Read an Excerpt
By Jane Adams
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-66045-0
Chapter OneBoundary Basics: A Primer
Remember the Seinfeld episode about the "close talker" who got right in people's faces without noticing how uncomfortable he made them? He had no sense of their spatial boundaries and seemed to have none of his own. Spatial boundaries define the invisible bubble around the body anthropologists call proxemics, or the distance people keep from one another. Proxemics has found that personal space varies not only from person to person but also according to context and culture; what's too close for comfort in Tokyo may be a nodding acquaintance in Naples, while the right amount of space between two people at an American cocktail party might be inappropriate at a business meeting. Even when we have limited control over our physical distance from others-jammed up against a stranger in the subway, for instance, or as far away as we can get from that person on the other side of the bed who's suddenly become one-we can communicate our other external boundaries not only with our overall body language but also by the quality of our attention and the directness of our gaze; our gestures, actions, and expressions of emotion; and our words-all the interpersonal processes of relationship.
Boundaries define what goes on in our minds as well as in the psychological space between us and other people, which is why they are the single most important influence on all ourrelationships-including the one we have with ourselves. Here is a basic primer that outlines what you need to know about boundaries in order to start managing yours.
Boundaries in the Mind, Boundaries in the World
While boundaries are primarily psychological phenomena, a lot of what we know about the brain suggests that inner (also known as intrapsychic) boundaries may have biological correlates: several theories of the mind based on neuroscience as well as observational evidence point in that direction.
Many theories imply the existence of some type of cellular boundaries between regions of the brain. The triune brain theory, which has been around since 1952 and was first put forth by the evolutionary biologist Paul MacLean at the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health, distinguishes between the reptilian, limbic, and neocortical brains, in ascending order of evolutionary development, differentiation, and complexity. The reptilian brain, which regulates life itself by managing brain, lung, and heart functions, is concerned with fundamental needs like survival, dominance, preening, hoarding, and mating. While the limbic brain generates and archives emotions, the neocortex with its two cerebral hemispheres controls logic, language, creativity, and thought. Melanie, who is about to turn forty and never wanted a baby until recently, swears it's a signal from her reptilian brain, since she's certainly not in love (a condition generated by the limbic brain) and knows that having a child at this stage of her life and career makes no sense at all (something her neocortex is quite certain about).
Twenty years after MacLean put forth his theory, Roger Sperry at the University of California proposed the left brain/right brain model, which further refined the workings of the cerebral cortex, whose lateral lobes function differently from each other although both sides of the brain are involved in every human activity. According to Sperry's model, one side of the brain processes words while the other handles images; one gets the details accurately while the other sees the whole picture; one analyzes information in a linear, sequential manner while the other absorbs and synthesizes it all, including sensory data. While most people have a distinct preference for one of these styles of knowing, some are more "whole brained" than others and are equally adept at both modes. This model explains why a meal with Kate, who's a left-brained luncher, involves a painstaking analysis of the entree's ingredients, a thoughtful allocation of the day's calories, and a consideration of what she plans to eat for dinner, while dinner with Peggy, who's as methodical and analytical as Kate but more in touch with her inner sensualist, is punctuated by deep sighs of pleasure and an almost erotic appreciation of the meal's taste, texture, and presentation.
A decade after Sperry, the cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, a label he gave to what most of us knew already, which is that while many people are quite smart in some ways, in certain others they may be less than brilliant. Along with verbal, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, and musical intelligences, Gardner identified two other kinds of competencies: intrapersonal intelligence, which is the ability to recognize, manage, and master one's own emotions as they're happening, and interpersonal intelligence, which is the same constellation of skills but involving the emotions of others. These kinds of abilities don't necessarily go together. Lila, who rarely takes her own emotional temperature, isn't particularly self-aware, although she's very responsive to her friends' and colleagues' moods and emotions, while Cecily, who's quite tuned into and sensitive about her own feelings, has little understanding and even less interest in anyone else's.
Boundary intelligence, though, is a meta-ability comprising two different ways of knowing, the rational and emotional, and is expressed not just in thinking and feeling but also in relating; it is intrapsychic and also interpersonal.
Almost everyone has at least a modicum of boundary intelligence; we generally know where we end and others begin, both physically and psychologically. Our bodies are distinct from theirs, and so, most of the time, are our thoughts, emotions, fantasies, and impulses, which have their own unique, distinct mental "signature" because they're internally generated. But what we're largely unaware of is how the contents of our own minds are influenced, changed, or rearranged by those of others, and vice versa. While keeping an open mind is essential for growth and learning, so is being able to discriminate the good from the bad, the wise from the stupid, the truth from the lie, the constructive from the destructive, and especially the toxic from the healthy.
When she was a teenager, Hallie took up with Chloe, who'd recently moved onto her block. Within a month Hallie was "totally under her sway," as she puts it now. "It was like, everything I believed was wrong; suddenly my old friends seemed like losers, doing well in school was a waste of time, obeying my parents was juvenile, being considerate of other people was being a patsy, wanting to be a cheerleader was ridiculous, while shoplifting, cutting school, and sneaking out of the house to go joyriding with some kids who'd 'borrowed' a car were the things to do. In a matter of weeks, I'd totally lost sight of who I was; I completely changed myself into a clone of Chloe. Have you seen that movie Thirteen? Well, that was me; that was my life after I met Chloe."
When Chloe lost interest in Hallie, Hallie was devastated. "I saw myself through Chloe's eyes-this naive, stupid, ugly girl who couldn't think for herself. And she was right about that last thing- I couldn't, which is probably why I was so vulnerable to her. I'd alienated all my other friends, I was close to flunking out, my parents were at their wits' end, and I had a reputation as a slut so nobody decent would date me."
Lonely, miserable, and friendless, Hallie spent the next few years looking for someone to fill Chloe's place in her life. She found it at a coffee shop frequented by a group of attractive young men and women who sensed her vulnerability and took advantage of it, recruiting her into a cult-the Moonies-that for a while provided a sense of belonging, a code of conduct, and a regimen that almost succeeded in obliterating the last vestiges of her own thoughts, beliefs, and values. "Then one night a new girl came to dinner. She'd been recruited by the same couple who picked me up at the coffee shop almost a year before," Hallie remembers. "I watched how they indoctrinated her-first bombarding her with all this love, and then convincing her that they were the only people who really understood her, the same way they had with me. It was like deja vu-she was me; she even looked like me! I wanted to scream at them to stop, to leave her alone, and tell her to get up and walk out. But I didn't. Instead, I left myself-that very same night, without telling anyone. And for weeks after, I'd see that girl in my dreams. I still wonder what happened to her."
Hallie wasn't ready to return home: "I felt like I'd burned my bridges, and I wouldn't go back until I'd made something of myself." She found a job at a shelter for abused women: "I hadn't been physically abused by a husband the way they had, but I could relate to many of their feelings. I went to the group meetings the residents had and listened to their stories, and somehow their courage gave me enough to turn my life around. To this day, whenever someone tells me they know what's best for me, or they know what I'm thinking or feeling, or what I want or need, I pull back from them until I'm sure whose voice I'm really hearing. I've gotten pretty good at keeping the bad stuff out ... but I'm still working on letting the good stuff in." That's a pretty good description of what psychological boundaries do, and Hallie's increasing ability to use both her cognitive abilities and her emotional awareness to hear, heed, and protect her true self from the psychological influence of others-even well-meaning others-is what boundary intelligence is all about.
The Serpent Made Me Do It, but My Amygdala Was Sorry
If Freud, who was trained as a neurologist in the nineteenth century, had ever seen twenty-first-century neuroscientists actually scanning and mapping the brain and its neural circuitry, he'd have jumped up and shouted "Eureka!" (or its Viennese equivalent). Then he would have located the id, "that cauldron full of seething excitation," as he put it, in the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of interconnected cells in the limbic ring where emotions are generated and stored.
The amygdala scans incoming sensory data, "challenging every situation, every perception, with ... the most primitive question: Is this something I hate? That hurts me? Something I fear?" as the author Daniel Goleman writes in his lucid description of the emotional brain. When aroused, the amygdala floods the entire body with neurochemical signals that leave behind a vivid and indelible trace of fear, anger, grief, happiness, surprise, or shame-whatever feeling triggered it.
The amygdala stores not only the feeling but also the context and meaning provided by the hippocampus, another limbic structure: recounting his conversation with the pioneering neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, Goleman writes, "As he [LeDoux] put it to me, 'The hippocampus is crucial in recognizing a face as that of your cousin. But it is the amygdala that adds you don't really like her." And all this activity occurs in the limbic system a kazillionth of a second before the neocortex wakes up, smells the coffee, analyzes the feeling, and initiates a more nuanced reaction.
It's in the intricate neural circuitry between the emotional and the rational brains-the limbic ring and the neocortex-that impulses meet reason, feelings and thoughts connect, fantasy and reality collide, and split-off. Repressed, or disavowed aspects of the self drift in and out of the unconscious, which hovers in the hidden corners of the mind, sometimes breaking through into awareness and other times making its presence known in dreams, symbols, enactments, or projections. The thinner or more permeable the boundaries between these mental states are, the more accessible they are to one another. That's why in some particularly emotional situations we literally can't think straight; a powerful surge of feeling hijacks the rational mind, so the more carefully calibrated response from the neocortex barely registers. This will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever fallen in love at first sight, tried to focus on an intellectual task while in the throes of depression, or blown up in anger for what seems like no reason at all.
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 the 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, and absorb or deflect the influence of their thoughts, moods, and voices on our own. They also distinguish among the three aspects of the mind Freud called the id, the ego, and the superego: the id represents all of our instincts, unregulated by conscience or judgment, which are the province of the superego, and unfettered by the ego, which is the conviction of selfhood.
Inner boundaries give our various states of awareness-the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious contents of our minds-their distinct properties. According to Dr. Ernest Hartmann, whose pioneering work on nightmare sufferers led to his conception of boundaries as an aspect of personality, inner boundaries separate the contents of different states of consciousness, each of which has its own characteristic mode of functioning. In the unconscious or dream state, logical connections are missing, contradictions abound, time seems not to exist, nothing is prohibited, and one idea or image can symbolize or condense others. But in normal waking consciousness, these dreams and fantasies are inhibited; the mind is aware of both external events and inner or mental phenomena and is governed by the reality principle, which is represented by logical thought in verbal language form.
When, How, and Why Inner Boundaries Change
Inner boundaries change not only from sleeping to waking states but also as a result of life experiences as varied as falling in love, in which we project our inner fantasies on an external reality and view them both as the same thing (which is why love can often be both blind and dumb), and having a baby, which women often describe as opening a door in their hearts they never knew was there. The psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, in less poetic terms, calls this a "special psychiatric condition of the mother," a state of primary maternal preoccupation characterized by profound attachment and identification with her baby. This merged state is that primal union from which the infant eventually emerges as his or her own mental boundaries develop. Winnicott calls it a "normal sickness" from which mothers recover a few months after giving birth.
Inner boundaries tend to thicken with age as we lose some of the spontaneity, imagination, playfulness, and creativity of early life; while thin inner boundaries allow greater sensitivity to emotional experiences and access to states of awareness such as inspiration and intuition, thicker ones enable us to focus our attention, marshal our thoughts, mobilize our emotions in pursuit of desired goals, make and keep commitments, abide by social rules, deal more productively with stress, and make decisions based more on logic than on gut feelings.
Inner boundaries also change, at least temporarily, when people feel connected to a divine presence-to God, nature, the creative spirit, or what Jung called the collective unconscious. It's what happens to Frances when she's having a particularly good day at her easel: "I feel taken over by this force; it feels like someone or something else is mixing my palette, guiding my brush strokes, as if it knows what a stray thought or a concept or an image ought to look like and is trying to tell me just to let it happen. Sometimes I don't even know what my paintings mean until much later; I sort of sink into them and then feel the presence of that same force again." For Nancy, being in her beloved mountains often engenders a similar feeling: "It's more spiritual than I've ever felt in church-like I'm one with this supreme being who created everyone and everything."
Excerpted from Boundary Issues by Jane Adams Excerpted by permission.
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