ON BOUNDARIES – And Internal Architecture.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on January 10, 2011

Boundaries are something that we do not often think about, at least not consciously, until we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation, usually an interpersonal one. Yet, it is boundaries that provide us with a sense of personal safety. Boundaries delineate where we stop and another begins. Think of it as a geographical frontier: a line that demarcates where one nation begins and another ends. That line also connects the two. Boundaries both separate us and unite us. They provide an area that both contains us and allows us to connect with another. Boundaries are not always clear, in fact, interpersonally they can become quite blurred- and there is the rub, boundaries are part of our relational make up, and are constantly re-negotiated in relation to another.

Psychoanalysts are usually aware of how a person negotiates their space, and their position vis a vis another. Most often, when we get entangled with others, we have lost sight of our boundaries and the personal space that offers us safety in interpersonal interactions. I like to think of boundaries architecturally: how is the use of space negotiated? Which structures delineate a finite object and its space? Where are the doors, entryways, locks, windows, etc? The thickness of the walls usually equals the need to feel safe, and the inability to negotiate contact with another easily. For some, boundaries are impenetrable walls with elaborate defense systems built into them.  Think of beautiful castles with moats surrounding them, complete with drawbridges and towers. For others, boundaries can be as fragile and permeable as the thinnest of silks. And for yet others, boundaries can be so porous, that the person may constantly shift positions and even identities. Think about it, what makes you feel safe? What kind of personal space constitutes safety? Where do you draw the line?

In the psychoanalytic situation, boundaries are firmly set and agreed upon in terms of appointment times, fees, cancellation policies, emergency procedures and the like. It is the setting of these boundaries that delineates a safe space where everything and anything can be talked about and explored. Without these boundaries the intensity and depth of personal work could not be accomplished. While daily life cannot be set up in such a way, it is our personal boundaries that help us navigate complex and difficult situations with a sense of safety.

Personal boundaries are, well personal. They are like psychic envelopes that develop through our relational history and our interpersonal experience. They shift with us as we grow up and continue to experience the world and our relationship to it. Our boundaries develop in response to our experience of ourselves in relation to others. They thus determine how comfortable we are with others, and with ourselves.

The truth is, in the beginning, when we are infants, we know nothing about our boundaries.  The world is ours, and begins to be interpreted for us through our mother. We begin to learn about them in our first relationship to our caretaker. We are omnipotent at first.  At one with all and everything. We know not what we can and cannot do. Boundaries come about through our relationship to our parents and their attitudes. The first “no” occurs in relation to real dangers. Our first brush with reality. We learn, for example, what is dangerous (stay away from the stove), potentially pain inflicting, rude, complicated, what makes us sad, angry, happy, etc. We learn our physical limitations, sometimes painfully, and we begin to establish a sense of interior boundaries as we move into the world (mine, yours, ours). Through our interactions with the world as translated by our early caretakers, we begin to develop a sense of ourselves and a sense of otherness. Our first boundary: Me and her (mom). Through our first relationship, our interaction with another, and the quality of that relationship, for better or for worse, we are launched into the world. And the need for boundaries hits us hard at first. The reality principle- I am not omnipotent, I have limits, I can be hurt, I can hurt others- tests the boundaries that contain and protect us, as well as allow us to interact in the world and with others. The internal structure that boundaries provide takes hold early on and continues to structure our character throughout our lifetime.

Ultimately, the psychic envelope that develops through our use of personal boundaries is the foundation upon which we build a sense of security and safety. When we act within our boundaries, and ask others to respect them, the conditions for a trusting relationship abound.  Nothing tests our boundaries as much as our intimate relationships. Our boundaries sustain our ability for intimacy. So boundaries turn out to be a key, structural element in the architecture of personal safety, security and trust.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dora January 20, 2011 at 6:34 AM

Very educational. It made me understand my little nephew’s behaviour. Thanks.


Erika January 11, 2011 at 7:50 AM

Wonderfully explained and illustrated!!
I love it!!!


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