It is not accidental that in writing about boundaries, I start with the turmoil of sexuality, and turmoil it is. This is one of the first learning sites for most of us, and when such issues arise at work, one of the most challenging and disturbing. It is especially important because it is in managing sexual feelings that we can get most confused about who is responsible for what. I spent a couple of years when working with the mother of the three teenage girls mentioned above, quite uncertain about whether I was dealing with her attraction to me or mine to her.
But whilst such uncertainty can be at its most urgent when coming up against sexual emotion, in the early part of my career, I found myself exploring such uncertainty about whose feelings were at stake in a range of ways. I would look forward to seeing some clients – was that me or something about them? I would be bored by others – these reactions led me to ask why.
This line of exploration found its clearest articulation when I went to training at the Institute of Marital Studies (IMS). There, its director Janet Mattinson had formulated what was known as the ‘reflection process’. This arose from observations in work with couples having marital difficulties, that the ‘therapists’ seemed to experience feelings and behave towards each other in ways that reflected the problems within the relationship of the couples who had come for help.
It was a very useful approach to understanding what was happening in a helping relationship for someone who needed to move away from the preoccupation with self that is natural enough in the emergence to adulthood. That preoccupation becomes unhelpful and leads young workers down some ‘cul de sacs’. It meant that, if I felt bored with a client, I did not have to be preoccupied with what was wrong with me, but I could be led into thinking what my boredom might say about how the client might be feeling.