It’s a hallmark of psychotherapy practice that clients come in lamenting their various challenges even as they’re unaware of the ways in which they sometimes actively perpetuate them both by commission and omission. From a place of relative objectivity, the therapist often views irrational, counterproductive or self-injurious conduct from clients that they’re unable or unwilling to see themselves.
In that sense, it’s not entirely unlike how lawyers often see their clients. From addictions that persist despite clearly adverse consequences to individuals staying in toxic relationships for all of the wrong reasons, many clinicians experience a veritable parade of clients describing behaviour that’s hurting them even as they remain blissfully or, to state it more accurately, miserably unaware.
More than any other issue I observe in my practice, the inadequacy or absence of personal or professional boundaries is a persistent theme in the lives of so many of my clients. The concept of boundaries often arises but is something many clients don’t understand, which is unfortunate since it affects so many aspects of a person’s life. From parent-child relations to workload issues to marital interaction, the presence or absence of healthy boundaries is often the difference between chaos and contentment.
In his book Boundaries and Relationships, Charles Whitfield describes the concept of boundaries as “how far we can go with comfort in a relationship. It delineates where I and my physical and psychological space end and where you and yours begin.” He goes on to quote Karen Paine-Gernee and Terry Hunt: “The easiest way to understand healthy functioning of boundaries is to think of the role of cells. The cell is a semipermeable membrane. When it functions correctly, the cell wall keeps poisons out, lets nutrients in, and excretes waste. It also defines the existence of the cell by separating it from other cells. . . . The healthy person does much the same. To have a semipermeable membrane, to know what to allow in and what to keep out, means you have a choice in your life, and means you will be an active rather than a passive participant in it. To manage contact well is an expression of self, integrity, and freedom.”
In essence, boundaries are the rules by which we live and interact with others. They are ours, just as much as others’ boundaries are theirs. As such, when I set a boundary, it’s up to me how it operates. So by way of a relatively straightforward example, if I set a boundary with my partner that I won’t tolerate physical violence, it’s up to me to enforce that rule. While it sounds simple, how many times have you heard stories of people who insisted on that basic requirement in a relationship only to stay with the person and forgive them for such behaviour because they loved the person and made excuses as to why it might have been an isolated incident or why they may have even invited such conduct. To set a boundary and then not to enforce it is to have no boundary at all. Boundaries are about telling people how you want them to treat you and then holding them to it. That requires clarity of terms, the clear communication of them, consistent enforcement, and the implementation of consequences for a violation. Much as in contract law, a breach isn’t a breach if nobody acts on it or seeks remedies for it. It simply amounts to words on a page that carry no weight in real terms and implicitly instruct the parties to ignore those provisions going forward.
The main challenge with the setting of boundaries is that others often don’t like them and will rebel against them as an unfair and arbitrary change in the rules. When a married man’s mother has always felt she had licence to tell him how to live, what to do, and how to raise his children, she’ll likely not take well to his starting to rebuff her unsolicited opinionating. When he tells her, for instance, that she can no longer just show up at the house to see her grandchildren but must make prior arrangements in that regard, there’s a strong chance that she’ll take offence at what she views as sudden disrespect.
However, this man has a family to maintain and every time his mother takes liberties, his wife winces. For the sake of his marriage as well as his autonomy as an adult, he needs to set boundaries and enforce them.
In the professional realm, how many lawyers do you know who take on as much work as their senior partner gives them even if there are nowhere near enough hours in the day to complete those tasks? Some people reading this will most assuredly say that this is the price of being a professional and that we all have to pay our dues. That may have some truth to it, but too many lawyers I see are simply too afraid to set boundaries related to workload and they suffer profoundly as a result. The helpless feeling that comes with being asked to do more than one is capable of doing and not feeling able to say no often leads to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The key is that each person has choice and is not, in fact, helpless. The person not setting a boundary is choosing a course of action and absorbing the consequences. In the same way, people who set a boundary for their own health or sanity also accept, with open eyes, that there may be other consequences associated with that decision. It’s about exercising choice and power in one’s life.
If the setting of a boundary results in blowback, so be it. The first time a government official decided to put a traffic light at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets in Toronto, more than a few drivers likely recoiled at having to stop and wait. It was an encroachment on their autonomy. However, people slowly became accustomed to the mild inconvenience as they noticed how the new rules made things more orderly and, ultimately, more pleasant and functional.
When people assertively set boundaries, if they can withstand the initial blowback, things often begin to settle down and people begin to relax into the new way of being. Things run more smoothly and there’s less chance of disrespect and hurt feelings because people feel safer and more stable. In the same way a child rebels but ultimately benefits from parental rules, so adults ultimately benefit from clear boundaries.
And if things don’t settle down, the parties may be at an impasse, leading to compromise or even separation. That happens. At least they’re acting authentically, assertively, and in line with their values and own best interests. If there’s one person in the world who you should be able to count on to take care of you, it should be you. You know your values and your sense of well-being and when you defend and honour those things, life becomes better. Ultimately, good fences do, indeed, make good neighbours.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who’s also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his private psychotherapy practice and is also a staff clinician and educator at Homewood Human Solutions. He’s available at thelawyertherapist.ca.