Learning about ‘boundaries’

As I spoke about my emergence as a distinct professional individual in the introduction, a part of what I was describing concerned a developing understanding of the boundaries between people.

The starting point is relatively simple – a necessary self absorption to make sense of one’s own individuality, and to discover what is ‘true’ about oneself, and what externally ‘imposed’ within a family or student role. But the complications of reality – the external world – are unavoidable.

Everyone will have their own experiences that seem especially significant in retrospect, as they develop towards a professional helping career. No-one will look honestly at these formative experiences without some discomfort.

I was as a teenager a true innocent regarding sexual matters. I can remember being given a juicy and lingering kiss by a boy at my grammar school when I was about 12, but I had no idea what had happened other than finding it strangely pleasant. I can recall no consequences and no embarrassment, although since I have mentioned this to no-one before now, I must have realised at some level that what had happened was private.

On issues of gender – the boundaries between make and female – I do recall a sense of paradox, that whilst I wanted to be part of and comfortable with my father’s (male) world, I would tend to gravitate to the ‘safer’ environment with my mother and women.

Sexual matters were  intensely private and rather shameful. This fed and maintained the innocence and must have delayed my learning in this area. Girlfriends were not possible with the scrutiny of parents, whose anxiety about the whole thing would be expressed in a rather cruel (unintentionally – similarly innocent!) teasing.  I was for a while in love with a girl at a music camp when I was still a schoolboy, but was completely panicked by the experience when the reality of being with her happened. My first real girlfriend did not come until I was at university.  She was bright and affectionate but I rapidly discovered, inspired great discomfort in me. I related this at the time to Paul Morel’s relationship with Miriam in D H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’, and to some degree saw that my girlfriend was too much like my parents for any sexual attraction to be possible. (I then treated her gracelessly with all the unintentional rudeness of the embarrassed!)

Such is adolescent learning about boundaries with all their rigidity, embarrassment and unkindnesses! Not surprising that some teenagers prefer to remain with their same sex groups when these disturbing challenges to their sense of self can be kept at a distance.


Oh yes, and there is sex!

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

This came more to the fore with another female client, a single mother with two or may be three teenage daughters. The girls were, she felt, completely out of her control and she was clearly frightened by what was happening and by her fears for what might happen. We established regular counselling sessions, and a colleague worked alongside me with the most troubled of the daughters.

I realised after a while that I was looking forward to the sessions with the mother rather more strongly than would normally be the case and that I had begun to feel attracted to her. Actually, in writing this down, it makes the feelings rather more obvious than I realised at the time, but I was sufficiently worried to discuss this case in supervision and to refer to these feelings. My supervisor, who as you may have realised from my last blog entry was of a Freudian disposition, saw the issue as a reflection of the client’s forbidden sexual desire that she had formed for me, and he spoke in graphic and physical terms about their nature e.g. the desire to bite and to suck.

My sense of shock about this lingered for many weeks – the possibility of such openness about the nature of sexual desire had seemed I suppose, to belong to pornographic or forbidden fiction, and to private rather shameful fantasies. I had sometimes been reluctant to acknowledge them as part of common human experience, all the more powerful for being repressed or kept secret. It made me contemplate how, six years into a profession in which the secret confusing drivers of destructive behaviour were supposedly at the centre of the job. I was still as disturbed by the reality of sexual feeling as a school boy.

But of course it is commonplace for clients and their counsellors to find they have sexual feelings for each other – there would be no need for the regulatory taboo against acting these feelings out were that not the case. You did not need to be a Freudian analyst to realise that.

Whilst ‘being important’ is something perhaps to which we all aspire, it is an uncomfortable place to be. My first team as a probation manager was located in an office that more or less overlooked the local library. There were not a few evenings when we would look across the road with envy, the library being such a haven of quiet and unnoticed reflection in our imagination.

Important ‘for what’?

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

The sense then of what it means to be important is built on such foundations. I still had much to learn. Rather later, having moved to the voluntary sector to provide counselling and family work, as previously mentioned, I found myself with clients who came to see me merely because they chose to. The nature of that choice was varied of course – it had individual personal meaning for each individual. That meaning was often indescribable and perhaps a puzzle to some clients. Some gave only occasional clues to the intensity of emotion that they brought for help. I remember a Lebanese man would come to see me, and receive me into his home for reasons that were never really discussed. He was out of work and there was I believe some violence to his wife. I cannot now recall any details of the case, except that he saw me as if he had to, without apparent resentment, passively but regularly. It was always hard to know why he came or what he took from our meetings. What does stay in my mind some decades later, is when he spoke of the difficulty of living in England. He described his life in Lebanon in a way that highlighted the profound isolation of English life, stuck in his house, no street cafe life with friends; long cold wet nights, no beachside fishing (legal or illegal). Listening to this gave me a sense of how for some, the stories are the way in which depth of feeling is conveyed. Perhaps this is true for all of us, but we disguise it through more analytic, apparently direct expression. Nonetheless, the idea of being important as the receiver of stories was planted in my mind – the importance of the witness.

For others, how people behaved was the more striking sign of one’s importance. Here we get closer to an interpretation of the world that can attract great scepticism – a way of looking at the world where everything that happens is some unconscious process in which the therapist is at the centre of things. I had a female client with marital troubles who in one session lost her temper with me and threw something across the room. My supervisor saw this act as a sexual one, a kind of aggressive sexual attack. I was a bit shaken by this remark, sufficiently to have recalled it some four decades later, but then I was still relatively ‘green’, sheltered or hiding away from some of the complexities of sexuality.

In looking back therefore, it is not so much that I think my supervisor was ‘right’ in making such interpretations, as that being ‘right’ can often be an over-rated virtue, especially in the helping professions when dealing with emotional distress. What is more important is to be helpful, and in this respect, the interpretation was part of a growing process for me. I was forced to look more closely at the power of human desire, and to struggle with my own confusions and anxieties in this respect.


Learning about Emotional Depth

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

So I had my first discovery of the intense paradoxes of being close to the essence of humanity –

  • The awareness of the sadness and need of another alongside the selfish preoccupation with one’s own feelings and status
  • The intensity of the imagination and the determination to express the beauty and value of things alongside the bleak physical annihilation
  • The guilt about selfishness and the intensity of life in the face of death
  • The physicality of emotions, not merely the physiological response of the body to emotions, but emotions caught up in the physical, especially important as I will explore later in the context of loss

There was however more learning and it is only as I write this down that I see what a rich variety of issues are brought together in such an event – and of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. ‘Rich’ is not the best word of course because God only knows what his parents and brother went through. For my friend who discovered the body, there would have been lasting consequences. No consolation all this of course for the waste of a gifted young life and the destructiveness of any suicide for the family and loved ones involved. Perhaps I was too young and self absorbed to be as hurt and damaged by this event as I might have been. My friend had spent some time over the immediately preceding Christmas holiday staying with me at my parents’ home. This was a kind of return visit for a time I had spent at his home previously. It was obvious that he was troubled, though he never said anything about what was going through his mind. I had yet to learn how intense and unmanageable feelings of despair could be and so I had no idea at all what might be going on. That he knew this I learned after his death when a friend passed on some dismissive remark he had made about how useless I had been.

It seems odd to me in retrospect that this remark did not hurt me more than it did, and I have two reactions to it as I look back. First of all, I had a sort of feeling that the dismissive remark was not in some sense real – not so much that it was not accurate as that the friend would not have said it if he were thinking straight.  To take it personally even then would have felt like a kind of vanity – in a way, I was useless not because I was useless, so much as that ultimately I, and all his friends, were peripheral to a wider drama and struggle that was going on in his life.

Secondly, I think it did not hurt because it was not news to me. I felt and recurringly have often felt personally useless, only able to be useful when putting on professional clothes. This event was a sort of confirmation of what I imagined about myself. This is all the stuff of adolescence of course; if only we could leave our adolescence to our teenage years!

Discovering the intensity of life

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

There was a good deal to discover about being important. Some of the discovery was about the depths of human emotion. For all the agonies of growing up, the discovery of the raw and primitive nature of emotion had to fight through powerful defences. The physical reality of living is I suppose, too much to live with day by day – we are shaken into recognition by, often, a death or a birth. The intense power of sexual feeling is marked by jokes, shyness, (can turn to madness and violence of course) and when we hear of a rape or a child molestation, we are shocked into glimpsing the undefended primitive physicality of things.

For me, my friend’s death at college was such a glimpse. Faced with this actuality, the feelings I was immediately conscious of were of unreality. I can remember when the news was broken to me, I had an immediate sense that I was choosing to react in a way that seemed what was expected. The only model of how to respond to shocking news was what I had seen on TV shows  or in my family, and it was as if I could only copy these seen reactions whilst having no idea what to feel. I rushed round to tell my girlfriend almost because I thought that was what I ought to do – I had to do something and this was the thought as I went. The true position as I look back was that I was not in control at all but acting on instinct. It was the thoughts that were not real, not the actions.

Over the next few days, I learned a good deal. Coming up against suicide both had a glamour and the opposite – a sort of grey and banal physicality. I now have a sense of them as linked together with a sense of unreality. There was a kind of glow from other people’s attention, a sort of importance from having been close to a life and death event; and then a kind of dismal practical banality. There was the discovery of the careful planning of the suicide; the purchase of the plastic bag and the rope. There was evidence of my friendship being useless and irrelevant. Each of the latter discoveries brought with them a shock, a draining of blood from the face, a stiffness around the jaw and the heart.

This physical experience was reflected on the day of the memorial service in the glamour of the college, the imaginative expression of music in the service and the drear emptiness in the reality. The memorial service itself was filled with the music that my friend loved – it is still important to me now, 40+ years later.

The performances were hallowed by the atmosphere of an Oxford college chapel, anointed by a history going back to the Renaissance, shadowed by this as the home of the parents’ dreams for their boy. Afterwards, there was the scattering of the ashes in the college grounds. If I picture the scene, I can still feel the physical shock of seeing those pathetic ashes, the sole physical remains of this gifted living friend sicked out of the urn into the breeze in the college garden.

Negative and Positive Projected Importance

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

When I first took up the authority role as a trainee probation officer, I soon had to come to terms with the preconceptions people applied to me. Somehow, it was easier for people to accept that they were subject to negative or hostile preconceptions, given that for many offenders, their whole life had been one in which ‘authority’ only seemed to take interest in them when they were angry or putting them right for some misdemeanour. At age 23 however, life can still be rather simple and I had yet to discover the ways in which these negative patterns in relationships are interactive. It was much easier at that stage to identify with the victimhood, the offender as the misunderstood. My tutor once said that the people who did the most effective work were students – we were still mindlessly optimistic!

Of course it was puzzling in a way to find that these negative projections were not overcome by my (to me) obvious benevolence and sympathy. The positive projections though were more of a surprise. My very first client, Paul, followed me through my life for the next 10 years, finding me through moves from Exeter to Sheffield and Milton Keynes. My supervisor took me aside after this lost and highly disadvantaged young man announced he was getting married to a disturbed wheelchair bound young woman, to say that my first reaction should not be ‘oh my God, what have you done’, but ‘congratulations!’. He suggested saving this engagement with reality for a time when Paul might have had some chance of looking at it.

It is surprisingly difficult to remain aware of this habitation of other people’s projections. People in leadership roles with years of professional experience can easily lose sight of it. I had a boss once who had a habit of calling unannounced on some female managers and having ‘private’ conversations with them, seemingly oblivious to the fact that everything a boss does is observed and interpreted by staff in the light of their various preconceptions. There was one memorable occasion when he was participating in a discussion about racism with black staff and community leaders.  He had the habit of nodding encouragingly to show his responsiveness and attention to what people were saying, a habit that was useful to him when he was bored and inattentive. Unfortunately on this occasion, his attention must have wandered and he was observed to be nodding as if in agreement as someone spoke of racist and discriminating behaviours. Uproar ensued.

Certainly at the outset of my career, it would surprise me to become important to a client. This surprise I have seen in others as a real shock. One new probation officer that I was supervising, in undertaking his first social enquiry report, an apparently straightforward case chosen for that reason, was leaving the offender’s home at the end of the interview. To his surprise, the client followed him down the front path to the gate on to the road. Here he stopped the officer and told him that he was worried by the feelings of arousal he was experiencing in relation to a young pre-school child who was part of the family. So much for careful induction of a new worker!

Importance as a ‘Projection’

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

The importance that a worker might come to possess for a client will be a mixture of:

  • The significance of the role held by the worker
  • The way in which that worker inhabits the role
  • The projections that the client brings to the encounter

Now I have opened another complex door – ‘projections’. Here is a word that has been appropriated by those of a psychodynamic turn of mind. It refers to the process by which individuals interpret the world around them in accordance with their inner fantasies and preconceptions. More than this, it can refer to the way in which people can somehow generate behaviours and feelings in others that enact the preconceptions they hold. I will return to that point later. For the moment however, it is enough to refer to people’s preconceptions.

There is a wide range in the extent to which we are conscious of our preconceptions. So far so uncontroversial! Interestingly, I suspect that if I were to assert that projections are commonly unconscious, some people would find it harder to go along with the suggestion. Nonetheless, I do suggest that this is the case and that it is in fact a very ordinary assertion. It is commonplace for us to realise that our understanding of a person in authority was distorted should we come to know them as individuals outside their work environment.

People holding authority are especially accustomed to this phenomenon of projections. But if we take another example, understanding that there are unconscious projections is widespread. A black probation officer goes to court to deal with a case only to find that the court staff assume he is a defendant or defendant’s family. A woman finds that she is assumed to be the minute taker in management meetings. In my last role working for the National Treatment Agency, I found on a number of occasions that what I said was understood as a comment about drug users or drug treatment when I was speaking of broader or related issues.