Boundary Issues

As psychiatrist Margaret Mahler wrote, all human love and dialogue is a striving to reconcile our longing for the lost bliss of oneness with our equally intense desire for separateness. Our minds accommodate these two conflicting needs by the making and unmaking of boundaries – mental structures that increase in number and complexity as we experience other people and develop our own mental capacities. They format all the bits and bytes of our mental processes – our memories, experiences, thoughts, emotions, sensations, associations and impulses – into the inner identity we call the Self, enabling us to distinguish our thoughts and feelings, our minds and emotions, from those of others. And while they occupy a territory of mental rather than physical geography, they’re no less real than a wall, a fence, or a border.

Boundaries are how the Self knows who it is and who it isn’t. They determine not only where I end and You begin, but the space between us. Boundaries are central to how we make sense of life, how we deal with the dilemma of being human - the self-in-relation dilemma - which is to be close and connected to others and also to maintain our autonomy and independence.

While faulty inner boundaries are typically involved in certain personality disorders, especially borderline, problems with interpersonal boundaries are frequently at the root of relationship difficulties – between parents and children, spouses, partners, friends, and professional colleagues.

Boundaries are key to how we deal with intimacy, loneliness, conflict, anxiety, stress and challenge at every stage of life. They are integral to how our identity is constructed; because they are so central to the development of our personalities, to how we think and feel about ourselves and how others experience us – our inner, as well as our shared reality – they provide a special lens through which we can perceive not only what and who but also why we are.

What Inner Boundaries Do and Why They Do It

Inner boundaries are shaped by genetic inheritance (individual neurochemistry, the sensitivity of the amygdala, and the connections between various parts of the brain, among other things); our psychic adaptation very early in life to the loss of that common skin French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu calls the moi-peau, or ego-skin, between mother and baby; and the effect of early environment on psychological as well as physical development.

Temperament, neurochemistry and habits of mind determine the extent to which our inner boundaries connect or separate our thoughts and feelings, distinguish our mental experiences from those of other people, absorb or deflect the influence of their thoughts, moods and voices on our own, and distinguish among the id, ego and superego, giving the conscious, unconscious and preconscious contents of our minds their distinct properties.

Trauma, fear, loss, or even repeated experiences of emotional trespass may thicken inner boundaries in order to wall feelings off from thoughts, split off unacceptable emotions from consciousness, repress painful memories by keeping them out of awareness, or deny a reality that's too difficult to accept. These psychological defenses are not, themselves, boundaries - they are the means by which inner boundaries are maintained.

The Connection Between Inner Boundaries and Addiction

Much of what has been said and written about boundaries derives from the recovery movement, which isn’t surprising, since boundary distortion, dysfunction and confusion are symptomatic of problems with drugs, alcohol, food, sex, spending, and other substances and activities that are, or are considered to be, addictions. But while the addiction and recovery literature touches on boundaries, generally it gives short shrift to inner boundaries and focuses instead on interpersonal ones – not necessarily the addict’s, but those of his or her “enablers” or “codependents…”those whose even well-meaning attempts at helping the addict often make their problems – and their problem behaviors – worse. But interpersonal boundaries have a much wider role in many situations that bring people to therapy.

Research has shown that boundaries influence not only relationships with others but also emotional balance, personal values, cognitive abilities, career choice, preferences in art, architecture and music, political views and opinions, and attitudes toward time and money! Given how important boundaries are in so many areas of life, it’s surprising how often they’re overlooked as an influence on personality, especially by psychiatrists and psychologists whose primary focus is on the individual rather than the individual-in-relation. They’re more concerned with inner boundaries than interpersonal ones because distorted or dysfunctional inner boundaries are often a hallmark of mental illness. Even if our inner boundaries aren’t so distorted that we’re curled up in a corner of a padded room or hearing voices when nobody’s calling, most clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are more interested in mental health than in mental or psychological growth.

But interpersonal psychologists think about inner boundaries differently; they focus on how they shape our social relationships as well as how they organize (or don’t) the contents of our minds. And what they know is that when inner boundaries are too weak or too porous, the self is empty and famished, forever in search of someone or something to fill it up; when they are too solid and rigid, we can never let ourselves be known, touched or moved. And when they are distorted, so is the space where psychological growth takes place.

Adapted from "Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love and Work," by Jane Adams (Wiley, October 2005). Used by permission of the author.