Introducing ‘Boundedness’: An Alternative to Therapy’s Safety Axiom?
While much contemporary therapy emphasises the importance of establishing a sense of safety, depth psychological traditions spoke instead of containment. Informed by their experience of gender transition and of kink/BDSM practices, as well as Winnicott, Bion and Jung, therapist and Trans Sex author Lucie Fielding discusses fear, risk, play and states of therapeutic chaos – and suggests clinicians should aim instead to offer clients an experience of ‘boundedness’.
(Image credit: 'Framed Chaos' by Kitty F. Davies, @kittyfdavies)
In my last post I argued that therapy’s ‘safety axiom’ – the idea that establishing a client’s sense of safety is a necessary and prerequisite condition for engaging in deep processing or trauma work – is not serving our clients and might just be setting them up to fail. I wanted to follow that critique with a proposal for a path forward: evoking boundedness.
I came to boundedness as a concept from three places: lived experience (as a queer, trans misogyny affected femme); existing psychotherapeutic constructs such as the therapeutic container and the facilitative – or holding – environment; and kink/BDSM.
When I began to explore gender in earnest and pursue a gender transition I didn’t do it from a place of feeling safe. Rather, I was terrified! I felt an imperative to follow this exploration wherever it led me, however, having sensed that liberation and joy lay on the other side of fear. But that doesn’t mean that my embodied psyche wasn’t holding a lot of ambivalence and questions. And it wasn’t as if there were many positive representations of transfems living the life I craved.
The world is scary for a lot of us and we have plenty of reasons to feel unsafe. And yet still we explore gender and seek to find pleasure in our bodies! Perhaps, to repurpose a quote widely misattributed to Anaïs Nin, ‘the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it [takes] to blossom’?
The insistence on establishing a sense of safety is a recent psychotherapeutic ‘innovation.’ Depth psychological traditions such as psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis instead placed an emphasis on experiences of feeling held and seen rather than attaining a sense of safety. Jung spoke of the conjunction, Winnicott of the holding environment, and Bion of containment. The central metaphor is that of the therapeutic container, which allows the client to feel and think in ways that might otherwise be intolerable or too overwhelming for them to face alone.
Finally, I make no secret of the influence kink has on how I move through the world. Being a leatherdyke has taught me the importance of community care, lineage and intergenerational wisdom. At its best, kink can also model robust, risk-aware informed consent and communication practices. A lot of us practice RACK – Risk Aware Consensual Kink – which recognises everything we do in play carries some amount of risk, while mitigating those risks through negotiation, checking in, safe systems, contingency/emergency plans, and playing within our risk profiles. We might think of these practices as creating a container. And because of the bounded nature of play, emergence can take place. It is in the emergence that pleasure, altered states such as ‘sub space,’ and catharsis can happen.
In many ways, the therapeutic situation functions similarly. Processing client material is made possible, I contend, when there is a feeling of boundedness. The client must be able to feel that the material they bring to us will be held with a reverence that offers hospitality rather than an ethic of trying to ‘name’ and ‘tame.’ Clients must know that they can end a session – or work within session – at any time and for any reason. And they must know that the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts shared in session will be held within the confines of our offices so they can leave them with us at the end of session and pick them back up when they return for the next.
This boundedness allows chaos to emerge as it will. In the therapeutic situation, a state of ‘chaos’ is one in which we operate without investment in what emerges in session. It is the space from which we seek permission for ‘little experiments,’ lean into intuition through a reflection, or host a part that has suddenly shown up, unbidden. This playfulness is what allows for growth.
Establishing a feeling of safety is not necessary and often not possible. But we can support our clients in experiencing a sense of boundedness. From a place of feeling bounded, the client can take risks, push into their growing edges, and find in themselves capacities for play.