4 Ways to Work with Boundaries Somatically
As a somatic therapist I love working with boundaries experientially. Helping clients develop an embodied felt-sense of their own limits and space helps them to integrate the work and take it into “real life”. Here are a few of my favorite ways of working with boundaries:
1. Explore Boundaries with Hands
Use hands in air to make boundaries around the body, experiment with them being close, far, palms out, palms in, etc. Play with what feels good, really good, ok, not so great. Then you can do the same thing in relation to someone/something else. You can use an object (pillow chair, etc.) to represent the other thing or just have someone imagine it.
2. Map Out Boundaries on the Floor
Use tape (I love blue painter’s tape) or string to create a boundary on the floor (or get creative to make it in the air – this is one of the ways tape is great). You can see what it’s like to stay inside the boundary or move out of it, or what it’s like to invite the therapist to come in or ask them to stay out, or imagine who they might like/not like to come in.
3. Give the Boundary Words – For Yourself & For Others
Have the client create a sign – put words or images facing toward the client that they need to see or hear about their boundary or their own space. Put words and/or images on the other side facing out that they need and want others to know about their boundary.
The client can come up with the word or images quickly and instinctively, or client and therapist can explore the messages more in depth to help the client discover what they need and want to say.
Examples: Facing the self: “It’s okay to make space just for me.” or “I don’t have to change my mind if I don’t want to.” Facing out/to others: “You need to ask before coming closer.” or “I cannot trust you if you do not treat me respectfully.”
4. Practice Navigating Boundaries Interpersonally with the Therapist
Explore “Just Right” Distance:
Have client sit/stand in one place and therapist gets closer/further. Staying on the same level (seated or standing) will help to remove issues of being “over” the client, which can create an extra variable that can complicate the exploration. Have the client check out their experience with each little change so they can learn to feel what is “just right”. The therapist will look for clues about what’s going on with client and share them. For example, “Seems like you tensed up a little there”.
You are helping your client learn what it feels like to have someone move closer or further, what it’s like to pay attention to their own inner voice and somatic signals, and to feel someone respecting them and their boundaries. Keep it very slow and small to help the client mindfully learn about the felt-sense of their boundaries.
If you assess that the client has the capacity and resources and it would be valuable, the therapist may choose to experiment with moving too close and too far. It is very important to negotiate and collaborate with the client about this plan at each step and be clear that you can quit or change the exercise at any time. But sometimes a client thinks you have found the “just right” distance, only to learn that actually a little closer or a little further actually feels better.
Look for tensing, relaxing, averting eyes, pulling back, leaning forward, restless movement, and any and all small, medium or large changes in posture, gesture, attention or energy. Get really curious with your client!
Variation – Reinforcing “Stop”
Therapist moves toward client. When approaching the client, you can have the client say “stop”. Tell them ahead of time that you will stop exactly when they say stop. You can practice with having the client say stop before they even feel the desire to say “stop”. It can be powerful to have the client practice putting put hand to go along with the word stop. Notice together what happens for the client when they say stop. Celebrate what feels good and process or resource what feels difficult or uncomfortable.
The therapist should stop if you sense a change in the client that signals they may want you to stop without waiting for them to say stop verbally. You can share why you stopped and check it out. It is important not to assume you read the signals right – this is a moment to be curious and collaborate on helping the client learn about the information they can get from their body.
Stopping when the client says “stop” or when their body language seems to be saying “stop” will reinforce the experience that someone else is attuning and respecting their communication and desires, both verbal and non-verbal.
Taking It Into “Real-Life”
You may choose to work on boundaries because this is an underlying need for the client or you may do a boundary experiment because of a particular issue that comes.
You can use these exercises to explore boundaries with your clients without connecting them to “real life”. Having an experiential sense of being able to feel or sense boundaries, to say no or define boundaries more concretely will support your clients to develop boundaries just by experiencing and celebrating it.
You can also process the ways that the exercises relate to real-life relationships or situations and get curious with your client about how their experience or learning can be put into action.
Safety, Pacing and Regulation are Crucial
When working with boundaries somatically it is crucial that you are paying attention to safety, pacing, and regulation and using a trauma-informed lens. Clients cannot integrate the work if they are not safe-enough, resourced, and regulated.
Talking about boundaries is very different than working with boundaries experientially. The bottom-up instinctive responses can be very powerful, and clients can become triggered or dysregulated quickly in ways that might feel surprising. Having someone respect boundaries or practicing firmer boundaries may feel empowering, but it can also feel threatening and therapists need to be aware of this.
Get the support you need to feel comfortable and confident about the explorations you choose, whether it’s talking to a colleague, doing some consultation or taking a training.
Having said this, I do encourage you to experiment and try some new things with your clients. Push past your own and your clients’ comfort zones, but don’t go headlong blazing down a new trail too fast.
Ready for some support working with boundaries or other client work using somatic approaches?
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© 2023 Annabelle Coote
This article is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not to be considered as legal, ethical, clinical, health or any other business or clinical practice advice related to your work as a therapist.