumed’, or ‘the thing to be controlled’.


The word ‘disorder’ can be terribly misused by mental health practitioners.  Unconsciously, they can end up requiring a particular set of behaviours from clients, and then labelling anything outside that as  ‘disorder’, invalid and to be eliminated.  We might as well call a ‘disorder’ a ‘don’t-do-that’!


Boundaries and order, then, can be misused by anyone who wants to run society, or other people, in a particular way.  Some therapists are fighting battles from their own past.  One can understand how a therapist who was abused in childhood will want to control others in adulthood so that they never have to be a victim of lost control again.  The therapy can become a surrogate way of working through the therapist’s own problems, overcontrolling others in the process.


Of course, a certain amount of order is helpful in many human endeavours.  If we go on an adventure, we like to pack a rucksack with useful essentials – being totally random is not such a good idea when it comes to unknown future emergencies.


Relationally, rather than imposing draconian rules on others, we can negotiate a minimal number of common understandings.  We would agree not to use physical violence towards each other.  We would agree something suitable about the time, location, and form of our meetings.  We may well agree on some common goals.


But everything else might be up for grabs.  Free relationships are like a creative endeavour.  We have some common understandings as to what people expect to happen.  After that, we allow life to take over a little.  It becomes an exploration, not a vehicle of domination by one party of the other.


It may be that, in the end, we arrive at common practices which have a fairly narrow scope.  Good mountain climbers, for instance, may agree on a narrow set of practices which they don’t like to deviate from.  But the art can be collaborative, rather than dictatorial.


  1. What boundaries do I put up for other people?
  2. In what way am I trying to create easy order in my life by telling other people what to do?
  3. What negotiations am I afraid of, or too lazy or afraid to engage in?
  4. How could I develop my negotiating skills to create relationships with good common understandings, but also plenty of freedom for everyone?