Boundaries & Boundary Disturbances
How should born-again, Bible-believing Christians view the self? Is the self the lowest and most narcissistic part of you, or is it simply your basic personhood? In this article I will be using "the self" to refer to our basic personhood, who you are as an individual in distinction from everyone else.
How does the self relate with others or the environment, and where is the boundary line distinguishing the two? What could "boundary disturbances" mean? Does God's Word address these themes that seemingly have become the exclusive property of Secular Psychology? How should the born-again community view the psychological sciences?
Secular Psychology & God's Word
There are aspects of Secular Psychology that are not Biblical, some even anti-Biblical (usually the philosophical and ideological realms). There are aspects of Secular Psychology that are neither conclusively right nor conclusively wrong (usually the theoretical constructs, hypotheses yet to be proven or disproven). There are aspects related to medical diagnoses, which may be accurate as far as pinpointing, naming, and classifying symptoms, but may be partially or totally wrong (or unconcerned altogether) on the truest sources of mental disturbance, which Scripture focuses on (see Isaiah 1:5,6, 61:1-3, James 5:16, or verses describing levels of demonization).
Then there are the aspects that I, as a professional Christian counselor, love and appreciate: the practical, applied, research-driven aspects. These demonstrate, through ongoing studies and iterations of tweaking, that a certain psychology concept or construct is empirically true. These aspects often corroborate God's Word with fascinating detail and color, though the vocabulary may be different (ancient vs modern, vernacular vs scholastic). One such example is Gestalt Psychology's articulation of the self, the environment, boundaries, and boundary disturbances.
NOTE 1: This is not an endorsement of every single aspect of Gestalt Psychology. It is a field of study with numerous subjects and nuances not discussed here.
NOTE 2: I will use both Gestalt and Biblical vocabularies. I thoroughly enjoy Gestalt's linguistics, and the final authority is the Word of God.
You are not a hollow, soulless automaton dispensing hollow, soulless automated worship to an egomaniacal micromanaging deity. You were designed in the very image of a Being who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnitemporal, omnimoral, omnibenevolent. That necessarily implies that you, too, are a creature of real personal substance, an individual with individuality, sentient and intelligent, emotional and sensorial, a living soul, a true self. Genesis 2:7 (KJV): And the LORD God formed man...and man became a living soul. Psalm 139:14 (HCSB): I will praise You because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well.
Misguided Christianity's Destruction of the Self
There are individuals and groups in contemporary Christianity that, in their effort to oppose sin and self-centeredness in the church, or in overstating the sovereignty of God, go further than is Biblical and healthy in addressing the self. For all practical purposes, they destroy the idea of the self. Instead of insightfully differentiating the sinful parts of the self from a Christian's basic personhood, they sloppily clump it all together. They essentially advocate for a type of asceticism (in their opposition to sin) and roboticism (in overstating the sovereignty of God).
This is merely another maggot-filled fruit from the spiritually sick tree of legalism--what I like to call "grueling moralism"--where the non-sinful interests of one's personality and the non-sinful happinesses of life are somehow torched and scorched along with what is genuinely sinful. These Christians reek with a joyless and grouchy stench. They struggle to laugh, struggle to relax, struggle to love. They have not yet learned that the Son of Man did not come to destroy the basic personhood of the individual and automate it into a robotic, soulless non-self. They have not yet learned that He came to redeem the total creature a person is through the born-again experience. He came to regenerate it, renew it, heal it, transform it, rebalance it, and set it apart as a vessel of honor useful to Him.
Where the Church Fails the World Prevails
Where the ekklesia fails, the secular world prevails. By providing a worldview and safehaven that values the basic self, secular psychology has prevailed in therapeutic realms where the church is still behind, still broken emotionally, still frustrated in relationships, bleeding members, and wondering why.
The Self & The Environment
Eventually a person has to engage the environment, i.e., other people and social systems. We exist in a macrosystem (society and world) of several billion people, an exosystem (our immediate community) of several hundred, a mesosystem (our vocational and recreational sphere) of several dozen, and a microsystem (family and closest relationships) of a few. When a person engages the environment, when the self touches the boundary of reality outside himself, Gestalt psychology refers to this as contact. How a person goes about this contact, how they manage the contact boundary, determines how healthy they will be emotionally, mentally, socially, and certainly spiritually. This segues us into the critical subject of boundaries, another theme heavily addressed in both the psychological sciences and God's Word.
God's Word repeatedly addresses the issue of personal boundaries. Clear red lines. No-fly zones. Private property. Restricted access zones. Trust-earning checkpoints. Making people prove their motives. Easing into relationships and social systems.
Proverbs 4:23 words it like this (HCSB): Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life. Psalm 48:12,13 describe the walls and watchpoints protecting Zion (NASB): Walk around Zion and encircle her; count her towers; consider her ramparts...
Lest you think only God's beloved mount should have fortifications, Solomon applies the imagery to people in Proverbs 25:28 (Young's Literal): A city broken down without walls, [Is] a man without restraint over his spirit!
Jesus made His personal boundaries so clear that John took note in John 2:24,25 (HCSB): Jesus, however, would not entrust Himself to them, since He knew them all and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man.
Read also Mark 3:20,21,31-35. See how Jesus would not let His own mother and brothers micromanage Him. He simply ignored them and continued ministering, even mildly rebuking them by redefining what true family is (v31-35).
With Windows & Gates
On the other hand, the Word says our walls need windows and gates so individuals and dynamics that are good can get in. Solomon wrote a proverb about a person in unhealthy isolation, a literal recluse or an emotional recluse (someone who never lets people in to their deeper levels). Proverbs 18:1 (HCSB): One who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound judgment.
Genesis 2:18 says it is not good for man to be alone, and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 is one of the most imaginative scriptures about having close, trusting, safe relationships with others who walk diligently with God. In the New Testament, Galatians 6:2 says (HCSB), Carry one another's burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. No one can carry your burdens with you if you do not show them what you are really carrying.
City Walls with Windows & Gates
What is the conclusion, then? God's Word absolutely commands boundaries. Yet, like many things in life, those boundaries need both firmness and flexibility. They must be steely enough to rebuff unapproved encroachment from the environment (independence), and, they must be ventilated enough to give chances to people or situations that make good impressions on us (interdependence). In other words, city walls with windows and gates.
Seven Boundary Disturbances
When the boundary balance in our life is interrupted or reconfigured, or was always configured wrongly, this is what Gestalt studies call boundary disturbance. I like that term because it is indeed a disturbance, and it disturbs much more than just the boundary. Proper contact with the environment, which is necessary for learning and growth and certain layers of happiness and even divine purpose, is hindered or blocked altogether. There are seven well-studied boundary manipulations, each derived from how you as a person are metabolizing or not metabolizing the elements around you.
I will not provide applicational responses. The Holy Spirit will illuminate those to you as you commune with Him through this knowledge.
Vernacular: melting into the environment, group, or person
Unhealthy: codependency, lack of individuation, extreme complicity, group pathology
Healthy: intimacy and oneness, intense empathy, depth sex
Confluence is when a person has entirely or mostly fused with the environment or an aspect of it. The unhealthy version of confluence, which is dizzyingly common, manifests as codependency, lack of individuation, extreme complicity, believing and trusting too easily, etc. There is little or no boundary, it has been dissolved or blurred into irrelevance or never existed to begin with. Group pathologies--like mob frenzies, cults, or controlling families--are manifestations of confluence. Unhealthy confluence leads to paralysis, whereby the person is not free or willing to act independently when they need to. Proverbs 25:28 says (NKJV), Whoever has no rule over his own spirit [lets anything and everything in] is like a city broken down, without walls.
The healthy version of confluence manifests as deep emotional intimacy and oneness, which so few people experience with another person, even less with a group. Notice the idea of confluence in 1Samuel 20:17 (NKJV): Now Jonathan again caused David to vow, because he loved him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
In healthy confluent relationships a boundary still exists, but it is understandably thin or may exist only in this or that area (financial boundaries, bathroom boundaries, sexual boundaries, off-limit topics, etc.). Moments of intense empathy are moments of healthy confluence, like Jesus being "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Heb 4:15 KJV) or "when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled" (Jn 11:33 NASB). Depth sex--sex that is not body-only, but galvanizes the deeper selves of both persons into a zone of total oneness--is a form of healthy confluence.
Vernacular: taking something in superficially and tentatively
Unhealthy: disowning the self and role-playing
Healthy: genuine identity search, other legitimate practical reason
Introjection is when a person takes in and imitates something from the environment, but only superficially and tentatively. (Taking in something fully and indefinitely would be confluence.) A person does this mockingbird mechanism because (A) they are disowning major parts of themselves, and therefore, must prop up an alternate personality merely playing a role, or (B) they are experimenting because they are genuinely and knowingly searching for who they really are (which can be healthy and useful as long as that experimenting is not against anything in Scripture), or (C) they have a good practical reason. The boundary, therefore, is disabled only superficially and tentatively, pending the deeper reason for the introjection.
Since A and B are fairly self-explanatory (you can email me with questions), I will focus on C. What are some good practical reasons to introject, to superficially and tentatively disable the boundary line so as to provisionally take in a new element?
One would have to introject constantly to survive in today's North Korea. Not being exuberant enough about Kim Jong-un's nuclear program, or not singing his flatteries like a loyal mockingbird, could lead to a date with the barrel of an 88 millimeter gun. Good reason for the self to disable the boundary, superficially and tentatively, until you could escape.
In studying and communicating the vast assortment of subjects that I do, I have to learn, memorize, recall, and explain a titanic amount of material. I do not totally and soulfully accept every detail of what I study (if it contradicts Scripture, if it has not been proven yet empirically, etc.), but I still have to be fluent in the material because it is somehow relevant or auxiliary to my messages from the Holy Spirit. Similarly, think of a college student learning biology or literature or history only to get a good grade and graduate. They have superficially and tentatively disabled the boundary line to merely mockingbird what the course requires.
Vernacular: turning back onto the self what should be externalized
Unhealthy: unwarranted internalization, stuffing, self-sufficiency
Healthy: when externalizing would be wrong or dangerous
Retroflection is when a person turns back onto the self what should be directed onto the environment or some aspect of it. It turns inward what should be turned outward. Here the boundary is not dissolved as in confluence or temporarily disabled as in introjection, but is retracted inward.
The most common unhealthy retroflection is "stuffing"--things we really need to say and should say but do not, resulting in our own torment. Other forms of unhealthy retroflection are functionally identical to stuffing. Not acting on positive relational or romantic desires for fear of rejection, then overeating or getting drunk instead. A self-mutilator harming themselves instead of confronting the true object of their distress. Self-sufficiency or hyperindependence, as noble as it sounds on the surface, is a retroflective perversion of healthy independence; we need the environment and the good individuals, setups, and resources in it. Masturbation is a retroflection of the two-way sexual intimacy God intended for man and woman (Gen 2:24,25, 1Co 7:3-5).
Retroflection can be healthy when externalizing is clearly wrong or clearly unsafe. This is where our relationship with the Lord becomes so amazingly therapeutic. For example, it may not be wise or possible to confront your past abuser, or talk back to the North Korean Gestapo, or vomit adult emotions on minor children, or flirt with a married person, etc. Consequently, you would have to retract (retroflect) those emotions and words back to yourself, but then pour them out to the Lord for healing and recovery (Isa 61:1-3). They can also be shared with a godly counselor or a Christian ahead of you spiritually (Jas 5:16).
Vernacular: distraction, diversion
Unhealthy: blocking a genuine encounter
Healthy: when a genuine encounter is not safe or wise
Deflection might be the easiest boundary disturbance to understand. We see it easily and often. It is when a person changes the subject, answers questions not asked, talks on and on without getting to the nerve center, talks like an infomercial, struggles with eye contact, is too polite instead of honest, cannot receive gifts graciously, etc. It is the supernice chatty person who talks like spring flowers, who seemingly will do anything for you, but consistently deflects a genuine soul-to-soul (self-to-self) encounter.
Gestalt psychology uses the funny but insightful term aboutism to describe how people talk about things or about others or about themselves without directly, honestly, vulnerably, meaningfully engaging the other person. The Pharisees did this constantly toward God (Jn 5:37-40), and many Christians today do it too. They talk about God and about the Word and about someone else's experience and about so-n-so's ministry and about conservative politics...without directly, honestly, vulnerably, transformatively engaging His presence themselves. Deflecting His presence with aboutism. Deflecting other people with aboutism. The boundary is intact, is covered with nice flowers, but has no windows or gates.
There are times, however, when a genuine encounter with someone is not safe or wise. Deflecting someone's attempt at connection might be the only opt-out tactic. For example, if someone is attempting to court you repeatedly, and you have already said No plenty of times, and this person is your co-worker or someone you cannot entirely avoid, eventually you have to start deflecting, or at worst, ignoring. The same idea is true for people who are pushy. Opening up and connecting with them the way they want may not be smart. You will have to learn how to pivot quick and deflect in creative ways.
Vernacular: attributing to others what is really in us
Unhealthy: biases, sentimental objects, hostile polemics, hypocrisy
Healthy: music, art, self-aware ministry
Projection is another boundary disturbance any thoughtful person can quickly spot. In projection, a person disowns or is unaware of a part of themselves, yet they cast that part away from themselves onto the environment or an aspect of it. People project most often onto two canvasses, other individuals or large systems. In the projection moment the boundary line is expanded instantly and aggressively as far away as possible from the self, but only temporarily.
Biases and prejudices (of all types) are often projections. Sentimental trinkets, objects, tattoos, even places, can be projections. Christian preachers with low self-awareness and low inner wholeness project continually in their messages. How often a preacher constantly picks on a certain sin, only to later be exposed for living in that same sin in private. One distinct example comes to mind: a famous TV preacher who was clinically obese, yet often forcefully shouted the phrase "fat cats" at sinners in Hollywood and Washington. To his credit, that particular preacher lost all that weight and seems healthier now.
Do not misunderstand, however: avoiding projection and hypocrisy does not mean we leaders should never correct, rebuke, and admonish boldly. We should, we must, we are commanded to (Tit 2:15, 2Ti 4:2). The takeaway is that we are to have ever-increasing self-awareness and humility so that we do not hypocritically project our own issues onto the church.
Can projection be healthy or useful? Yes and Yes. Musicians and artists often thrust their inner world onto the canvass of their work. Some of the best songs ever composed were intentional projections coming from deep, rich, raw places inside. Even if the artist did not write the lyrics, you can still hear the emotional projections in how they sing the lyrics. In ministry, if we pinpoint and humbly own our growth points, we can project them publicly in a productive way to help others grow in the same areas, whether by writing, speaking, or tactically-narrowed intercession.
Vernacular: narcissism, unilateralism, self-aggrandizement, conquest, full control
Unhealthy: micromanagers, cult leaders, rabble-rousers, totalitarians
Imposition, also called egotism in Gestalt, is the most aggressive and diseased boundary disturbance. In the projection moment the boundary is expanded instantly and aggressively, but only temporarily, until the projection moment is over. In imposition the boundary is ever-expanding aggressively and is not retracted. This is why it is more commonly called egotism.
Remember #1, confluence? In (unhealthy) confluence, the environment swallows the person and the person loses individuality and autonomy. In imposition, it is the reverse: the person swallows the environment and forms it in his/her image. In group pathologies like controlling families, cults, totalitarian states, and mob frenzies, both confluence and imposition are manifesting simultaneously. The people being swallowed up are manifesting confluence, while the narcissist at the top is manifesting imposition.
What makes imposition so dark and diseased is that mutuality is obliterated. There is little or no dialogue, little or no co-creation. O thou egotist, what if someone else has pieces you are missing? Information and ideas you need? Emotions well-fitted to heal your soul's blackholes? Like Nebuchadnezzar soon found out (Dan 4), like the confluent followers of egotists soon find out, egotism is literally a form of insanity, not to mention the form of idolatry that resembles Satan himself the most.
Vernacular: withdrawing, hiding
Unhealthy: physical recluse, emotional recluse
Healthy: temporary spiritual retreat
Proverbs 18:1 (HCSB): One who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound judgment.
Isolation is tricky. Most people only recognize physical isolation, a recluse, but emotional isolation is a recluse hiding in plain sight. Do you know individuals who are socially active, but emotionally walled off and do not let anyone in? I know plenty, some are in ministry leadership. A physical or emotional recluse avoids real encounters and moments of truth with others. Willing self-alienation. Willing imprisonment of the God-given self. Like deflection, in isolation the boundary has no windows or gates. While the deflector pivots away quickly from overtures to genuine encounter, the isolator withdraws so as to avoid the environment entirely. The emotional isolator who is socially active is almost identical to the deflector. One difference would be the emotional isolator tries to avoid individuals and situations where a genuine encounter might happen. The deflector would not avoid those, but would simply keep deflecting, diverting, distracting.
Isolation is the polar opposite extreme of confluence. In confluence, the person is swallowed up by the environment (another person, family, group, system, whatever), resulting in the loss of individuality and autonomy. In isolation, the person has withdrawn entirely, physically or emotionally, so as to eliminate meaningful contact with the environment and anyone and anything in it.
Can isolation ever be healthy? Yes. Think temporary spiritual retreats to detox from people, heal inwardly, dig into God in an intensified way, and experience game-changing revelations from Him. Moses did this on Sinai, Elijah did this at Cherith (1Ki 17:2-7), David did this in the wilderness (Ps 55:7,8), John the Baptist did this in the wilderness (Lk 1:80), Jesus did this in desolate wilderness places (Lk 5:16), Paul did this in the Arabian desert (Gal 1:17).