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Personal boundaries

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Title: Personal boundaries  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Polyamory, Ideas of reference and delusions of reference, Proxemics, Boundary, Locus of control, Personal, Trust (social sciences), Personal space, Introjection, Comfort zone
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Personal boundaries

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits.[1] They are built out of a mix of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.[2]

According to some in the counselling profession, personal boundaries help to define an individual by outlining likes and dislikes, and setting the distances one allows others to approach.[3] They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem.[4] Jacques Lacan considered them to be layered in a hierarchy, reflecting “all the successive envelopes of the biological and social status of the person”[5] from the most primitive to the most advanced.

Personal boundaries operate in two directions, affecting both the incoming and outgoing interactions between people.[6]


According to Nina Brown,[7] there are four main types of psychological boundary:

  • Soft - A person with soft boundaries merges with other people's boundaries. Someone with a soft boundary is easily manipulated.
  • Spongy - A person with spongy boundaries is like a combination of having soft and rigid boundaries. They permit less emotional contagion than soft boundaries but more than rigid. People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.
  • Rigid - A person with rigid boundaries is closed or walled off so nobody can get close to him/her either physically or emotionally. This is often the case if someone has been physically, emotionally, psychologically or sexually abused. Rigid boundaries can be selective which depend on time, place or circumstances and are usually based on a bad previous experience in a similar situation.
  • Flexible - Similar to selective rigid boundaries but the person has more control. The person decides what to let in and what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and manipulation, and is difficult to exploit.

Gestalt therapy uses the parameters confluence/withdrawal to denote personal boundaries, the ideal of being able to move between connection and separation at will be jeopardised by either weak boundaries (and enforced confluence) or over-rigid boundaries (enforced withdrawal).[8]

Narcissism and boundaries

According to Hotchkiss, narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist will be treated as if they are part of the narcissist and be expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist there is no boundary between self and other.[9]

Loss of boundaries

Freud, following Gustave Le Bon, described the loss of conscious boundaries that could occur when an individual was caught up in a unified, fast-moving crowd.[10]

Almost a century later, Steven Pinker took up the theme of the loss of personal boundaries in a communal experience, noting that such occurrences could be triggered by intense shared ordeals like hunger, fear or pain, and that such methods were traditionally used to create liminal conditions in initiation rites.[11] Jung had described this as the absorption of identity into the collective unconscious.[12]

Rave culture has also been said to involve a dissolution of personal boundaries, and a merger into a binding sense of communality.[13]

In psychosis

The loss of personal boundaries, and the absorption of the self into a quasi-public world, is one of the key features associated with psychosis.[14]

Such boundary loss can move from the patient to the therapist in turn, to produce a temporary kind of countertransference psychosis: Carl Rogers has movingly described how in one such instance he “literally lost my "self", lost the boundaries of myself...and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane”.[15]

Even on a lesser scale, without boundaries our identities become diffused – controlled by the definitions offered by others.[16]

Rebuilding boundaries

While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries,[17] co-dependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.[18]

Family therapists can help family members to develop clearer boundaries, by behaving in a well-defined way when treating them, drawing lines, and treating different generations in different compartments[19] - something especially pertinent in families where unhealthy enmeshment overrides normal personal boundaries.[20]

However, the establishment of personal boundaries in such instances may produce a negative fall-out,[21] if the pathological state of interdependence had been a central facet of the relationship.[22]


What some call the pop psychology truism that love requires firm personal boundaries has been criticised for promoting a kind of normalised eroticism[23] - for ignoring the role of what Bataille called 'transgressions' and 'limit-experiences' in erotic life.[24]

See also


Further reading

  • Black, Jan & Enns, Greg Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life 1998
  • Bottke, Allison Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents 2008
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries Workbook: When to Say Yes When to Say No To Take Control of Your Life 1995
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries with Kids 2001
  • Cloud, Henry & Townsend, John Boundaries in Marriage 2002
  • Linden, Anne Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to Be Separate and Connected 2008
  • Katherine, Anne Boundaries - Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries 1994
  • Katherine, Anne Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day 2000
  • MacKenzie, Robert J. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries 2001
  • Richardson S Cunningham M Broken Boundaries - stories of betrayal in relationships of care 2008

External links

  • Fear in Setting Boundaries
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