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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Boundaries of Experience

by John Lawson 1996, 2010

    It is one of the ironies of human existence that freedom entails responsibility.  This is so, because actions have consequences.  The capacity to foresee the effects of our behavior and to evaluate the results of our past activities protects us from the dangers of blind impulsiveness.  We give thought to the meaning and direction of our deeds.  We take responsibility for what we do.  At the same time, inevitably, we both define and elaborate who we are.  Our sense of who we are, in turn, involves the recognition of who and what we are not.  This recognition is part of our awareness of ourselves as the agents of our own behavior.  Between the world at large and the world of our personal experience, there exists a boundary at which contact is made and felt.  It is in relation to this boundary that our individuality emerges and develops beyond a rudimentary level.  Many of the problems as well as much of the potential of human beings can be understood in terms of the importance of establishing satisfactory boundaries of personal experience.

    The potential for personal pleasure and the evolution of an individual identity depend on a strong sense of self.  We know who we are, because we feel ourselves to be distinct, specific beings.  The more deeply our experience is rooted in clear and potent sensations at a bodily level, the more secure is our stance in life.  With this security within ourselves, we participate more effectively in the world.  As human beings, we take in elements from the world, and we give aspects of ourselves to the world.  This is true emotionally and psychologically, just as it is true nutritionally.  If our boundaries are too rigid, we become fragmented, cut off, divided.  We may even come to view the world as nothing but a machine which must be manipulated.  Our personal experience then becomes like a “ghost in the machine," and our body becomes part of the mechanical world.  This way of looking at things is characteristic of the contemporary scientific view of the world, as many thoughtful commentators have noted.

    In contrast to a condition of excessive rigidity, our boundaries may be insufficiently firm and durable.  This results in a dimming of our sense of individuality.  It may become difficult for us to determine where we leave off and the world begins.  Certain drugs are known to have the effect of blurring or dissolving our awareness of our personal boundaries.  When our sense of self is blurred but present, coping with everyday reality becomes difficult owing to confusion.  As the word “confusion” (L. confusus: poured together) indicates, this problem is due to a lack of awareness of ourselves as separate, living persons.  We become “mixed up.” 

    The development of a solid sense of self is intimately rooted in the satisfaction of basic human needs during our early period of growth and development.  As so many studies have indicated, the newborn infant experiences a sense of self but does not have a clearly differentiated consciousness of self.  The baby’s experience of its own individuality unfolds as its needs are met by its parents.  A fundamental identification with natural bodily processes takes place in the context of loving attention to the child’s needs.  To be loved, held, nurtured, nursed, accepted, and supported are biological “expectations” of the baby.   Unqualified genuine affection and care are a birthright, an aspect of the mammalian heritage of the human youngster.  The early experience of the satisfaction of human needs is an instrumental part of the healthy development of the body and mind of the maturing child.  If all goes well, a strongly grounded sense of personal identity results.  Clear, solid, flexible, and stable boundaries of awareness and behavior are established.  One feels good about being oneself and being alive, being a boy or a girl, being a man or a woman.  This is as it should be.

    Unfortunately, such integrated awareness is rare in present cultural and social circumstances.  Pain and loneliness often displace pleasure and relatedness in the life of the child.  Roles differentiating mothers and fathers, once excessively rigid, have become indistinct.  Loss of emotional and physical contact with parents is commonplace.  Extreme degrees of disturbing exposure to television, video games, and a multiplicity of computer devices have become the norm.  The manifold consequences of the ongoing cultural disruption and distortion of childhood experience necessarily manifest themselves in the lives of the adults into whom children grow.

    The failure of adults to recognize and respond appropriately to the needs of children is an age-old problem which has been soberly and strikingly documented by Lloyd deMause in his introduction to The History of Childhood.  For the purpose of the present discussion, the point that requires emphasis is that the foundation for healthy personal boundaries is a genuinely supportive and coherent family environment where the basic needs of the growing person are met.  To the extent that such needs are not fulfilled, it is only to be expected that some degree of confusion and blurred identity will prevail.         

    The prevalence of disturbed personal boundaries has been addressed in contemporary psychoanalytic thinking, principally in terms of a discussion of narcissism, borderline personality organization, and disorders of the self.  No matter what the terminology employed in describing such conditions, a central factor is acknowledged to be a significant disturbance in the self-image of the individual.  In addition to the psychological aspect of the problem, there is also a somatic component; for the disturbance in the sense of self is rooted in the lack of a strong identification with one's body.  This lack of identification with one's embodied self is, in turn, a result of disturbances in breathing, motility, movement, and emotional vitality that, taken together, are part of the "armoring" of the human organism so aptly described by Wilhelm Reich.*

    Given the prevalence of disturbed child rearing practices in the context of a cultural order that is alienated from and antithetical to the true needs of the individual, it is to be expected that work promoting genuine personal growth and the establishment of a firm sense of self will require substantial clarification of the blurred and confused aspects of an individual's self-image.  Integral to this process is work to ground the individual in the life of the body.  This means bringing the overly charged mental life of the individual down to earth, connecting the head with the rest of the body.  Given the force of resistance to such a venture at both a characterological and a cultural level, doing this represents a challenge.  It is, however, the healthy challenge of deepening one's personal experience and fostering more energetic and meaningful contact with the world.

* See Lawson, J. "The Reality of the Body" and "The Embodied Self."  Both articles are available at

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