In Ontario the landscape has been significantly shaped over the past 300 years or so. Seen from the air, the rural areas are a tribute to rationality with their uniform rectangular fields. When you fly over Europe, fields appear by contrast to be a testament to organic growth. Like a patchwork quilt, these boundaries radiate out from the towns and villages unplanned, and form their own patterns of space claimed over time, interspersed with ancient woodlands and rivers.
Whether here in Ontario or across the pond, those fields reflect something we need as people, something important about what we need in order to function as individuals and societies. For many people, the word boundary conjures the idea of division, as if that somewhat negative connotation is what we’re seeking when we assert them in our lives. But those hedgerows and fences are not solely to do with division; they are far more purposeful, more functional than that.
Absolute boundaries are rare. This type of “no contact” boundary is asocial, the desired end of interaction, something we reserve for highly problematic individuals often at the severe end of the narcissistic spectrum. I think of this kind of boundary as oceanic in breadth, beyond even the function of castle walls - certainly beyond any hope of health or warmth passing over it. To follow the metaphor, the Atlantic was a “no-contact” boundary for millenia, prior to recent history.
For the most part, our boundaries are not oceanic. They are not primarily to do with cutting people off. Their importance is much more to do with our essential need to assert our being in the world. From this perspective, boundaries have a primary purpose of self-respect, of grounding ourselves in space-time, of saying “I’m here and I’m taking up room”.
Some people never really have to think about boundaries. Their function has been learned environmentally in their childhood homes and maintained ever since. But if you’ve grown up with narcissistic parenting, or you’ve been worn down by a narcissistic partner, the assertion of self in space-time is not a given. Not at all. A highly narcissistic person doesn’t respect boundaries because they do not perceive them accurately. The field is their field, and aspects of that field (you included) either promote this image or threaten it. You having boundaries, having a self-respecting existence, having a self that has integrity, difference, boldness and independence...in other words, you being a separate entity...is anathema to narcissistic control. A boundary therefore, whether by axe or acid, is something to be taken down.
In maturity, we’ve grown out of the “one field theory” of narcissism. When we’re healthy, our empathy isn’t lacking, and it isn’t limited to self or other. We have empathy for both. Our boundaries are extensions of healthy egos, assertions of our existence and need for respect. Where our field meets another, the boundary is a meeting point. Rather than oceans or castle walls, we have fences with an aesthetic we like and a function of mutual respect. As in our backyards, we encourage flowers to grow, we have gates to pass through, we chat to one another and share both materially and emotionally. This is the social boundary. It’s our most common boundary, important, assertive, and functional, flexible and appropriate.
Understanding and implementing social boundaries can be a real achievement in life, perhaps especially for those of you who have been drawn to this article. It is an achievement beyond the obvious because healthy boundaries are an assertion of your ego, your being, and your self-respect. It can take a lot of work even to find this self that needs respecting, and more work still to keep it that way. Pleading with a narcissist to do this for you is like asking the sun to only scorch the desert on Tuesdays.
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.