I work as a dance/movement therapist in an inpatient psychiatric setting. Most of our clients struggle with addiction issues as well as mental illness. Because it is a community hospital, most of the patients who come to us lack the familial and societal support that would allow them to obtain the resources to fully recover from their addictions and mental illnesses. This sad truth creates an environment that can feel unstable at times, and patients and staff alike are trying to be heard and be seen. Enter the empathic dance/movement therapist, who is trained to feel and attune to the needs of others from moment-to-moment. As one of the dance/movement therapists who works on the unit, my senses are open and on alert from the moment I walk through the door. I am there to be of service, to attune, to see, and to help to create some kind of balance in a very chaotic environment. It is familiar and comfortable for me to be in the space of openness to and receiving of energy. What is not comfortable for me is the opposite mode of being, which is equally necessary in such an environment. The opposite mode I’m referring to is setting clear boundaries with patients and staff so that I can continue to have the energy to be open, attuned, empathic and in service of others.
I want to digress for a moment to mention that my first version of this post was a lot more about how in holding my boundaries at my place of work, I felt victimized by some staff members who did not like that I was not allowing them to emotionally and energetically cross my boundaries. I had a lot of anger about the fact that I had worked hard to get to the place where I finally felt comfortable setting limits, and now I was being attacked for it! Anger is a wonderful motivator as it can create more clarity within ourselves about what we will no longer tolerate. I want to honor the place that anger has in the sometimes messy process of feeling our limits. However, by staying stuck in anger, we don’t find the place of true power within ourselves. Anger can motivate us to find a clearer sense of ourselves and what we are capable of if we listen to the deeper truth it is asking us to embody. That being said, I would like to share my empowered experience of holding boundaries as a therapist (and human).
As dance/movement therapists, our training gets us in touch with how our sensitive awareness of the body combined with our movement skills can allow us to be a tuning fork of sorts. We can tune into the energy that is present and shift it simply by bringing it into bodily awareness. There is such subtlety and almost a magic quality that occurs when we hold the space in a grounded way through our embodied presence. We often see clients respond to us differently than they do other staff because our intentions and the way we are tuned in to the environment is different. This is all wonderful and why most of us pursued this path. However, the challenge, at least for me, is that this magical field that we create also needs to have doors that can be compassionately closed when necessary, so to speak.
I am perhaps an idealist with a bit of naiveté in that I would love to exist as if everyone can be trusted to be respectful and giving. The reality, however, is that almost all of us are wounded in some way, and we aren’t always conscious about how we put our energy out toward others. Sometimes defenses come up strongly at the same time we are trying desperately to get our needs met. Because of that, it is important for the dance/movement therapist to set clear limits when patients or staff are overstepping or inappropriately asking to be seen. Setting boundaries is not about shaming others for their behavior, but rather about modeling self-respect and creating a safe space for healing and change. This starts with a fully embodied and energetic presence. As Susan Aposhyan (founder of Body-Mind Psychotherapy and dance/movement therapist) says, “fullness can be a more gracious form of creating boundaries than simply telling people no” (S. Aposhyan, personal communication, October 24, 2015).
Grounding through the earth and connecting with our vertical dimension is an important aspect of this embodied fullness, in that we must feel connected to and held by the earth in order to create and hold strong yet permeable boundaries. Grounding is not as mystical as it can sound. As with the creation of most energy shifts, a simple intention can be quite powerful. To imagine growing roots and/or feeling supported by the earth/ground can have a profound impact on our ability to stand strong in a space that may be throwing hostile energy our way.
Feeling our 3D kinespheres (or space bubble) is another important aspect of feeling and sharing one’s fullness in the here-and-now. Even within the midst of chaos, if we can hold the image of our own unique kinesphere in our mind’s eye and even feel it pulsing around us in all directions as we move, then when others try to cross our boundaries physically or emotionally, they will feel something gently push back at them as they will feel our energetic limits.
I know this all may sound “out there”, but I am speaking of these approaches from my practical experience in a quite chaotic, and at times hostile, environment. I have tried many ways to create a safe space for clients, and I have found that it always works better when I start with strengthening my embodied presence. I find myself learning to surrender to and trust the power of this over and over.
As dance/movement therapists, our wisdom and ability to be present and attuned to ourselves and others is our greatest gift. By allowing ourselves to yield into the support of the earth and find the strength and rootedness of each of our vertical dimensions, as well as allowing our loving yet firm energy to emanate from us and fill each of our spatial kinespheres, others will feel our compassionate boundaries quite clearly. This is not to say one does not need to speak words to set boundaries, but through using our energy with intention, words spoken will be more powerful and more clearly received by others.
Aposhyan, S. (2015, October 24). Body-Mind Psychotherapy Workshop in Evanston, IL.
*In addition to her work at the hospital, Jeannine maintains a private practice and offers supervision in the Chicago area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.