Life as Art

How our world shapes who we are and how who we are shapes our world

How "Thin" Are Your Boundaries?

Do you wear psychic armor?

Personal space is a very individual matter. Each of us has a certain amount of physical space we like to maintain between ourselves and someone with whom we're interacting. This physical space acts as a boundary between self and others that may reflect the thickness of our psychic boundaries in other areas. Recently, I was watching one of my friends, a highly creative individual who is very popular with both faculty and students, as he made the rounds at a social event in our department. I noticed that most people, even as they jockeyed to get into the circle that always surrounds my friend, were backing away from him as he spoke to them. My friend has "boundary issues" and he admits this. He tends to violate other people's personal space because he feels so emotionally connected to everyone.


My friend describes himself as having thin boundaries. People with thin boundaries are open, overly-trusting, and easily intimate with others. They experience the border between themselves and others as porous and transparent. People with thick boundaries, on the other hand, are rigid, well-defended, and almost seem to be wearing a suit of armor. They experience the border between themselves and others as solid and difficult to breech; they often have trouble with intimacy.

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This concept of thick and thin boundaries is elucidated by Ernest Hartmann, in his 1991 book Boundaries in the Mind. In this classic, Hartmann notes a number of other characteristics of individuals with thick and thin boundaries. For instance, people with thick boundaries tend to be quite organized and keep everything in its designated place. People with thin boundaries appear to be somewhat unorganized and to operate spontaneously rather than according to a planned schedule. People with thin boundaries may have difficulty distinguishing dreams from memories (did that really happen or did I just dream it happened?). They are also more likely to spend time daydreaming and to suffer from nightmares. Thin-boundaried people tend to fall in love more easily; they may have more identity issues; and they may experience themselves as both child and adult, or male and female, at the same time. They are more prone to unusual perceptual experiences (such as déjà vu) and feelings of clairvoyance or premonition. Hartmann found that both psychotics and artists tend to have thin boundaries.


In contrast, people with thick interpersonal boundaries may tend to feel alienated and out of touch...out of touch with their own intuitions and feelings as well as out of touch with other individuals.


Hartmann found that thick and thin boundaries extend beyond intra- and interpersonal preferences. For example, people with thick boundaries may also prefer thick boundaries in the external world. They may prefer realism in art over impressionism, and they tend to support strong borders between nations. In their homes, they prefer rooms with specific functions (walls between the kitchen, dining room, and living room) rather than an open floor plan.


Back to my friend who has thin boundary issues. He is loved by both students and faculty ...but he has constant "drama" in his life due to his thin interpersonal boundaries. By letting so many people "in," he has created an inner space where someone close to him is always in crisis and needs his attention. This constant drama has cut into his ability to be productive in his creative career.


What, then, is the optimal thickness for our boundaries? Do highly creative people in general tend to have thinner boundaries than less creative people? And do we have some control over how thick or thin our boundaries are? Think about your own boundaries and decide how you would answer these questions.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is an instructor and researcher at Harvard University, where she teaches creativity and abnormal psychology.

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