Freud’s definition of trauma included a break in the stimulus barrier, and that characteristic of trauma is still relevant today. Boundaries are ruptured in many ways – from too-loud sound to too much energy, too much arousal, or victim/perpetrator dynamics infringing on your actual physical body with violence.
David Wallin says that many therapists have some level of disorganized attachment, so if you identify with this attachment style, you are in good company. We all have a blend of attachment styles, but it could be said that many therapists’ interests in attachment and trauma grew from the need to heal themselves, which gives them a unique perspective in healing others.
Intact Physical and Energetic Boundaries
With intact boundaries, we feel our energetic bubble around us in three dimensions as we move through the world and interact with others. Though all boundaries are flexible, it’s helpful to imagine boundaries as a sphere. When you feel safe, your boundaries may feel permeable, expansive, and soft, while when you feel threatened or in conflict, your boundaries may feel tighter and more rigid – perhaps closer in. Both are intelligent responses to our need for boundaries and safety.
Boundary Repair Reconnects Us With a Necessary Sense of Safety
To feel fully alive and connected, humans need to feel safe. But not just safe, we need a safe haven to explore the world, take risks, and have the courage to give our gift to the world. For many clients who have felt unsafe, staying stuck in the threat response of fight-flight-freeze solidifies those neural pathways and undermines our natural tendency toward secure attachment and connectedness. Untangling these threat-responses in the body can create more appropriate boundaries, which help clients heal and reclaim their natural state of well-being and allow them to fully embrace the authentic self. Feeling safe and having a safe haven improves confidence to take risks – in relationships, in professional situations, and in exploring the world.
Directional vs. Ambiguous Threat and Boundary Rupture
A directional threat comes from a certain direction, as in a car accident. It is easier to identify and locate within the body. For example, an impact on the left side of the car can mean fear when looking left or even feeling hypervigilant toward the left. Directional threat is vastly different than an ambiguous threat, such as the one we face now with the coronavirus pandemic. An invisible threat, like the virus, may be a general feeling of eroding boundaries combined with generalized anxiety, depression, and fear.
As therapists, we need to know how to meet our clients’ needs and address boundary rupture and repair even though the pandemic is uncharted territory for most of us, or could be comparable to the AIDS epidemic for some. This might be as simple as respecting clients’ confidentiality and the sacred space we create when our clients come to us in session on a video call.
Now that most, if not all, of our sessions are done digitally due to the pandemic, some of the boundary repair exercises we did in the past are more difficult, and we need to accommodate our online therapy clients in a meaningful way.
Directional Boundary Repair
With directional boundary repair, we need to take a 360-degree approach and begin with the space where the client feels most safe. We can ask where their safety zone is. This is essential to identify since that is where their best resource area is. We can further enhance the safe zone by asking who in their lives they want right there in the place where they feel safest. And then, how does it feel to have someone in your life in that very safe area? What are the sensations in their body? Once we establish that resourced area, we can always go back there if the client experiences too much arousal.
You never want to jump straight from the safety zone to the danger zone, but do it gradually, pendulating back and forth between the safe zone and the edge of the danger zone.
We can then identify the next safest place, and the next, etc. Eventually, we will meet the line of demarcation, identifying the area of high arousal. In session, you don’t want to jump in all at once, but start by touching the edges of arousal, “How does it feel when we get a little closer? A little closer still?” When it becomes too much, you can always go back to the safe zone area and let the stress and anxiety process through.
See if the client can bring a little of the anxiety or fear with them and sit with it for long enough to discharge it – perhaps through their fingertips like highly charged energy or down their legs and feet, dissolving into the floor; whatever feels most potent for them. You can support arousal discharge by encouraging belly breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth several times.
Often, being able to process stress and anxiety in a controlled way in therapy can trigger memories of a traumatic event that has been stored in implicit memory. In a sense, you are uncovering traumas that the client may not have had access to in their explicit memory, but that has created a somatic or energetic boundary rupture.
Working with clients to repair boundaries and to explore different defensive responses – trying fight instead of flight, for example, can be empowering and very healing for our clients. It’s releasing a stuck pattern and opening the multiple paths toward safety. Healing old traumas can help them feel more in control against a visible or known threat, and that sense of control might then be unconsciously carried over into a current invisible threat, such as the coronavirus. As they recover from the overactivation associated with the trauma, you may also see or invite gestures toward connection – a signal that they are entering social engagement healing and feel more in contact with self and a desire to connect with others.
Boundary Rupture Repair for Online Sessions
One way to accomplish this might be to clean and polish the inside of the boundaries with the client. You can suggest they put their hands all over the inside of their boundaries, scrubbing or stroking the surface for all 360 degrees. They can stretch and contract their boundaries with their hands and arms as they become more or less comfortable and begin to create a felt sense of safety. They may start by having a very close boundary with bent arms and then, as they become more relaxed, have their arms outstretched to show that their boundary has expanded and become more pliable.
Another possibility is a simple, “no” exercise. If you don’t have a definite “no,” you never have a definite “yes.” Like a toddler who is learning to say, “no,” the client can say, “no” in their original language. Practice saying, “no” – not to anything in particular, necessarily, or it may be something specific and track how they respond to that boundary-making word.
The goal is to become more comfortable and confident in saying “no.” Perhaps they got in trouble for saying “no” as a child, and their needs and boundaries went unrecognized, so this might be new for some clients. “No” is a way to engage boundaries and also to honor needs and wants.
Or you can have them extend their arm out toward you as if gesturing to stay back or even adding those words as if addressing a problem person or perpetrator.
By saying, “No, I don’t want that,” the client can then become more familiar with saying, “Yes, I do want that. I know what I want.”
Corrective Experience – Reversing the Immobilization
Actively responding to a threat rather than passively feeling immobilized can empower clients. It’s called reversing immobilization. Ask the client to identify the danger and place it as far away as their body wants it to be – maybe to the corner of the room, to the moon, or even another galaxy away. Freeze-frame it there. The threatening behavior of a person is immobilized so they cannot speak or move. Your client can envision them with tape over their mouths, in a soundproof booth, or in whatever way your client wants to immobilize them. They are unable to speak, move, or react.
Your client, however, can do and say whatever they wish. They can shake their fists at the threat and shout, “Never again!” They can feel empowered by protecting their younger selves. “You should never hurt a child!” Or, “You will never hurt anyone again!” Or, “I’m sending you to anger management school!”
Help them track those feelings in their bodies. How does it feel when you shout at the threat? What sensations arise? Now we can let the feelings discharge. That might look relaxed, have deeper breathing, dropping shoulders, or even feel warm energy discharging through the legs into the floor.
Sometimes, the discharge can get stuck. Maybe it starts to escape through the arm but gets stuck at the wrist. You can work with your client to visualize one molecule at a time, releasing past the wrist. One molecule at a time is still progress, and the body learns it is safe enough to let the stuck energy move through and out.
Even with one molecule at a time, you can watch your client awaken and become more fully engaged like they just showed up and recognized themselves for the very first time.
This corrective experience becomes a bit more challenging when working with an invisible, faceless threat like the virus. In some ways, during the pandemic, we are taught to fear each other; everyone could potentially be a threat who might spread the illness. Clients may begin to feel xenophobic, agoraphobic, and paranoid. We need to work closely with them to find a balance between paranoia and complete denial (where safety practices are ignored) by practicing common-sense safety, and also staying connected to our trusted allies as much as possible.
Engaging Your Benefactor Allies
A “benefactor ally” is anyone who wishes you well, whether they know you or not, and not for any particular reason. They could be someone who smiles from across the street or picks up something that fell off your shopping cart for you. During the pandemic, recognizing benefactor allies is particularly essential as we are more isolated – even from our loved ones – during this time. We might also need to tune in even more to smiling eyes or the beam-gleam of a loving and kind look, as we all wear masks over our lower faces, hiding half of our expressions.
We might be avoiding eye contact with others altogether. After all, they could have the virus, so looking at them might be dangerous. But we will not contract the virus by sharing an expressive gaze or smiling eyes with each other, and these small acts are so essential to staying connected, which is our natural state as humans. We have social brains. We regulate through being in the presence of “safe others”; we crave connection. As the isolation of the pandemic drags on, depression, anxiety, and loneliness increase. Even suicides have increased, making access to therapy and effective online therapy methods more crucial than ever.
Peter Levine said, “Really, the pandemic of fear of what’s happening might be worse than the pandemic of COVID-19.”
As therapists, the work we do now will help ourselves and our clients recover from our future collective trauma, isolation, and the unnatural state of constant fear of others.