Winter_EveningI’ve had several conversations about gatekeeping as of late. I like that the term has so many connotations and applications. It is a metaphor worth lingering with.

We are complex, self organizing, evolving systems. We need permeable boundaries to let in information and nutrients, and to release toxins and waste. If our boundaries are too tight, we suffocate or starve, too loose and we disintegrate. It’s a balancing act.

As I write this the New England snow storm is winding down over Atlantic Canada. Storms are also complex, evolving systems, as are most of the dynamic structures in our universe. Mind and storm are made of the same stuff and similar patterns; no wonder we see ourselves reflected in the world! It is an oddity of human nature that we imagine ourselves as other than all that is.

Actually, it is not so odd. Having boundaries is essential to being; we are inherently gatekeepers. Without a well grounded sense of self we risk the terrors of psychosis. Without adequate defenses against the invasion and proliferation of micro-organisms, we become physically ill.We need borders in order to have successful relationships and communities, and spend much time trying to determine who is in or out, friend or foe. We watch for markers of differences and these may become sites of boundary conflict. We build barriers to inclusion, then embrace persons who are in some way other.

Gatekeeping is also often an element in many professional lives. In the U.S., mental health professionals are expected to maintain careful boundaries around relationships with clients and matters of confidentiality. Yet when we attend required courses that discuss ethics and boundaries, we discover that, in practice, local cultural norms often trump rules and the protocols established by national professional organizations. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the ethical standards that work in large cities often fail to address the needs of people in villages and small towns. The complexity only increases when we work with persons from non-Western cultures and Indigenous communities.

Still, governments and organizations  establish standards for training and practice that allow individuals to achieve, and maintain, professional status in mental health fields. While these standards are heralded as providing some protections for the public, they also, as Foucault famously pointed out in The Birth of the Clinic, allow professional organizations to limit access to valuable financial resources.

While gatekeeping is a fact of life, it may not end with our passing from this life. One of my teachers was an acclaimed psychopomp, an expert in accompanying deceased souls to the Land of the Dead, a gatekeeper for to afterlife. When I think of him, I am reminded that the metaphors of gate and gatekeeper are rich with meaning and possibility, and the view one has of the gate may well depend on which side of the gate on is on. I imagine he would agree with that.

3 thoughts on “Gatekeeping

  1. Boundaries…I always find it ironic that the more individuated we become, the more expansive that our conciousness becomes, and if we spread ourselves too thinly by running around trying to help everybody without considering our own needs, then we start to wither and lose touch with source. In my Shamanic work I teach people to avoid the unequal energy boundaries and to relate to the universe in a reciprocal, co-creative way as much as possible. Easier said than done! Many thanks for an enlightening and relaxing afternoon read.

    1. Of course, individuation is a very Western idea. In my cultures, the task is to find some form of balance between self and community, and to recognize they are often overlapping. As individuals we are unique expressions of the universe and yet we are also very much expressions of, and central to, the community. To view oneself as otherwise risks doing immense harm. I trained as a Jungian early in my mental health career. It was during that training that I realized Jung totally failed to understand Indigenous experience, idealizing and infantilizing us instead. Know I imagine that he could not grasp the connection between self and community that is at the heart of Native experience. Of course, maintaining functional boundaries and holding a commitment to reciprocity are part of that complex ethos that is Indigenous experience, even for those of us who are decidedly urban and f complex heritage.

      1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. Yes, I agree about Jung. I think that over-romanticization and over-intellectualization can do a profound disservice to community harmony. It can reinforce the illusion of separateness. But we all got to eat, we all like to play, to love and be loved etc. There’s always common ground in that heart space, once we get those pesky mental constructs out of the way way.

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