Boundaries and Personality Disorders

The experience of working with the normal development of boundaries informed my work with more deeply troubled people. People suffering from personality disorders seemed especially to display similar patterns of emotional transaction with their workers as was characteristic of some maddening experiences with adolescents. Where helping services are not yet equipped to handle such behaviours, rejection of the client can seem the only option, and such rejection often seemed to be courted by the troubled individual.

So every probation office from time to time has to deal with individuals who seem to operate by deliberately intimidating the staff. The intimidation is not quite planned – it is different from the kind of intimidation you might associate with a professional and dangerous criminal. The level of fear and urgency generated can be about a relatively trivial matter – enough money to buy a cup of tea (or a beer or two) – but the emotional intensity generated is disproportionate. Sometimes what is transferred is a kind of chaos. I recall a particularly disordered probationer who was dropped at the office in her pyjamas to see her probation officer. A taxi driver delivered her and left without ado, no doubt afraid that he would be asked to take the lady on a return trip. Her arrival prompted a kind of frightened excitement in the office, and generated in the probation officer a sense of helplessness, all no doubt reflecting the woman’s inner experience that she could only express through this behaviour. Certainly, she could not talk about how she felt, and could only cry and ask for impossible things.

I came to think that this combination of intense feelings about which there was no insight or possibility of sensible discussion, with primitive anger, distress and fear that welled up in me as the worker, was especially characteristic of some disordered cases – it was a diagnostic observation about the nature of personality disorder. Sometimes it was observable as an extreme case but at other times it could be a more subtle component of one’s experience of a client.

I interviewed a man in Grendon prison that seemed to me to illustrate this less extreme phenomenon. He was relatively articulate and seemed reflective in describing his crimes. He was serving a sentence for a series of rapes, committed when breaking into people’s homes. He was frank and detailed in his description of how they took place, or at least apparently so. They always took place at night and he described how he would walk the streets in the quietness of the night. He painted a vivid picture of the sense of peace and security that he would find in these solitary wanderings. During those walks, he would see an opportunity to get into a home and commit the offences.

I came away from the interview in a strange state of mind, almost haunted by the image he had conjured up of streets, domestic housing and the night time sounds, and of this solitary man wrapped in the comfort of his isolation. I realised that this experience of night time solitude had an erotic charge for the man, but the behaviour he described was brutal and aggressive almost as if he had to fight against his softer feelings and counter them by predatory actions.


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