Sunday, November 05, 2006

boundaries and relationships


I have to confess that I have always had trouble with boundaries in relationships. The trouble is that I feel like I am this open, receptive person. I don’t have many hang ups about letting all my guts and feelings out. I am one to allow people into my life rather quickly. I definitely have a better filter system now as an adult. But, the truth is, people like me and want to hang out and be friends. I’m safe. I’m easy going. I have always been like this.

But, the problem with all that is…I don’t really find myself always being honest about how I feel in terms of if I even want the friendships to develop. It’s like I can’t say no.

I have trouble putting up boundaries, at least in my social life. Professionally, it isn’t usually a problem.

Until recently. But before I tell the story…I want to think about this “crossing the line” and “boundary thing”.

Even right now, the fact that I am blogging I wonder if I am crossing the line. I mean isn’t that what blogging is? Crossing the line from what I say verses what I think about. Crossing the line in terms of social norms and expectations.

I mean what does it mean to cross the line? Some things are so easy to see as crossing the line. Teacher sleeps with student. Crossing the line. Doctor fondles patient, cross the line. Mother reads daughter’s diary cross the line. Parent buys minor children alcohol for party cross the line. I mean right these are obvious. Adultery, cross the line.

To me, cross the line involves a violation of a boundary that is firmly entrenched in my value system and quite frankly the legal system. Although we can all argue some laws are stupid and old, etc. But I am not talking about that. I am talking about what most of us would consider as crossing the line.

Let’s talk about the other thing, the other kind of crossing the line isn’t sexy or provocative. It’s subtle. It’s so subtle that we don’t realize a line has been crossed or a boundary violated until it’s too late.

Right now I wonder if I am crossing the line by talking about this. I know I haven’t told you yet but I hesitate as I wonder is this well right for me to discuss over the “airways?” I mean I know I won’t name names in this but…..should I air this right now? Then I ask myself in the vain of what? Why would you tell the story you are about to tell?

To illustrate what I feel is a very important point about being human, and since the point of my blog is to write in the most naked, vulnerable way, and humanness is just that vulnerable and naked, well then in many ways this is the “right” thing to do.

But there in lies another boundary. The one that I face as a writer. As a writer, you write about your life whether you disguise it in fiction or blatantly write slice of life stuff, for lack of a better term, writing is reality TV, particularly blogging but like reality TV some editing must be done….

Before I launch into my boundary story I want to reflect on this….not once have I pissed someone off in my life with my writing…except my sister. And because of that incident, I learned about THAT particular boundary and have made a promise to her that it will never happen again.

It hasn’t.

Sometimes you have to test a boundary to know if you have crossed it. Right?

I mean crossing the line really should be in two categories: blatantly legally crossing the line and then the other stuff…the subtle stuff, the stuff that happens because we are humans and sometimes don’t’ know where we begin and someone else begins. Sometimes we have to test the boundary to know it truly exists outside our heads.

So here’s my story:

Recently I had a client shift from private writing client to friend. Simple enough, right. I mean what’s the big deal? Another good friend of mine is also my massage therapist. I once had my MD, who I also had dinner with occasionally, give me an internal exam during my regular physical because I was due and needed to get one. I also once befriended a former student of mine, once she graduated. We had a few play dates with our children. You could argue that some of these examples are crossing the line but then you could also say well no not really. I mean there’s a kind of twist in each example: My good friend the massage therapist was my massage therapist first and then my friend and we don’t pal around all the time and even if we did, who cares? When I am a client she doesn’t spill her life story on me. In fact I think she is great because we don’t talk through the treatment and she knows what I like and most importantly she lets me bring my three-year-old once!

I also once had a therapist who became my friend years after we finished and in another weird boundary twist became a client of mine later!

Oh and this is something I just thought of: Some lines need to be crossed. Think of the women’s movement and civil rights movements. Think of religious repression.

But those are all kind of obvious. My recent experience is not.

Here’s the newest thing that happened to me and I wonder if it qualifies as crossing the line….it certainly felt like it.

I had a client who hired me as a kind of writing coach but it turned into more of a counseling situation. The entire time she said to me she wanted to go for a walk or have coffee with her and I adamantly said no…maybe some day if we are no longer client and coach then perhaps. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable with her bringing up coffee and walks. I didn’t want to be her friend while we were in this working relationship. I think it would have ruined the work she was doing.

Well the day came that she ended the sessions and then without missing a beat invited me to walk with her. I agreed but was truthfully scared. I should have told her. I should have been honest.

We became friends. But the whole time, I still felt weird. I wanted to talk this all through, the lines of the new friendship. I had questions like what if she felt she needed me again as a counselor…did she expect me to shift back and then what would happen to this friendship.

I felt all messed up and yet didn’t say anything.

Then it happened. One afternoon, at coffee, I turned back to “counselor/coach”. It was awful.

She hustled out of Starbuck’s quickly and I wanted to die. I sat there with my head in my hands and realized that there were other times since we ended the client/counselor relationship that we both allowed the friendship to slip back.

It was hard. This was too hard.

How do you become friends when you have been in this kind of working relationship? And also, how do you say no? How do you say no when you feel like this is a person who needs your friendship and that maybe you might need it too? I felt angry with myself and even with her. The counselor/coach in me was angry that I even allowed the friendship and the me, the human raw me felt…off. I mean a lot of our time together now as friends was spent discussing her problems but it was also spent discussing mine. Except why did it all feel so, well, off?

I mean I like this person and would be friends with her probably if we met at yoga class or something but the way we became friends is too….it just didn’t feel right to me as I sat there finishing my tea. I want to have my professional lines very clearly marked and I was pissed that now I had screwed that up.

Looking back at the counseling part of the relationship I realize the boundary and lines that defined what it was exactly were always fuzzy. If I referred to our sessions as counseling or therapy we would both kind of shake our heads and wrinkle our noses but then again at other times she called me her therapist and counselor. Then came the other thing, she often asked me if we could walk outside and have coffee…I always told her that that isn’t a good idea for the nature of the work we were doing…

I think what happened on that Monday was that I never addressed these weird feelings I had way back in the beginning. I focused more on her and her liking me and keeping that stuff going. I never said hey let’s talk about how this is all going to work, from here on out.

The weird part about this episode of boundaries and friendships is that I would rather have her as a friend than a client. We have a rare connection that reminds me of being a teenager and having that close friend you can spill every weird thought to. In other words, my struggle has been with the guilt I have over allowing a professional line to be crossed not only because she wanted it but also because I wanted it. I wanted the friendship.

We have since sat down and talked everything over, and I told her about this blog.

In our conversation we really delineated the lines in our new relationship.

The nature of the work I do has fuzzy boundary lines. Some clients are friends of mine to begin with and some of my adult students as well. But I realized that depending on the nature of the work, friendships and business may need to stay separate. I will go forward with a special eye on the boundary that I want with each client.

But in the end, I really have made a great new friend…who is never going to be a client again!

1 comment:

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