Adjusting Your Protective Boundaries

Steve Andreas

(From Transforming Your Self; becoming who you want to be, Chapter 13, 2002)

External Boundaries

So far we have been working with the content and processes that we use to describe ourselves, the inner workings of our self-concept. Now I want to turn to a very different aspect, our boundaries, which define the extent of our self-concept. How far does your sense of self go, and what does it include?

Some people are described by psychiatrists as having “boundary problems,” which can mean quite a few different things. Some people have boundaries that are so vague and changeable that they have difficulty knowing what their own needs and feelings are, and what belongs to someone else. A weak boundary can be a result of the person overusing “other position,” becoming so identified with someone else’s needs that they lose track of their own. They need to learn to be able to distinguish clearly between the two, and regain some kind of balance that respects both their own needs and the needs of others. Other people speak of being overwhelmed in the presence of others, and having difficulty in maintaining “their own space.” Some people fear being lost or “engulfed” in an intimate relationship, and want to learn to be able to retain a strong sense of themselves.

Paranoia is the other extreme. A boundary that is too strong can result in a person feeling a great distance and separation from others, and having difficulty being intimate. A strong boundary can make it difficult for people in search of religious experience. They want to eliminate all sense of separation in order to reach a sense of connection with God, or the cosmos, oneness with everything.

Even when people have boundaries that are somewhere in between these extremes, the characteristics of the boundaries can still cause problems. A boundary can be too hard and brittle and likely to shatter, or so soft and flexible that it offers very little protection against intrusion.

Our experience of boundaries varies considerably with context. Two guys who wouldn’t think of hugging each other are willing to do so vigorously if it is called a “wrestling match.” The comfortable distance can shrink to zero with a spouse or a very close friend, and expand greatly with someone strange whom we consider a potential danger to us, particularly in a bad neighborhood or some other threatening context.

A good race car driver extends their tactile perceptions beyond the body to include the car they are driving. The car becomes an extension of their body, so that it is as if their fingers and toes can feel the texture and temperature of the track, and the sideways force of the tires in a turn. As a friend of mine who was a driver for many years used to say jokingly, “If you run over a dime, you want to know what year it was.”

Our boundaries are also very dependent on our internal state. Try exploring what your boundaries are like when you are sick, and compare them with what they are like when you are particularly healthy and feel like Wonder Woman or Superman.

What you include inside your boundaries can also have a huge effect on you. Someone who identifies strongly with their thinking will be very argumentative, because that’s a major part of their identity. Someone who identifies with their physical strength or sexuality will be more likely to defend that. If you identify with a football team, when they lose or win, it is as if you did. If someone identifies very strongly with their car or their country’s flag, then if it is damaged, they are likely to react as if their own body were damaged, and get enraged and have to kill somebody. Someone else who didn’t identify with the flag might just think, “What a waste of perfectly good cloth.” Someone who becomes enraged when a flag is damaged is so lost in that experience of identification, they don’t begin to imagine that there could be other choices, other ways of looking at that event and responding differently.

Most people identify fairly strongly with their immediate family members, usually less so with more distant ones, or other members of their ethnic group or country, etc. This kind of group identity can provide a comfortable cohesion and sense of who you are, but it can also be a divisive basis for disregarding or attacking anyone who is outside your boundary.

If you don’t identify at all with another human being, that makes it very easy to mistreat or kill them. In every preparation for war, the enemy is always represented as inhuman, insane, evil, a caricature, a stupid animal that can’t be reasoned with, etc. If you think of the enemy as a human being like yourself, it is much harder to injure or kill them.

Many years ago, Edward T. Hall pointed out that everyone has a “personal space” that can be observed as they interact with others, and that this is at least partly dependent on culture. In northern European countries, the comfortable distance for talking with a stranger is much larger than it is in middle eastern countries. If an Arab is talking with an Englishman at a party, it will look to an outside observer as if the Arab is chasing the Englishman around the room. As the Arab moves closer in order to be at what he considers a comfortable distance, he intrudes into the Englishman’s personal space. So the Englishman becomes uncomfortable, and moves back a step or two to what he considers a comfortable distance. Then of course the Arab will move closer again, and so on.

What Hall and others did not go on to explore, is how we represent these boundaries in our minds, and how to adjust these representations so as to have additional choices in our responses and behavior.

Since again you will be exploring territory that is usually unconscious, an “as if” frame can be particularly useful in finding out what your boundaries are like. “If I had a boundary, what would it be like?” Try thinking of difficult or threatening situations in your life, and compare what you find there with other situations in which you feel capable and comfortable.

Before saying any more about boundaries, I want you to get into trios again. If you choose other people who seem very different than you, you will likely get more variation in what you find, and this will make it more interesting. Use the questions below as a guide to discovering how you represent the boundaries of your self.

Exercise 13-1 External Boundaries; Exploration/Discovery. (trios, 15 minutes)

Do you have a single boundary, or more than one?
For each boundary, where is it, and what are its characteristics?
What modalities and submodalities are used to represent this boundary?
Is the boundary analog (varying over a range) or digital (on/off)? (It might have both analog and digital aspects, or it might be analog with respect to some events, and digital with respect to others.)
What do you allow to pass through this boundary and what not?
How does the boundary change in different contexts?
What is the positive function of the boundary? Generally speaking, boundaries protect you from something. What, specifically, does it protect you from, how does it do it, and how well does it work?
Are there any ways in which this boundary causes problems for you — are there any consequences that you don’t like?

Begin by exploring your own boundary silently for 5 minutes. What does it look like, and sound like? If you reached out and touched it, what would it feel like? After noticing what your boundary is like, start experimenting with it. If your boundary is bright pink, try making it green or purple or some other color. Try changing the size, extent, or thickness of your boundary to find out how these modifications change your experience. If it is primarily visual, experiment with adding different sounds or textures, to discover if that adds or detracts from its function, etc.

Then take another 10 minutes to share what you have discovered with the others in your trio, and continue to experiment with changing your boundaries in various ways. If you’ve got a hard silver shell around you, and someone else has an energy field that’s sort of warm and cushiony, try swapping. Experiment with how you can change how you see, hear and feel your boundary, and notice how these changes alter your experience.

*   *   *   *   *

Now I’d like to hear some examples of what you found in your exploration and experimentation. When people first start exploring something like boundaries they often think, “Well, I just made it up, it doesn’t mean anything.” But then when they try making changes in it, they usually find that it affects their experience in profound ways, and that’s pretty convincing that even if they “made it up,” there is something pretty real about it.

Alice: I grew up in Japan before moving to the US, and I find that my boundary is very different when I imagine being in the two countries. In Japan, it’s much farther out, rigid, narrow and metallic, while in the US it’s closer and much wider and softer, sort of like gray acoustic foam. It’s much more comfortable for me to be in the US.

Sandy: In some contexts I saw an image of myself with a strip of rough hide, sort of like an armadillo, with a ridge of pointy protective structures that was part of my skin, on the front and back of my body coming up under my chin, and up and over the back of my head. That hide makes it hard for me to move, and it keeps me separate. It was kind of weird, but not too surprising. The me that had the hide looked back at me the observer, and asked, “Is this what you want for yourself?”

Al: I found that my boundary in front was much farther out than behind me, which makes sense, because my belly and face needs protection more than my back. But what was really interesting is that on my right side it was about two arm lengths, but on the left it was only one arm length. So it’s more comfortable to have someone closer to me on my left side. Then Bill asked me “What if the person was the woman of your dreams,” and the boundary instantly got larger and enveloped her.

Great. That sounds like a nice shift. Any transition like that can become automatic if you rehearse it consciously a few times, as long as it’s congruent with your needs and values. If you live in an apartment in a big city, it makes sense to have your boundaries automatically extend just as you go out the front door, to help you be alert to any possible danger.

One way to describe a situation of intimacy and rapport is that there are no boundaries between you and that other person. Now that you know a little about your boundaries, you can deliberately use this information to gain rapport with someone. Many people teach how to match individual behaviors like breathing, posture and gestures, voice tone, etc. While that is useful, it can be pretty frustrating trying to keep track of all those separate behaviors consciously!

Rather than do that, you can simply open your boundary and expand it to gently and softly include someone else, or a group. When you do this, your attention will automatically and unconsciously focus on them, and most of your specific behaviors will tend to match them without having to think about it. That is a much more holistic way to get rapport, and one that takes a lot less of your conscious attention, leaving it free for other things.

Getting rapport in this way also tends to bypass the dualistic, and sometimes manipulative view, “I’m getting rapport with you,” replacing it with a more balanced and unified sense of “We’re in this together.” So that’s something you could experiment with sometime when you are with a group of people. Imagine opening your boundary enough to gently embrace one person at a time, and notice how that changes your response. You could also notice whether others respond differently when you do this.

Sam: Once I lived in a very small apartment, and I had to move, because it felt like my body was hitting the walls when I would move around, even though I wasn’t actually touching the walls. When I think back to that time. I realize that my boundary was larger than the apartment, and if I could have adjusted my boundary to be smaller, it would have been OK.

Sure. For instance, you could imagine that you were hiding, and wanted to be as small and inconspicuous as possible, and that the apartment was a secret and safe place that snugly protected you. I knew a man from Australia who felt nauseous when he went to London. Then he realized that his boundaries were quite large, so people kept moving inside them. When he made his boundaries smaller, he was fine.

Many people have this kind of difficulty with automobile seat belts. The belt intrudes on their boundary, so they feel restricted by it, because they can’t move as freely as they are accustomed to. You can talk to them about how without a belt they will have the freedom to fly around in the car and get badly hurt if they are in an accident. Then you can ask them if they could imagine that the belt is embracing them gently and lovingly, protecting them by keeping them secure in one position in case of an accident.

Dave: I know a man who means well, but he comes into the group and gets so close to people that they are very uncomfortable. He hasn’t got an idea in the world about what’s going on, and no one will tell him about it. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about it, because I don’t think just telling him about it would do any good.

I suggest that you give him an experience of it first, by moving in so close to him that he gets uncomfortable and backs up. Then comment on it, and ask him to tell you what he experiences. Then you can tell him that this is what most people experience with him. Finally you can help him recalibrate to what is a comfortable distance for most people, so that he doesn’t have to find out by trial and error.

Like anything else, once you are aware of these processes, you can use them positively. When Virginia Satir did family therapy she often used to deliberately put her face very close to the face of a family member in order to get their full attention, and interrupt their unuseful responses to other family members. When someone is really ”in your face,“ it’s very hard to pay attention to anything else, and in certain situations that can be very useful. Now I’d like to demonstrate with someone how to experiment with changing boundaries.

Demonstration: Changing an External Boundary

Sandy: I’d like some help with mine. I’d really don’t like my armadillo hide, and I’d like to change it.

OK, great. I’d like you to think about the contexts that this boundary is useful in, and the kind of protection it gives you, and think about possible alternatives to the boundary that you have now… .

Sandy: My first thought is, “Do I have to carry a big piece of steel around with me?” (She gestures holding something about two feet by three feet in front of her at arm’s length.)

Usually when a boundary is as close to your body as that hide is, it has to be very strong and hard, because if something gets that close to you, then you really need good protection. But if the boundary is farther out, as you gestured when talking about the steel plate, it can give you more advance warning, so it doesn’t have to be as hard. That is particularly true if it becomes a thicker boundary, and more analog, like an energy field that becomes weaker as it becomes more distant from your body… .

Sandy: I can move it out (She gestures at arm’s length.) and it kind of dissolves and changes form. It’s still kind of hide-like, but it’s more permeable, and if I need more protection, it can solidify. If I imagine someone’s fist coming through it, then it stops before it gets to me. I had a lot of verbal abuse early on, and I think that’s where that all comes from.

How about making the boundary particularly effective in diminishing or muffling loud sounds? …

Sandy: The part right in front of where my heart is really needs to be strong. That’s where the quieting is really helpful, because when the words come through muffled, then I can still have my own feelings on the inside. That’s great. That’s really nice.

What color is the boundary now? …

Sandy: Hmnnn… . It’s a shade of green that keeps slowly changing. It’s kind of transparent and fog-like, like the air, about six inches thick, but I can solidify parts of it when I need to.

OK. Test it to make sure that you can do that. Think of some situation where you’d like that boundary to solidify and protect you… .

Sandy: Yes, it solidifies only on the side where the danger is coming from.

Great. Now experiment with making it a different color… . (As she does this, Sandy’s whole upper body rocks a little and her head nods.)

Sandy: I first tried purple, which was good, and then magenta, which was better. Then it became a brilliant magenta, with light streaming out of it. I like that a lot better.

OK. Test it again. Liking it is not necessarily a sign that it will work well. Think of a situation in which someone might yell at you, and find out how well the magenta protects you… .

Sandy: Well, the thing that really changes is that instead of just absorbing the words and being defensive, I can determine what action to take. I can go, “This is hard for me to believe. It’s time for me to have a word with this person. This doesn’t work for me.” That’s much better.

Now I’d like you to imagine that you have the hide again, and see what happens… .

Sandy: I just want to put it in a closet, and keep it, because it has a beauty of its own, but I don’t really need that. It’s really pretty when you look at it, but it’s not comfortable. It really wasn’t that efficient before. There were gaps where stuff was still coming in.

Thanks very much, Sandy. That’s all I want to do for now. You can always experiment some more on your own, to see if you can find ways to improve it even more. There are lots of other possibilities in the visual and kinesthetic system, and I didn’t ask you to try anything with the sound your boundary could make. You could even experiment with how that boundary might taste or smell, and then try changing that.

Like most other things that we learn unconsciously, our boundaries tend to be a kind of hodgepodge of what others around us have done, and they can always be improved. My main goal in asking you to explore your boundaries is to give you ways that you can have more choice about your experience. Learning about your boundaries gives you more flexibility about what you do, where and when you do it, and with whom, and for what outcome.

Notice that boundaries are very metaphorical. I have no idea why a magenta boundary protects Sandy better than a green one, or why a transparent, fog-like boundary protects her better than an armadillo hide. That makes it a bit hard to predict how a change will affect someone, so you have to experiment and test. However, when you suggest experimenting, and offer a few examples, their unconscious mind will usually provide useful possibilities, and then you can test them and adjust them to be sure they work well.

Hopefully this demonstration has opened up a number of possibilities that you may not have thought of when you explored your boundaries in the first exercise. I’d like to offer you another opportunity to explore further, and experiment more with how to make useful changes.

Exercise 13-2. External Boundaries. Experimenting With Changes. (trios, 15 minutes)

Return to your trios, and again begin by taking about 5 minutes to experiment with changing your boundaries, particularly in situations that are difficult for you, or in which you would like to have additional choices. How could you change your boundaries in ways that would make those situations easier to deal with resourcefully?

Keep in mind the importance of preserving the positive protective function of the boundary, while you experiment with changing the ways that you represent a boundary, with a view toward improving how it works, and removing any undesirable consequences or side-effects.

When you find changes that are useful, future-pace them by imagining being in the kinds of contexts where you want to have them, as I demonstrated with Sandy. That is both a test of how well they work, as well as a way to connect any new change that works well into the contexts where you want it, so that it becomes an automatic response that you don’t have to think about.

*   *   *   *   *

Is there anything you’d like to discuss from this exercise?

Eileen: I had a boundary that was very close and thin, kind of like mylar. When someone reached it, I reacted all at once, and pretty strongly. I wanted a boundary that was stronger, and that would give me more advance warning.

It’s nice to have some advance warning. “Uh oh, things are getting a little strange here. I think maybe I’ll back off a little bit” or “Maybe it’s time to go home,” or whatever. How did you change your boundary to make it stronger, and give you more advance warning?

Eileen: Instead of the thin mylar, I made it stronger and softer, widening it so that it was thicker, and physically took up more space.

OK, so instead of being a single little narrow border, it became wider, and reached out farther from your body. How did that serve to give you more advance warning?

Eileen: With a larger and broader “energy field,” I didn’t react as strongly. When someone reached the outer edge of it, I started to notice it a little. Then I’d react a little more if they got closer, and it wasn’t a big surprise if they came closer and started to really intrude. And since the boundary was stronger, and I had more warning, I had more time to decide what I wanted to do, instead of just freaking out. I like that a lot better.

So that gave you more of a range of response, instead of the digital, all or none “freaking out” response. A digital response can be very useful in truly life-or-death situations, but in most ordinary situations, it can really get in your way. And did you try future-pacing it into future situations where that would be useful?

Eileen: Yes, I did. I felt a lot safer, and had a lot more choices that way, so I’m keeping it.

A boundary that is very close to your body gives you information about danger a little too late, so you have to respond defensively. It works much better to have some advance warning, so that you have more choices about your response. It’s similar to driving a car kinesthetically. You could just close your eyes and cover your ears, and start driving. You’d find out about danger, but when you did, it would be a little too late.

One of the wonderful things about vision is that it provides information about events at a great distance. We can look up at the sky at night and see light from stars that are billions of light-years distant. Eyes give you long distance information, and that gives you lots of time to figure out what you want to do. Ears give you mid-distance information; you can hear events that are somewhat far away, but not nearly as far away as you can see something. Kinesthetics can only give you information about events that are very close. If there’s any kind of threat, by the time you get touched, it’s really close already, so you have to react very quickly, and most people also react very intensely.

Fred: I have always been distracted by noise. It is as if I had no boundary at all, and all that vibration was hitting my skin like raindrops. First I tried making my boundary into a partial sound shield, so that soft sounds could come through clearly, but loud sounds would be diminished. That made a big difference, but of course I’ll have to test it in the real world to see if it works there. I also tried having no boundaries at all — imagining that the sound just went right through my body without affecting me at all, the way light waves go through glass. That seemed even easier, and I’m going to test that one, too.

Your experience points up something very interesting. Having “no boundaries” can refer to two completely different experiences. One is the one you described first, in which external events impinge on you in ways that you can’t control, and you feel very vulnerable. For some people it’s as if they had no skin at all, so they are completely at the mercy of the smallest events. A stony look can pierce their body like a dagger, and a harsh comment goes right into their heart, instead of into their ears. When someone has this kind of experience, it can be enormously useful to help them build boundaries in their mind, so that they have more control over what happens to them, and how they respond to events.

However, having “no boundaries” can also mean that you extend your boundaries farther to include “external events” as part of your identity, so that they are no longer ”external,“ no longer foreign to you. When you think of the sound going right through you, that is a small example. The sound is no longer something outside yourself that you have to struggle with, it becomes part of what’s inside you. When you accept it as part of you, you don’t have to battle with it. Some mystics appear to have done this.

Sue: What about the kind of identification that parents sometimes have with children, in which the kid becomes an extension of the parent, and the parent becomes very attached to their successes or failures?

Most of us include certain external events inside our boundaries, while excluding others, and we respond differently to what we allow inside or keep outside. When someone identifies with someone else in that way, and lives through them, that is usually an indication of something lacking in their own sense of themselves. They might have some negative piece about not being important, or not being loved, etc., so they try to compensate for this by succeeding through someone else. Someone else’s success becomes something that is desperately important for them, rather than just something that’s nice if it happens.

This is an example of what Buddhists describe as being “attached” to an outcome. Another common example is someone who is in love with someone who doesn’t return the compliment. They desperately want to be with that person, thinking that if that happened, they would be supremely happy for the rest of their lives. Usually, of course, the “impossible love” wouldn’t really solve all their problems; what they really need is some personal change work that would fill up the holes inside themselves, the internal lacks or negations that makes them so needy. Remember how dependent Peter was in regard to being loved, because he didn’t have an internal knowing of that quality. Then after I helped him build a database for that quality, he wasn’t needy, so he was able to appreciate his wife’s affection so much more than before.

An old Buddhist practice is to deliberately identify with anything that is thought of as alienated, not part of you, to discover what that is like. This can reconnect you with whatever is seen as foreign and different, and is also a way of discovering more about yourself. This is a particularly useful way to become more aware of the “shadow” self that we have talked about, and I’d like to offer you a personal example of how to do this.

About a year ago, I was staying in a hotel room during a training, and I decided to turn on the TV and “channel surf.” I generally don’t watch TV at all, but I was tired, and I hadn’t watched in years, so I decided to take a look. During the two hours that I watched, I saw about a dozen murders, one of which was my own, as the gun turned to point at me and then fired!

But what really disturbed me was a scene in which a young woman was tied up, completely helpless, being taunted and tortured by a man. That image haunted me, because I was so repulsed by it — a definite sign that I considered it “not me,” alienated in the extreme.

So I decided to identify with the man whose behavior so repulsed me. When I entered into his experience, I began to think of a time when I had imagined torturing someone who was helpless — I didn’t do it, but I sure thought about it in lurid detail! As I reviewed my own impulse to torture and taunt, I realized how it grew out of feeling totally impotent and helpless; torture seemed to be the only way that I could get some response out of that person. Getting that response would have given me at least a small sense of power and ability to influence others.

When I realized this part of my shadow self — accepting that I would also be capable of that awful behavior in certain circumstances — I could empathize with the inner experience of the man who was torturing. If I were in the presence of actual torture, I would still do all I could to stop it, but with a very different attitude, one of compassion and understanding, rather than rejection and condemnation. I’m also very sure that understanding would make it more likely that I could be effective in stopping the torture, not less.

Gestalt Therapy is based on this process of identifying with whatever has been alienated. The basic technique of becoming the person (or alienated impulse, or dream element) in the “empty chair” can be very useful in experiencing both sides of an inner conflict as parts of oneself and begin to communicate and problem-solve, instead of blaming and attacking what you don’t identify with. Taking “other” position is also an example of this principle. Ghandi did this deliberately and extensively when dealing with the British in India, and other groups with whom he was working, in order to understand and acknowledge their views fully, while still pursuing his goals.

This process of identification is not restricted to human beings — you can identify with anything and become more whole. It is truly amazing what you can discover about yourself when you imagine being a stone, a leaf, a pen, or anything else in your surroundings that you don’t usually think of as part of yourself.

I look out the window and see a leaf. “I am a leaf. I grew here in this place, I know not how, loving the warmth of the sun and the cool rain and the quiet nights. I am only here for a season; soon I will fall and become shelter and nourishment for the bugs on the moist ground, and sink into the earth, perhaps to become part of a leaf again someday.” (It would take much too long to describe the tears that I experienced while doing this, but in shorthand, it is about the immediacy and transience of life, and that life is a brief gift not to be squandered.)

On a much larger scale, when a mystic expands his/her identity to include the entire universe to become “one with everything,” and accepts it all, just as it is, “warts and all,“ then there is nothing to struggle against, because whatever happens, it is all part of “God’s will,” or the “natural unfolding of the universe.” That is a very different meaning of having “no boundary,” and the result is a very different way of being in the world, one that sages and mystics have spoken of for millennia. Understanding how our boundaries function can help us understand what these mystics meant by their words, and if someone is interested in attaining that kind of experience, adjusting boundaries provides one direct way to approach it.

Internal Boundaries

Next I’d like you to do the same kind of exploration for the space inside your body. Do you have any internal boundaries? If so, what do they separate, and what is the positive function of this separation? Again, an “as if” frame can be helpful. “If I had an internal boundary, where would it be, what would it be like, what would it divide, and what would its positive function be?”

Body workers of all sorts often talk about working to eliminate “energy blocks” in the body, areas where the natural integrated functioning is interrupted in some way. Blocks are shown by physical tensions, postural distortions, and areas where movements are interrupted and discontinuous, rather than smooth and flowing.

However, these body blocks are also evident in how people think of their bodies, and that can be in any or all of the three major modalities, visual, auditory or kinesthetic, and the smaller submodalities within them. This is a slightly different way of thinking about the changes that body workers have been working with for a long time. Since I’m not a body worker and I like to work with the mind, I want to offer you another way of achieving the same kinds of goals. Finding out about internal boundaries is another way to access this kind of information, and also a way to work to dissolve or change the blocks into something more useful.

Exercise 13-3 Internal Boundaries; Exploration/Discovery. (trios, 15 minutes)

Begin by exploring your own internal experience silently for 5 minutes, using the same list of questions about boundaries that I offered you earlier. “If I had an internal boundary, where would it be, and what would it be like?” After you have learned about an internal boundary, notice what it protects you from, and any possible consequences, both positive or negative, that this might have for your psychological or physiological functioning and health.

Then share and compare experiences with the others in your trio, feeling free to keep to yourself anything that you consider too personal to share. Keeping in mind the protective function of your boundary, experiment with changing it to make it more effective, and to lessen any negative consequences. Try varying the submodality distinctions that you use to delineate boundaries, and try on each other’s boundaries, to find out what might work better for you.

*   *   *   *   *

Again I’d like to gather some of your experiences, as a basis for discussion and generalization.

Dan: I found a sort of boundary where my arms meet my shoulders, a little feeling of looseness and disconnection there, as if there was a little airy space, as if my arms aren’t completely attached. That was a bit puzzling at first, but when I thought about it, I realized that in difficult situations, my first impulse is to strike out at something with my fists. I think that boundary keeps that from happening, and gives me some control over it by giving me time to come up with a more rational response. I often have tension in my shoulders, and I think that’s where the hitting impulse gets stopped.

Ann: I found a hard shell around my heart, sort of like a large walnut shell only darker. It’s pretty obvious what that is for, and I think of the people who speak of practices for “opening the heart.” I tried cracking the shell, but that didn’t work, so I guess I need to try something else.

I think a softer approach would likely work much better, particularly for a heart boundary. People have been speaking for years about “breakthroughs” and “shattering” limiting beliefs. Those words presuppose overcoming a limitation or problem by brute force. When you respect the positive function of a boundary, then change comes through a gentle melting, dissolution, or changing of the barrier, rather than breaking through it.

Charles: I usually experience myself as “I think this,” or “I am this,” or “I feel that.” So I was noticing the thoughts and sensations that were happening in succession, and then the thought arises, “Well, ‘what if?’ What would it be like if I am only the field in which these things arise, but I am not any one of those things in particular?” I was just noticing all these internal events as if they were external, and had nothing to do with me or my identity.

That’s the essence of quite a few meditative practices, a way of disidentifying from our experience and looking at our thoughts and feelings simply as interesting events, rather than being completely immersed in them and taking them for granted. It is a form of dissociation that can be a very useful first step toward examining your life, realizing that you have other choices, and then considering what you might rather do.

Earlier I spoke of how we all identify with external events. But we can also do the opposite, and disidentify with internal events. If we judge or condemn internal experiences of being dishonest, vengeful, sexual, or anything else that is in conflict with our values and self-concept, we may try to place a boundary between ourselves and these feelings or thoughts. We have already explored this earlier in the way people try to isolate and ignore counterexamples by separating them by location and modality, and how the “not self” functions.

Stan: I have a boundary right under my chin that separates my head from my body. I’ve spent most of my life being very focused on the intellect, and being rational, and I have found that my body often responds in ways that don’t seem to be rational. So I think this boundary is a way of disconnecting from my body’s impulses.

That’s a pretty common internal boundary. The body often “has its own mind” and that can easily be seen as being in conflict with reason. Often someone who does this holds their head forward, as you do, “leading with the head.” You see this in extreme form in some mathematicians, physicists, and others who spend much of their lives doing very mental kinds of work.

It may be useful to contrast the natural functional divisions in the body with the kinds of division that typically appear in mental boundaries. The heart is quite different than the brain, and this is reflected in their different structures and functions. It’s nice to have teeth that are hard and sharp, because their function is to grind up food. It’s nice to have skin soft and flexible, so that we have freedom of movement. Ideally all these parts work together in a functional whole.

The mental boundaries that people find are usually much cruder, and tend to divide different parts of the body, rather than different functions, forcing them to operate separately — isolating the head or the genitals or the breathing, etc. from the rest of the body. These boundaries often tend to block everything, all the time, rather than being selective, and used only when and where they are useful.

Demonstration: Changing an Internal Boundary

Now I’d like to demonstrate how to experiment with your internal boundaries to make them more effective in protecting you, and I think it might be interesting to continue with Sandy.

Sandy: I would like some help with mine. It’s repulsive to me, and I just kind of shied away from it.

Great. When you find something inside that’s repulsive, that means it has a lot of alienated resources that can become a valuable part of you when you re-own them. So the more you judge them as repulsive, the more you have to reclaim from the shadow. OK, tell me what you found.

Sandy: It’s strange; it feels kind of like this little metallic box inside my chest. (She gestures between her throat and diaphragm.) It kind of reminds me of a sarcophagus. (She gestures in a coffin shape.) It’s kind of unpleasant.

And what does that protect you from? One way to find out is to lift the lid of that sarcophagus a little, to see what comes to your mind when that protection is reduced a little… .

Sandy: It’s kind of like the world at large … and all the weird crap. (Her voice breaks, and she cries a little.)

What’s going on now?

Sandy: Just realizing. I don’t know if it’s like a … learned level of — it’s more than suspicion, it’s a general distrust.

Of anything in particular? Or just all the weird and ugly stuff in the world?

Sandy: I think it’s mistrust of other people’s intentions.

OK, I’d like you to experiment a little, just as you did earlier with your external boundary. Try changing that box in different ways. Change the color, what it’s made of, make it larger, softer, more rounded shape, or bring it out closer to your skin, whatever you’d like to try… .

Sandy: It just becomes sort of vapor-like, and it also has its own light, and it’s like a big oval shape that moves and radiates out through my body. That makes more sense in a lot of ways.

Is that more comfortable? (She takes a deep breath.)

Sandy: Yeah, actually. It feels really different!

Stay with that experience for a little while, to savor it… .

Sandy: It seems like it wants to expand to make an outline of my whole body on the inside of my skin.

Good. Try that out. These are all just things to experiment with, to see what works for you and what doesn’t.

Sandy: It still seems like this is the area (She gestures toward her upper chest.) that needs to be protected the most.

OK, experiment some more. Let it expand to your skin, but make it different in your chest area; make it denser, or thicker, or more cohesive, or whatever would give you better protection in that area… .

Sandy: Now it’s more of a light form that radiates out through. It’s interesting. It’s just so different than before. And when I keep looking at it, it becomes like one of those mirrored balls that shoot light out at parties.

Is this the same magenta color that you had in your external boundary that you experimented with earlier? Or is it a different color?

Sandy: Well, at first it was like gray mist. Then it changed, and now it’s pale golden light that radiates all through.

Now I want you to test. Think of the situations where you want to have this, and find out how well it works to protect you.

Sandy: Now it’s more like — now I don’t have to worry about what others’ intentions are too much, because I’ll be able to perceive more clearly because I don’t have to — you know how if you get into a loop of all the time going, “Oh, my God. What’s that? What are they thinking?” then you can’t really think about what you’re perceiving. So now I’m free to have my own perceptions about situations.

That sounds good — and it probably feels better, too.

Sandy: Yeah, it does.

Now I want you to imagine having that sarcophagus in your chest again, the way it was before… .

Sandy: It seems pretty useless and restrictive and invasive.

OK, thanks. That’s all I want to do right now. You can experiment more on your own.


About a week later, Sandy sent me the following email:

“I’ve had some interesting experiences in the last couple of days — today for example. Background: Annie, the ‘office manager’ where I work, is an ex-biker/drug addict. She has quite a rough personality, and uses a lot of profanity and even yells at people. I wondered if she would ever yell at me, and wondered what my response would be. So today, it was discovered that I had put an order in the hold file without putting a complete explanation in the client’s record. When someone told me about it, I said, ‘I can’t believe I did THAT’ in a semi-joking manner, but still taking care of the situation and following up, etc. So Annie yells across the office, ‘Well, you fucking DID do it!’ And so I took the order, walked across the room, stood in front of her desk and said really loudly and forcefully, ‘I’m now making a public apology. I fucked this up and I’m NOT fucking perfect!’ As I walked back to my desk, she yelled, ‘I’m so disappointed. I thought you were perfect.’ And I yelled back, ‘Well, I’m fucking NOT!’

“Ordinarily I would never have responded so congruently. I wasn’t really upset, yet I felt compelled by some inner force to stand up for myself. I didn’t get upset during or afterwards, as I would have in the past. I just continued on with my day as if my response to her was completely normal — even though I got interesting nonverbal reactions from the other employees, who have been mostly annoyed and terrorized by her for years. I was confident that I was responding appropriately, even though this was very out of character for me, especially in a work setting.

“I have also been a lot more humorous and outgoing and engaging with the other employees, not worrying about what I would say, or about our age differences, etc. And they have responded in the same way to me.

“I also called one of the people with whom I have habitual communication patterns that I don’t like. I found it much easier to engage him in conversation, and I felt more comfortable and somehow more honest, where before it always felt like all the information was coming from me and about me. So I think that boundary work did some really cool things.”

Although Sandy had an internal boundary, it actually functioned more like an external boundary, because it protected her from something outside her. Just as external boundaries provide protection against external challenges, internal boundaries usually protect against internal challenges. This could be as simple as the pain and discomfort resulting from injury or disease, or they could result from internal urges that the person has difficulty dealing with — anger, excitement, sorrow, loving or sexual feelings, etc. Some people reject some internal responses, or certain functions or parts of their bodies. This is particularly likely when some part of the body is not functioning well, or is diseased, or when its function is in conflict with strong beliefs that the person has.

Of course, the distinction between internal and external challenge is a little artificial, because most of our internal responses are to external challenges. We can choose to have a boundary that protects us from the external challenge directly, or one that protects us from our internal response to the external challenge.

Our body positions and movements are not only in response to events, they are also powerful determinants of our experience. As an experiment, think of something really sad or depressing. After you are strongly experiencing those feelings, raise your arms over your head, and also raise your head and eyes to look in the same direction, and notice what happens to your feelings… . It’s pretty hard to feel depressed in that position. It is no accident that revival preachers tell people to raise their eyes and arms to heaven when they want them to feel better about their sins and look to God for relief. This kind of impact is also reflected in common expressions, like “Things are looking up.” “Raise your spirits,” “Keep your chin up,”etc. By holding your body in one position, you can change what you experience, but that rigidity disrupts flexible functioning. This can cause problems, because in order to function well, your body needs to be whole, not separated into parts.

Now that we have had a demonstration, some examples, and discussion, I’d like to offer you another opportunity to explore some more, and experiment further with how to make useful changes in your boundaries.

Exercise 13-4. Internal Boundaries. Experimenting With Changes. (trios, 15 minutes)

Return to your trios, and again begin by taking about 5 minutes to experiment with your internal boundaries even further, particularly in situations that are difficult or challenging for you, and in which you would like to have additional choices about how to respond.

Keep in mind the importance of preserving the positive function of an internal boundary, while you experiment with changing the ways that you represent the boundary. Find what you can do to improve how it works by preserving the positive function while removing any unpleasant or unuseful limitations, consequences, or side-effects. When you find changes that you like, future-pace them by imagining having them in the kinds of contexts where you want them. That is both a test of how well the change works, as well as a rehearsal that connects any new boundary that works well to the kinds of situation where you want to have it.

Then share and discuss what you have found with the others in your trio, and try out what others do, in order to broaden your range of experience of internal boundaries.

*   *   *   *   *

Is there anything that you’d like to report? Or any questions?

Terri: I had a sort of thing made of stone across my chest to suppress my breathing. I get anxious sometimes, and when I do, I start breathing fast, and then I try to stop my breathing as a way of getting control. But that tenses my diaphragm and my blood pressure rises, and then I get headaches.

So you had a boundary that feels like stone, and you recognize the connection between that and your blood pressure and headaches. That’s an example of how a boundary’s protective function can result in a physical problem. Did you try changing it to something more permeable, like sponge rubber, or something else softer?

Terri: Yes, I did. It seemed like the mass … the solid stone started to separate a little bit, until it became more like a net.

So it can still ”catch you,“ so to speak, but it can allow some things to go through more. Great. Of course, another way to work with this would be to find out how you make yourself anxious in the first place, and change that, so that there would be no need to control your breathing.

Ann: I did some work with the “walnut shell” around my heart. I started by finding contexts in which the shell wasn’t there, like with very small babies, and when I did that, a lot of tears came. I didn’t understand that at first, but then I realized that it was just so nice to feel that heart connection, and that it was really important to me.

Then when I experimented with other situations, I found that I had to separate being open-hearted from having to do anything as a result of that. I had so many meanings attached to it — that if I was open-hearted, I’d have to take care of them, or be with them forever, and so on. Now I realize that I can just be that way because I like being connected with people, and not need to feel any obligation to them. I don’t know if you can see it, but I feel transformed, and it’s as if my heart is radiating warmth out into the world.

Thank you. You brought tears to my eyes, too. Many people don’t express loving feelings because of the possible misunderstandings and consequences, so a lot of people could use that, and the world at large would benefit, too.

A lot of people have written about the “mind/body split,” which is another way of describing an internal boundary. Right now take a few minutes to notice how you think about your mind and body right now… .

Most of us usually think of our minds being located in the brain, right? And then there is the rest of the body that is separate from the mind, so the mind is smaller than the body. Now try dissolving that boundary, however you represent it, and think of your mind flowing out and extending throughout your whole body, into every cell, right out to your fingertips and your toes, and everything in between, so that your mind becomes exactly as large as your body. As you do this, notice how that feels, and whether there might be some soft sound that accompanies this… .

That’s a really nice feeling, isn’t it? Mind and body are just different aspects of your whole functioning organism, and I’m sure you have all heard those kinds of words before. But what makes it really impact your experience is to see, feel, and hear your mind extending throughout your whole body. That’s a way to actually put your mind/body thinking back together, and reunite them.

Most of us also think of the heart as occupying only a small part of the body, but you can also extend your heart out to your fingertips in the same way, to experience your heart/mind/body. If you reach out and touch someone, you can feel yourself touching them with your heart and mind as well as your body. Take a few minutes to experience what that is like, and include at least one example of a difficult or stressful situation in your experimenting… .

While most of us usually think of the mind as being smaller than the body, your mind is actually much larger. Your mind can include stars that are 13 billion light years distant, and it can be interesting to try extending your heart/mind/body identification far beyond your skin. We all do this to some extent, depending on what other people or things we include inside the boundaries of identity. But what if your heart/mind/body included everything that you experience, so that all of that is felt as being inside you and part of you? Imagine that your heart/mind/body is so large that the most distant stars are within your fingertips! Take a couple of minutes to experience what that is like… .

This is the kind of experience that many mystics report, and I think it has a real basis, because everything you experience does take place in your heart/mind/body, even when you think of it as occurring outside you. Let’s follow Einstein, and try a little mind experiment. Imagine that an evil neurologist from the “dark side of the force” crept into your room last night while you were sleeping, anesthetized you, removed your brain, and put it into a nutrient solution and hooked up very sophisticated electrodes to all your sensory nerves, and then fed in all the detailed electrical inputs that exactly duplicated the experience of waking up and doing all the things you did today. How would you know the difference?

I assume that many of you have seen the movie “The Matrix,” which is based on this realization that all our experiences actually take place within our brains, even when we think of them as external. There are even mathematicians who claim to have proved that any brain with sufficient complexity is unable to distinguish whether there’s an “outside” or not. Our brains only get electrical signals from our senses, which we interpret to create our experience of external “reality.”

This process usually works quite well, and presumably there is an external reality outside of ourselves. We see a glass of milk on the table and when we reach out to grasp it, we feel it, and if we lift it to our lips and drink, we are not surprised to find that it tastes like milk and nourishes us.

So although we all have experiences that we describe as “other,” or “outside of us,” or “external reality,” all of that actually happens inside our brains, and is a part of us, despite the separation that we usually assume.

So in one sense, we are each isolated universes unto ourselves. But in another, we are all one. And this is not an either/or choice, but a “both/and.” As many mystics have said, you are already one with the world; it’s just a matter of realizing it. You all exist inside my brain and I exist in yours. You are all part of me, and I am a part of you. We are all connected together. As a friend of mine said once, “The human being has many bodies.” That’s a very different way of thinking, one that provides a very different and more unified perspective, and one that you might consider exploring, to find out where and when it could serve you. I have no idea whether it’s “true” or not, but if taking that perspective could be a useful choice for you, why not try it to find out?


We have been exploring the characteristics of both your internal and external boundaries. We have played with a number of different changes — expanding the boundary so that it’s farther away from your body to give you more warning of a possible intrusion, changing a digital, “all-or-none” boundary into a more analog one, adding or changing modalities and submodalities so that it can better protect you from what is difficult by making it tougher, thicker, or more resilient, etc.

Learning how to change boundaries allows you to make them more useful and effective in their positive function of protecting you from harm, while reducing or eliminating troublesome consequences. By learning how to change your boundaries, you can find out how they can best protect you in troublesome contexts, and how they can melt away or expand in safe and intimate ones. Whenever you find a change that works well for you, you can future-pace that change into the kinds of contexts where it will be useful. By imagining being in those contexts with that changed boundary, that will connect the two, so that the protection will automatically be there without your having to think about it.

Now that we have explored boundaries in some detail, I want to return to a topic that I mentioned at the beginning of this seminar as one of the important criteria for an effective self-concept — connection. Feeling disconnected from others results in many difficulties, not the least of which is self-importance, judging others, conflict, and violence. Because of this, I spoke about wanting your identity to connect you with your experience and your surroundings. In the next chapter I want to explore this topic of connection in greater detail.

(From Transforming Your Self; becoming who you want to be, Chapter 13, 2002)