Love consists in this…that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
–Rainer Marie Rilke
If you can imagine an ideal human container . . . that ideal energetic container would be infinitely expandable, infinitely contractible, infinitely diffusible, infinitely condensable, with boundaries ranging from steel-like rigidity to mist-like permeability. The miracle is how nearly we have access to that range.
Henderson – the lover within
Boundaries are defined in Webster’s dictionary as “something that indicates a border or limit.” In a healthy state, this “limit” is flexible and changeable, responding moment to moment to both inner and outer conditions. Through boundaries we are able to screen input from the world, to know what input is appropriate to let in and assimilate, and what input we need to protect ourselves against. With boundaries we create a holding environment for our individual sense of self and we also can be sensitive to and respect the rights and boundaries of others. We can maintain both differentiation and connection.
Boundaries are learned during our growing-up years. If there are problems during the course of development, or if we suffer the effects of trauma, our ability to maintain healthy boundaries is damaged, and we form various boundary styles that limit our capacity for both intimacy and containment.
Healthy, effective boundaries and trauma do not co-exist. When we have suffered trauma, it is a given that boundaries have been violated. After traumatic events have overwhelmed our boundaries, we lose connection with our innate ability to make healthy choices that enhance our lives and need help to re-establish healthy boundaries.
There are two kinds of boundaries that we work with in therapy:
Physical boundaries pertain to the body, to physical contact and proximity. If our physical, external boundaries are healthy, we can clearly set appropriate physical boundaries by deciding how close or distant to be physically and if, when and how we are touched. With healthy physical boundaries, we are aware of and respect the physical boundaries of others. As therapists, we help clients to honor their physical boundaries on an ongoing basis during sessions.
Process boundaries have to do with internal processes: thoughts, feelings, and the resultant behavior. Healthy process boundaries enable us to separate our thoughts, feelings and behavior ITom those of other people, so we do not blame others for our feelings, thoughts or behavior, and we do not take responsibility for the feelings, thoughts or behavior of others.
Three functions of boundaries:
Containment : Boundaries contain the sense of self, of “who we are.” This sense of self is a bodily felt sense, rather than being only an idea, a cognitive/verbal construction. A healthy containment is reflected in the capacity to know and enjoy the experience of who we are, to acknowledge and tolerate our various physical, energetic, cognitive, affectual and emotional states. Containment preserves our sense of inner integrity, of “this is me.” It maintains our difference without denying connection and unity. Containment is internally directed, for it refers to having a vessel or container for the free flow of energy (physical, affectual, or cognitive) within one’s self. The energy is not automatically discharged or directed toward another, but is contained. However, the energy is not “held” or blocked; with a healthy containment, it circulates freely throughout the body.
When this function is intact, we also respect and allow the containment of others; we enjoy differences and variety. We do not need those close to us to agree with our point of view, opinions or perceptions, nor do we require that others have the same feelings about things as we do. We are not threatened by the diversity of human perception and experience. As mentioned
Above, we can maintain both connection and differentiation.
If we have developmental or traumatic injuries, we dissociate from our experience-especially our bodily felt experience — because it is too painful or threatening. Over time, this dissociation interferes with our ability to contain our experience, because we lose our sense of ourselves when we dissociate. To reestablish healthy containment, we need to gradually learn to foster the ability to be present with our experience without dissociating.
Protection: Boundaries protect us from harm. This protection may be physical: fending off an attack, saying “no” to junk food, or moving away when someone sits too close. Or it may protect ourselves internally, for instance, preserving our right to have our own opinions or feelings that are different from others. Healthy protection is not rigid, but fluid and flexible. .
When this protection becomes rigid and fixed, we move from healthy protection to defenses. Defenses tend to be rigid and inflexible when they are unconscious conditioned reactions, i.e., patterned responses. They have the automatic quality of a closed system rather than the flexible responsiveness of a system effectively processing new information. Defenses are artifacts of previous injuries, while healthy protection is an adaptation to the present moment, and is therefore flexible.
Screening: Boundaries perform the function of screening input from the world. We are constantly making choices, saying “yes” to some things and “no” to others. This is a natural process of responding to information and novelty from our environment. A healthy discrimination responds to each choice from a sense of being with oneself and of knowing what is appropriate to take in and what is appropriate to keep out. With healthy boundaries we can make choices that support who we are and that lead to satisfaction in the various aspects of our lives.
Functional Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are flexible, changing appropriately moment to moment in response to the environment, and ranging from open and receptive to closed and protective. One can open one’s energy field and have the option of experiencing communion, unity or oneness with universal energy or with a trusted loved one. Or one can close the energy field and have the option to protect and keep out energetic, emotional or physical violation. A person with healthy boundaries can fully say “yes” or “no,” and also has access to all the many variations between a full “yes” and a full “no.”
Limiting Boundary Styles
Limiting boundary styles form when we become stuck in a particular stage of healthy boundary formation, and become dependent on a certain style of boundary to meet needs. We lose the flexibility of healthy boundaries, which have the capacity to change moment to moment, depending upon the situation, environment, and inner state of the person. The following boundary styles are a few of the limiting ones that we have identified.
Underbounded Style (also called enmeshed, merged, diffused or vague) This boundary style stems from having little sense of the true self or personal identity. The boundary is mushy and the energy diffuse. An Underbounded style can 1) sensitize and strengthen awareness of the external environment and, 2) increase the ability to feel other people’s feelings
Signs & Symptoms of an Underbounded style
- Difficulty saying “no,” or identifying feelings and wants.
- Easily overwhelmed by emotions, both our own and others’ .
- Being in a constant state of trying to recover or attain a sense of boundary.
- Lacking awareness of social space; i.e., one comes too close and violates others’ boundaries.
- The body may be collapsed, unguarded, with relaxed lips and musculature, and softer body definition in general.
- One gives too much in relationship, desires to merge, and has difficulty with differentiation and distance.
- When a vague boundary style is habitual, we lose our sense of separation and identity; we allow emotional, physical, sexual or intellectual abuse, and we may tend to be abusive of others
Signs of an overbounded style
- This boundary is inflexible, the energy is dense. An overbounded style can:
- Protect what sense of self there is.
- Reduce the influence of others and the impact of other people’s feelings.
- Signs and symptoms of overbounded style:
- An unyielding quality of superficial musculature; can’t soften physically.
- Perceives others as a threat; difficulty with trust, intimacy, vulnerability; can’t let down guard.
- Does not take in much of anything; receives little nourishment.
- Difficulty saying “yes”.
- When the overbounded style is habitual, it leads to isolation and separation; no one can really get close to the person, who may become insensitive and abrasive to others
Pendulum boundary style
With this boundary style the individual swings back and forth from underbounded to overbounded. The person may risk vulnerability and open up, perhaps too much, then experience pain or being overwhelmed and then reacts by closing down. The only options are swinging from one polarity to the other.
Incomplete boundary style
This boundary has ‘holes’ in it. With this style, it is possible to have healthy boundaries much of the time. Boundary dysfunction (either overbounded or underbounded) comes up in certain situations, such as in a love relationship, with authority figures, parents or children, men or women. A loss of healthy boundary may also occur when a person is in a certain emotional, mental, or physical state: being tired, sick, needy, angry, etc
Developing Healthy Boundaries
The Therapists Role
Clients all have boundary issues to some degree. Teaching clients about boundaries is tremendously empowering; it helps in healing traumatic and developmental wounds and strengthens a sense of self, especially in relationship with others.
Many newer and progressive therapies have been developed as short term therapies which require creating relatively quick rapport, trust and intimacy. If the therapist does not have an understanding of boundaries and boundary habits, violation of the client’s boundary may occur–.that is, if the therapist moves too quickly into deep material, assuming intimacy and trust in the therapeutic relationship, or moves too quickly and deeply into touch and bodywork.
When working through the body, we must be particularly sensitive to honoring boundaries. There is the opportunity to heal boundary violation through the use of physical proximity and touch, but also the risk of inadvertently violating the client’s boundaries by being too close physically or touching too quickly. Knowledge of boundary styles can decrease this risk and increase the chance for healing.
When boundaries have been violated, choice is lost. Consistently providing options and choices for the client is essential, and the client’s ability and right to choose needs to be continually reinforced. Therapists can do this by verbally stating the possibility of choice and boundary with such statements as: “You don’t have to divulge anything you don’t want to. It’s fine if you don’t want to be touched. It’s up to you. What feels right to you? You can set the distance between us. You can choose what we work on.”
If the therapist moves too fast, neglects to set boundaries or provide options, or does not understand the boundary habits of the client, confusion, disintegration, and the reinforcement of developmental injury or traumatic patterns may result.
The Therapist’s role in relation to boundaries is twofold:
- To educate oneself about boundaries, and to model healthy boundaries for clients.
- To educate clients about boundaries and to help the client develop healthy boundaries.
This can be done directly through talking and boundary exercises, or indirectly through contact, reflection, and somatic work. Somatic awareness, particularly having a ‘felt sense’ in the body, is a strong resource for developing boundaries.
Trauma damages the instinctual, physiological responses that enable people to defend themselves. Active energy that mobilizes healthy, effective, assertive boundaries becomes frozen. Therefore reinstating healthy boundaries involves working directly with the physiology
Developing boundaries through the body
The ways in which we communicate about our boundaries are primarily nonverbal, through the posture, movement, energy and structure of the body. It is important to help clients bring this communication to consciousness. Once patterns are conscious, choice is available
Physical Boundaries can be categorized in two types
Distance boundaries: This refers to the regulation of space and does not involve actual physical contact. We set distance boundaries by:
- Sensing our body signals of comfort and discomfort with regard to physical distance
- Using verbal statements and body language to inform others of the distance we require.
Contact boundaries: This involves someone being close enough to actually come into physical contact. We can establish these boundaries by:
1. Pushing someone away or using our hands to prevent the other from moving closer.
2. Adjusting our body position, such as leaning away, turning away, and walking away.
3 . Verbal requests and demands
We educate clients to develop somatic awareness and physical skills that are necessary for healthy boundary setting. The following abilities can be taught and strengthened:
-The ability to be sensitive to the body so that the client can develop a physically felt sense of self and can discriminate the appropriate boundary for himself or herself, and recover when boundaries have been violated. Someone who is dissociated : from the body will not be able to read the signals that indicate appropriate boundaries or violations. With sensitivity to the body, one can “feel” the energy of potential boundary violation before it happens and adjust accordingly.
-The ability to regulate and adjust the “form and pace” of physical proximity and touch. This refers both to how fast the proximity and contact happens, and the particular kind of contact. One must be able to influence the pace and the kind of contact to maintain a sense of self and to not become overwhelmed and violated. We do this by actual physical movement, body language, voice tone, eye contact (or lack thereof) and any kind of verbal or nonverbal communication.
-The ability to regulate the permeability and density of our actual physical boundary. This refers to the energy, quality and tone of the body boundary. The skin surface is the most obvious body boundary. Our ability to harden or soften the muscular/skin layer helps regulate how open or closed we are to the environment. We can also open or close by diffusing or condensing our energy
-The ability of a person to sense and live in the extremities, particularly the legs, which give one grounding and support, as well as the capacity to take action. The ability to set boundaries requires independence, or “standing on your own two feet.
Working with the Underbounded style
Common characteristics observed in habitual under-bounded ness, and possible therapeutic responses by the therapist:
Collapse in the body. Work with support (legs), integration of the core, and postural/structural education to empower the person and to prevent collapse.
Decreased superficial muscle tone. This indicates a loss of defined boundary, and lack of differentiation between self and other. Educate by having the client increase the tone of the superficial musculature and notice the resulting difference. Providing homework activity to increase strength and tone can also be helpful.
Diffuse energy field, which increases the permeability of the boundary. Educate the client as to the difference between condensing and diffusing the energy field
Inability to sense potential or actual violation. Increasing somatic sensitivity and trust in the signals of the body is the best strategy.
Inadequate regulation of actual physical space and contact. Provide assertiveness training, work with legs, role-play, etc.
Constantly having to recover boundary after violation. Help the client become aware of early signals of upcoming or actual violation.
Not coming from sense of true self. For example, when clients say it’s OK for you to touch them, you may not be sure they know if it is OK or not. Ask them how they know it is OK–this will
increase awareness of body signals.
Violations of others’ boundaries. Therapists should set clear personal and professional boundaries and process the effects of this with the client.
Weak development of the boundary muscles. Practice using the boundary muscles – triceps, deltoids, extensors of the legs, etc., by doing pushing and kicking movements, and strong expression with arms and legs.
Usually ungrounded. Teach grounding through the legs, softening the feet.
Working with the overbounded habit
Common characteristics observed in habitual over-boundedness, and possible therapeutic responses by the therapist:
Rigidity in the superficial musculature. Help bring sensitivity to this pattern by experimenting with posture, body awareness and sensitivity, and bodywork. Help clients see that the rigidity is something they choose to do rather than something that is happening to them. So, make the involuntary voluntary. Help them see the difference between saying, “Don’t come in,” and “I choose not to let .you in.”
Rigid and automatic setting of boundaries. Help clients become aware of the ways (physical, emotional and cognitive) they set their boundaries and their effects on relationships and perception.
Hypersensitivity to physical space. Bring this hypersensitivity to awareness through mindfulness and experiments. Help the client realize his or her projection of threat when none is present.
Dense energy field. Educate clients as to the difference between a diffused and condensed energy field. Help them learn to manifest each voluntarily.
Fear of loss of self, which is a basic fear of becoming underbounded. Strengthen the physically felt sense of self in the body and the realization of empowerment in the body that was not present when the overbounded habit was first learned.
Fear of opening in relationship. Demonstrate gentle respect for the boundary, rather than attempting to break it down, or plowing through it, physically or psychically.
Educating for healthy process boundaries
- Help clients contact their authentic feelings through attentiveness to body sensations, management of indiscriminate expression of secondary emotions, and experiments that bring to awareness client’s true, authentic feelings, opinions and self-definition.
- Help clients become aware of the injunctions that they hold inside that make them dishonor the integrity of their thoughts, feelings and opinions–the “shoulds.” “I should feel this or that way,” etc.
- Work through the developmental stages where process boundaries were violated or trauma has overwhelmed boundaries.
- Help clients distinguish between behavior that is consistent with their own thoughts, feelings and opinions, and behavior that is inconsistent. Help clients become aware of the effects of their behavior on others and learn appropriate behavior that honors their own feelings, thoughts and opinions while respecting the boundaries of others.
- Through experiments, help clients become aware of ways in which the impact of events on them is more about their personal history than the actual event.
- Work with containment and tolerance of one’s own feelings and energy.