Permeable Boundaries

This idea of the ‘reflection process’ had taken me away from thinking of boundaries as a fixed feature of individuality, but to recognise that boundaries between people are flexible, and permeated with ‘holes’ such that quite subtle feelings and influences could move back and forth between people. Indeed it was these exchanges that made relationships of such interest. Looking at the ‘boring’ client, it was then possible to see that he might be a person whose boundaries seemed to lack that permeability or flexibility. From the client’s point of view, they may be facing the feeling that to give anything away would undermine their sense of self. The lack of permeability could then be extreme for some such that maintaining a fragile individuality was only possible if all kinds of potentially disturbing personal material (including memories – see later discussion of attachment theory) were shut away and kept inaccessible.

This notion of permeable boundaries fitted with how I was understanding the world. Winnicott’s idea when he  said: ‘There is no such thing as an infant’, meaning, of course, that whenever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant’; Jordan’s formulation of working relationships as ‘transactions’; both these ideas involved an understanding of boundaries between people being permeable. It fitted too with my experience as a manager later in my career. I at one stage took over the line management of a middle manager from a colleague who warned me that the middle manager was a real problem. I found him to be in many ways excellent and worked successfully with him for a few years. He then had to return to work for the colleague who had found him difficult and problematic he turned out to be. We can make judgments about individuals when what we are seeing is actually a transaction between the individual and their environment, in which people are not islands sufficient unto themselves but organisms that interact and are affected by their environment.

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