Updated: Sep 3
I am running late and whirling through the supermarket at, what feels like 100mph. I grab the essentials and sprint for the checkout. I join a queue and pretend to wait patiently for for my turn. I deliberately keep my distance from the woman directly in front of me as I don’t want them to feel pressured, even though I am in a desperate hurry. That’s when I feel a presence at my back and deduce that someone has joined the queue behind me. An arm snakes silently past and swiftly grabs a ‘next customer’ spacer whilst a cold basket corner digs me sharply in the kidneys as the owner of the arm smiles apologetically. I am immediately on edge and feel my hackles rise. My body stiffens and I aim my elbows outwards in a vain attempt to take up as much physical space as humanly possible.
Yet, I say nothing. I act slowly and deliberately as I attempt to make the basket owner understand that they are just too close for comfort. My head is screaming ‘YOU’RE TOO CLOSE…BACK OFF!’, yet I still say nothing. I simply carry on unloading my shopping, feeling angrier and more annoyed by the second. My personal space has been completely invaded and my physical boundaries have been well and truly crossed.
I leave the shop in a state of anxiousness and more wound up than when I arrived. It is still late, I am still running late, and I am now tense and primed with adrenaline. I feel stressed and continue my journey with a head full of rage, all targeted towards the unknown arm snaking, basket bashing, space invader.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a boundary as ‘a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something’ and when it comes to our personal physical space, we all have a fairly clear idea of where our own boundaries lie. The notion of physical territory has been an intriguing subject of study across the animal kingdom throughout the centuries, with the term proxemics introduced in the 1960s by the anthropologist Edward Hall (1966, p.1) to describe the ‘interrelated observations and theories of man's use of space as a specialised elaboration of culture’. In the course of his work examining interpersonal distances, Hall (1966, p.113-129) identified four zones concentric zones that described the varying degrees of intimacy he witnessed when observing human relationships:
Hall (1963) noted that the acceptable boundaries for each spatial zone differed according to factors such as culture, nationality and gender, but recognised that regardless of inevitable difference, individuals shared the same annoyance and discomfort experienced when someone else consciously or unconsciously strays into an unacceptable level of personal space. For example, Hall (1963, p.1004) asked:
“Why is it, for example, that an American’ who is approached too closely by a foreigner will feel annoyed? Why is it that the discomfiture often fails to pass when he gets to know the culture better, in spite of conscious striving to suppress these feelings? Why do these interferences commonly last a lifetime, and why do people take this sort of interference so personally?”
It was not too difficult to see that this theory could explain my reaction to the invasion of my space at the supermarket checkout! Although it did also lead me to question why, if we know these zones and boundaries exist, do we remain reluctant to verbalise them and be clear about them, particularly when others transgress over our acceptable boundary lines? My exploration around the physical spaces then opened up my questioning and thinking around how this can equally apply for our less obvious psychological boundaries.
The term ‘boundary’ has been considered a key concept in the field of counselling and psychotherapy since the 1990s (Smith et al, 2012). Yet, despite frequent use of the term within these fields, there does not appear to be one singularly agreed definition (Blundell, 2017, p.13). Despite this lack of clarity as regards a definition, there are, however, numerous ‘boundary models’ (for example Hartmann, 1997; Ashforth et al, 2000; Hartmann, 2011; Carey, 2016) that can be applied to counselling practice. In my trawl of the literature it was evident that different authors view boundaries from different theoretical standpoints, which, given that we all have unique perspectives on the world, is arguably not surprising. The upside of this variance and lack of consistency was a striking sense that I could freely explore this subject and evolve my own reflections on this complex and intriguing area.
As I conversed with friends, mentees, peers and other connections during this period, I found that the broad topic of boundaries kept recurring at various levels. N.B. I did acknowledge the possibility of ‘confirmation bias’ being at play somewhere here. I am, however, convinced that there is a growing need for us all to develop more effective ways of creating and maintaining our own psychological (and perhaps physical) boundaries in order to sustain healthier, more nourishing relationships. Reflections such as those below, from individuals with whom I have worked, served to reinforce my growing theory that there is much to be gained from becoming better at defining, understanding and communicating our own personal boundaries.
‘I really care about my athletes and tell them they can call me anytime, whenever they need.’
‘I work from home and never feel like I switch off. I just don’t know where to draw the line.’
'I don’t feel like I can ever say ‘no’ to my mum.’
‘I feel like my colleagues are taking advantage of me as they just assume I will always stay late if needed because I don’t have children’.
As I delved deeper, it appeared that the feelings triggered by someone invading your personal physical space applied equally to times when your psychological space is compromised. What intrigued me, however, was that whereas physical spaces are largely obvious and understood (albeit often not talked about), psychological spaces exist only in our minds and often on an unconscious level. Frequently, the first time we notice that a hidden boundary has been crossed are when we experience feelings of discomfort, frustration, stress or tension; just like when a physical boundary has been broken.
Going back to Hall’s early work on proxemics, I overlaid his concepts onto boundary theories from the wider fields of psychology, counselling and psychotherapy in my quest to explore my growing curiosity. There was something compelling about linking these two areas of work, and the more I explored, the more intrigued I became. The whole area of boundaries felt like an ambiguous and complex concept with a vast range of theoretical perspectives, and yet my research led me towards a relatively simple conclusion.
With the ancient Greek aphorism of ‘know thyself’ ringing in my ears, my overwhelming sense was that in order to identify and maintain our own boundaries, we first have to work out what it is that lies within our psychological space and why these things matter. After all, if we don’t know where we begin (physically, psychologically and metaphorically), how can we possibly know how to protect our ‘space’ and avoid unwanted encroachment into our territory?
‘Me, My Space and I: the art of crafting effective boundaries’ is a reflective workshop that further explores the concepts and issues raised in this article. The sessions intend to provide you with time and space to remind yourself about the important things in your life what it is you really value. They will also present the opportunity to think about the connections between your values, behaviours and boundaries and encourage you to consider how you can better communicate your own boundaries with those around you in your quest to sustain positive and effective relationships in all aspects of your life.
To talk more about this subject, or to book a workshop...drop me an email (email@example.com) or give me a call - +44 (0) 7967 722702
Ashforth, B.E., Kreiner, G.E. and Fugate, M. (2000) All in a day’s work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. The Academy of Management Review, 25(3): 472-491
Blundell, P.J. (2017) The concept of ‘Boundary’ within the field of counselling. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Manchester Metropolitan University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Carey, T.A. (2016) Boundaries: A pluralistic perspective and illustrative case study of the patient-led approach to appointment scheduling. In. Cooper, M. and Dryden, W. (Eds.), The handbook of pluralistic counselling and psychotherapy. London: SAGE Publications
Cristani, M., Paggetti, G., Vinciarelli, A., Bazzani, L., Menegaz, G. and Murino, V. (2011) Towards Computational Proxemics: Inferring Social Relations from Interpersonal Distances. IEEE Third International Conference on Privacy, Security, Risk and Trust and IEEE Third International Conference on Social Computing. Boston, MA, 2011, pp. 290-297
Hall, E.T. (1963) A system for the notation of proxemic behaviour. American anthropologist, 65(5): 1003–1026
Hall, E.T. (1966) The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books
Hartmann, E. (1997) The concept of boundaries in counselling and psychotherapy. British
Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 25(2): 147-162
Hartmann, E. (2011) Boundaries: A new way to look at the world. California: CIRCC EverPress
Hermansson, G. (1997) Boundaries and boundary management in counselling: The never-ending story. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. 25(2): 133-146
Smith, V., Collard, P., Nicholson, P. and Bayne, R. (2012) Key concepts in counselling and psychotherapy: A critical A-Z guide to theory. Maidenhead: Open University Press