Personal Boundaries and Their Violations


From Dr. Gary Sharpe/Out-Thinking Parkinson’s: “The running theme of many of my articles presents knowledge of our Nervous System, and how it responds under fear and stress, as a vital lens and toolkit towards not only understanding ourselves, and our suffering, but also for understanding the current problems in our society . . .

However, there is so much to say about the topic which we seek to cover here, on the themes of boundaries, violations, abuse, and human suffering vs flourishing, that it deserves two parts. So in this first part, we will mainly just cover the background and the concepts, and then in a subsequent article we will look through this lens more at the modern world.

Personal Boundary Systems

Perspectives from the ‘Co-Dependency’ Literature

Pia Mellody’s short article ‘Co-dependence: The 5 Core Symptoms,’ from which the quotes below are taken, and which we started to look at in ‘The Fawning and Appeasement Survival Responses’ is a good introductory source for the concepts I want to cover.

‘A personal boundary system is a mechanism that both protects as well as contains an individual’s body, mind, emotions and behaviour. It has three purposes:

  1. to help an individual prevent themself from being victimized;
  2. to prevent an individual from being an offender;
  3. to give an individual a sense of self.’

This is the first vital point: a compromised personal boundary makes us more susceptible to both being abused or victimized by others, and also to becoming a violator of other’s boundaries, i.e. an abuser. Note: herein ‘abuse’ has a very general meaning, covering neglect, abandonment, physical or emotional distancing by caregivers, to more direct physical, verbal, emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse, and forms of energy vampirism . . .

‘Children are born without boundaries. They possess no internal way of protecting themselves from abuse or to avoid being abusive towards others. Boundaries must be taught. People with non-existent boundaries not only lack protection, but also have no ability to recognize another person’s right to have boundaries. A [person] with nonexistent boundaries moves through other people’s, unaware that he or she is doing something inappropriate. Damaged boundaries may cause a person to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings, thoughts or behaviours.’

So healthy personal boundaries are installed in early childhood, through appropriate caregiving, role-modelling, and instruction. Conversely, compromised or non-existent personal boundaries are also [de]constructed early in life, due to abuses, neglect, lack of role-modelling, or inappropriate caregiving styles and techniques of all kinds.

Perspectives from the Developmental Trauma Literature

In the book ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’ by Dr Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre, the authors also provide an alternative clear explanation of these concepts in terms of what they refer to as ‘damaged energetic boundaries,’ and ‘boundary impingements,’ which we began to explore in ‘How Other People’s Physiology Affects Our Emotions and Internal States’ The following quotes are from their book.

‘The word boundaries is widely used in psychology and somatic psychotherapy, but its meaning is often unclear. Our skin is a boundary; it is our physical boundary. There is also an energetic dimension to boundaries. Because energetic boundaries are invisible, it is not generally understood that they are real and have profound implications in our lives. Energetic boundaries buffer us from the outside world and help us regulate our interface with other people. Each of us has a sense of our own space and what is comfortable to us within and around that space.’

‘And just as a cut or a blow to the skin is painful, we experience an energetic boundary impingement or rupture as threatening and anxiety provoking.’

‘Intact energetic boundaries are accompanied by a feeling of personal safety and a capacity to set appropriate limits.’

So another vital aspect of personal boundaries is that they are intimately connected with an ability to say ‘no’ and to require consent. Conversely, abuse and violations occur when someone impinges on another persons space, when that person has not given consent, and especially when they have explicitly said ‘no.’

‘Examples of healthy energetic boundaries:

  • feeling comfortable in one’s own body;
  • feeling an implicit sense of safety in the world;
  • feeling a clear sense of self and other;
  • being able to say no and set limits;
  • knowing the difference between self and other.

Examples of compromised energetic boundaries:

  • extreme sensitivity to other people’s emotions;
  • a raw feeling of walking around without ‘skin’;
  • energetic merging with other people, animals, and the environment
  • the sense that danger can come from anywhere at anytime;
  • hypervigilance and/or hypovigilance in general or in specific directional vectors such as from behind;
  • environmental sensitivities and allergies;
  • feeling uncomfortable in groups or crowds;
  • agoraphobia.

Again, the origin of the compromised energetic boundaries is due to adverse experiences in early life:

‘when there is chronic early threat, boundaries often never form adequately and become severely compromised; when boundaries are compromised or missing, we become symptomatic… in the [early] stage of development, trauma compromises boundary development and creates boundary ruptures.’

‘The inability to develop adequate energetic boundaries has profound implications. Many of the psychological and physiological symptoms of [chronic conditions] can be better understood from the perspective of compromised energetic boundaries.’

This is indeed profound, that those with compromised or non-existent personal boundaries are prone to developing symptoms of chronic conditions in later life. Pia Mellody also makes this connections with symptoms in adulthood. See ‘Adverse Experiences, Stressful Episodes and Chronic Diseases’ for a detailed exploration of all the different types of early life adverse scenarios which can compromise the formation of healthy boundaries, and correlate with increasing the risk of developing a chronic illness in later life.

Trauma healing therefore necessarily entails [re]building healthy personal boundaries, the setting of appropriate limits, and the ability to say no.”

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