Boundaries

I think (and write) a lot about boundary setting in my work. It was a thornier issue for me when I worked in hospice; being in people’s homes makes the lines all the more blurry and the boundaries rather flexible, in my experience. Now that I’m in a doctor’s office, it’s easier to draw some firmer lines. No one is offering me food, for instance. I’m not sitting on the edge of someone’s bed. I visit with patients in empty exam rooms; there aren’t any pictures of my family or any personal artifacts. Still, the balance of building rapport while keeping firm boundaries remains.

Take, for instance, a regular patient of mine. We’ve seen each other off and on since I started this job a year ago. We’re actually nearing the termination process now, much to his chagrin. He’s a nice guy; I like him a lot. But lately he’s been a little more familiar with me and I’m struggling with whether or not to push back.

Familiar feels like an odd word to use here but it’s sort of the only way to describe it. He’s not outwardly inappropriate; there’s nothing he’s said or done that I could point to and tell him to knock it off. It’s been an insidious little bit of boundary pushing. It started with an increase in cursing during our sessions. (Which honestly, if you’ve spoken to me for more than five minutes, you know that I have a foul mouth. I come by it honestly: my mother swore like a sailor). The words don’t bother me per se; it’s more that he used to watch what he said. My patients often apologize for swearing during a session, to which I answer that I’ve heard all the words before. I even allow myself the occasional “this is shitty” or something to that effect, if the relationship is there. But this patient’s frequent use of heavy curse words feels more boundary pushing than before.

Maybe I wouldn’t even have noticed except that the swearing comes along with a little more… flirting, for lack of a better word. Again, nothing so outrageous that I could give a firm, “not appropriate, knock it off.” More a subtle change in his tone of voice, a casual remark here or there. I have a feeling my female friends know exactly what I’m describing. If I mentioned it to him, he’d surely say he didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s subtle and honestly, I’m not totally sure he realizes he’s doing it. Which is partly why I’m struggling with what to do about it.

I should state here that I don’t feel unsafe; that’s a different topic for a different day. My discomfort is more about how I’m reacting to his boundary pushing. I’ve found myself coming back with a little attitude. For instance, he asked why I won’t be at work on a particular day (we were scheduling an appointment) and I jokingly replied, “None of your business.” We have a good rapport, so he laughed and said he was only kidding. It was a deeply awkward moment though. It’s the kind of response I’d give to a guy in a bar, not to a patient. But because I kind of let the boundaries blur, I let things get away from me.

That being said, this is not unsalvageable. And it’s possible that some of the over familiarity on his part is because we’re terminating our relationship soon and he has some feelings about that. Whether we’re going to address them the next time we meet really depends on how the session goes. I can consider different reactions to different things but I cannot predict the future (sadly) so I’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

In the meantime, I’m considering how I relate to my patients and if I need to take a more clinical approach. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here; it’s a case by case approach. I think what’s really needed is a little more self reflection and maybe a little pulling back. I guess we’ll see how hard he pushes and therefore, how hard I’ll have to pull.

Ah, clinical social work: where every interaction is deeply weighted! I guess it’s part of the charm of the work. Right??

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Use of Self

I am kind of an over sharer. I have a tendency to spill out my life story when someone asks me a fairly benign question. For instance, a question about what brought me back to Philadelphia after going to school out of state sends me into a long, complicated tale with details about a protracted break up and a deep sense of homesickness (in case you were interested). I will tell almost anyone almost anything. My co-workers know far more details about my personal life than I think they want to, but that's just the way I am. 

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With my patients though, I often wonder how much to divulge. I want to recognize and respect that I'm meeting people in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, in their intimate spaces, and asking them deeply personal questions. It's only natural that the boundaries between us are a little blurrier than they would be in an office setting. I don't mind answering a few personal questions: am I married, do I have children? I ask these of my patients; they're fairly benign. What gives me pause is when people hit a nerve they don't realize they're hitting. 

Now I have to give you a little more information--I'll try not to overdo it but it's important to this particular post. My mom died on hospice two years ago. She was comfortable and we had an enormous amount of support from the staff and from our friends and family. All that being said, I am still grieving and maybe will be for the rest of my life. 

I'm sure it's clear to you how this effects my clinical work, in this particular field. I frequently meet families that struggle with making end of life decisions. They hesitate to give medication or sign a do-not-resuscitate order or choose hospice at all. I have been asked sometimes, "What would you do, if it was your mom?" That's the nerve they (unknowingly) hit.

This is where I struggle with use of self. I have to ask myself, in the brief moment I can pause before it becomes too pregnant a pause, what am I willing to divulge? What will be therapeutic? What does this family need to hear? Sometimes I simply say, "If it was my mom, I would want her to be comfortable." Only recently have I been able to say, "I have been through this and I know it is incredibly difficult." And you know what? I don't know if that's the right thing to say. That's the thing about use of self, or about any part of therapy: one size does not fit all. There are so many variables.

This work has a science to it, of course. We use evidence-based theories to help people. But there is also a true use of instinct and intuition. We would not have become social workers if we weren't sensitive to other people's moods and body language. And so, when faced with this question that tugs at my heart in a very profound way, I must rely not only on my training about use of self and the therapeutic benefit, but also what my gut tells me. Sometimes it's wrong. Sometimes people's compassion for me derails the conversation and it's hard to get it back on track. But sometimes they are able to see the bridge I've laid out in front of them and thank me; they can trust what I'm telling them.

As always, I end this with no real answers. (Notice a theme here?) But I do believe it's an interesting question: how much do we divulge? How sharp should our boundaries be? What is self-serving and what is client-centered? Food for thought. Or, better yet, tell me your answers! I love to hear your feedback and look forward to it. Until next time, let's keep talking.