Personal Boundaries: The Only Factor that Makes Social Media "Toxic”
The mechanics of personal boundaries may offer solutions to our dismal public discourse.
I couldn’t get the song out of my head: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love…” by Dionne Warwick.
I found that I unconsciously kept substituting the word “boundaries” for “love” in my head, and I wasn’t sure why.
This made me stop, sit up and snap out of the moment—because although boundaries aren’t characterized as “sweet,” it is true that the world needs a deeper understanding of the invisible world they inhabit.
At least if we want to have better conversations.
I have been spending some time isolated for the purpose of writing about character pathology. It has been a cold winter, and this one has been very long. People are to the point of cruelty to each other on Twitter, and I can’t stand reading it anymore. It’s just so contrary to creativity and bringing people together in a way where new discoveries and insights are possible in our “discourse.”
Still, I couldn’t help wondering why I was I singing this song in my head, or why I was thinking about the technical aspects of personal boundaries instead of “love, sweet love.”
I stopped and noticed what a strange association it was.
I concluded that the world may need more love, but it will never get it without first growing better boundaries.
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Having taught the topic of personal boundaries in my medical practice for over twenty-five years, I’ve become convinced that boundary dysfunction is behind every controversy, conflict, or discourteous interaction between public figures we encounter in today’s headlines.
It’s what is operating between strangers when we get into dark little squabbles on social media.
I’d even dare say that dysfunction of personal boundaries is behind all civic strife, prejudice, abuse, offense, feuds, divorces, and just about every sociological malady today or throughout history.
That’s a grand statement to make, but with some in-depth study of this core function of human character virtue, we may discover it to be true. Underneath layer after layer of social discord, personal trauma, or collective grievance, misunderstandings—great and small—happen between people because of personal boundaries.
We would do better working together than alone if only we could get a handle on boundaries.
If only we could literally see them.
Understanding boundaries may explain much of the world’s ills, and therefore—from a psychological sense—what to do about them.
Ironically, there has been very little research or publication about boundaries to date, perhaps partly because academics and laypeople tend to learn and teach psychology through the spoken word, the “talking cure,” rather than envision boundaries in the mind eye.
The ever-popular book by Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries, is laden with too much spirituality for some readers. Then there are more philosophical articles that offer general techniques for learning and applying boundaries, some examples being a 2019 cover story in Psychology Today—with an accompanying blog post by Sara Eckel (The Power of Boundaries)—academic research such as that by Chad Buck, Ph.D. (Establishing Effective Personal Boundaries) or educational theory such as that by S.A. Akkerman (Learning at Boundaries.)
Still, no definitive theory or universal model exists on what exactly personal boundaries are, how they square with brain anatomy, circuitry, or function, and most importantly, what universal human commonalities there are pertaining to boundaries.
Compounding things, their very nature—when bent out of shape, or poorly formed in the first place, or later, damaged by trauma—boundaries cause us to see each other (and ourselves) inaccurately. When dysfunctional enough, it can be like navigating around a series of funhouse mirrors to find friendship, teamwork, or love.
All because of boundaries.
Why don’t we explore doing something about this? I hope to convince you that we can learn to “see” them as easily as a circle can be drawn. In that case, we might just find a way to help people live less stressful lives with more vibrant, collaborative, and less contentious public discourse.
I’m going to assert that there are universal principles and functions that boundaries possess.
We’ll see a range in each of these functions—from more imbalanced, inaccurate, and faulty in navigating the world to smooth in operation, precise, and powerful for finding success in career and richer friendships. Not the least importance of which is finding a better life through romantic love.
Boundaries are not at “the core” of the self but protect that core and everything else associated with it. They help us contain, retain and budget our social resources, defending them from harm or theft. They are the border over which we negotiate terms of interaction and association with others and with society itself.
What is their impact on society?
Is it measurable?
If we could measure boundaries objectively, how may they be improved and enriched with virtue?
To what ends would doing so result for us all?
Around the eighties and nineties, the term “boundaries” was often referred to in the literature that used to be called “self-help.”
I consumed much of that material while my formal studies offered lessons on Self Psychology and the founders of that model, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, in their elegant studies of narcissism.
At the time, there seemed to me to be an evident correlation between the notion of the “boundary problems” of “self-help” inherent in the more formal principles of narcissism and its most impaired, dysfunctional form, pathological narcissism.
I couldn’t find any formal research on the topic of boundaries then—though mainstream writers and therapists talked about them all the time—so I found myself taking to “drawing boundaries” as circle figures for patients, asking them about their difficulties with family, friends, lovers, dates, and spouses.
Today, I find it interesting that many decades after the innovative models introduced by Self Psychology, the topics of “narcissism” and its seeming opposite, “emotional intelligence” are all the rage today in journalism, science writing, and every manner of personal and occupational blogs. References to narcissism and emotional intelligence are everywhere and in every field, as there appears to be something very compelling about both to today’s readers.
Perhaps that is because the greater or lesser degrees of narcissism that Kohut posited to be inherent in all of us have grown and spread as a contagion.
There appears to be a parallel with the modern decline of what used to counter narcissism—the character virtues demanded by religion and taught by philosophers that are today rebranded as “emotional intelligence,” a synonym for such virtues and the mature ego defenses that mediate them.
None of us likes to be talked down to nor to have our immaturity pointed out to us, and so some of the old terminology used in the history of medicine and psychology—character vices, regression, developmental arrest, immaturity and others—have fallen out of favor. To speak to others in these terms, and in a heavy-handed way would be to use projection, accusing others of flaws while unconscious to our own.
That is the error of the expert possessed by hubris.
Nonetheless, if the pathology of the personal boundary naturally creates interpersonal confusion, or misunderstanding, it would make sense that one needs to address the pathology, heal it, or at least transcend it into a more successful and loving life (which I believe solid boundaries provide us all.)
Narcissism is, then, today’s euphemism for “immaturity” (or low character), while “emotional intelligence” is today’s euphemism for “maturity” (or high character.)
The spectrum between the two is as old as our species, and its stories of narcissistic monsters and virtuous heroes have always guided our ascent from low to high character in the folklore that has always taught societies about narcissism and its antidotes.
For us to effectively learn about the discord of social media, politics, or any personal or sociological ill, it would serve us to start “seeing” the personal boundary as a visual construct that we can see in our mind’s eye when we interact in person, or electronically, from afar.
What we learn may start to explain what can make the youth so despondent with heavy social media use, and adults so divided and jaded about what’s possible in our discourse over any media.
The Visual Meaning of a Boundary
The meaning of the word “mandala” in sanskrit is a “circle.”
I use a circle in diagrams of boundaries, their various operational parts, and also their functions among which are the Primitive, Immature, Neurotic, and Mature Ego Defenses or “defense mechanisms.”
The mandala is a symbol of the universe in its ideal form, and drawing one is meant to signify the transformation of suffering into a universe of joy. To those who practice meditation or yoga—as I have for many years—the mandala, or “circle,” is meant to help the practitioner envision how to achieve the perfect self.
Well, I’m not there yet, and neither are you.
That’s the point.
A straight line has a beginning and an end, but a circle is also a line, isn’t it?
Yes. Only it never ends as you keep drawing it. Your pen just keeps changing position, and time passes as it does, just like we continue to grow, learning interpersonal lessons all our lives.
Part of the beauty of a visual depiction of a boundary is that it has an interior “universe”—which is you, the Self. It has an exterior—the “world” or all the challenges, threats and opportunities you face. And it is the shield, like a wall against the harmful aspects of the outside, a door that may also open to the opportunity that must be invited in when it knocks.
Unfortunately, until we learn to grow and operate such “doors” in it, we at first have primitive features in it, like “holes” that let anything in or out, both good and bad.
At the surface of that structure, there is chaos in our lives.
Here is a simple diagram of a personal boundary, out of thousands I have stored for teaching purposes:
If there were a perfect personal boundary it would bounce every stress off of us like a shield would do.
It would perfectly contain and protect our psychological resources—our self-esteem that may be injured, our beliefs, education, experiences and life’s story, and above all our volition, or “free will” to make choices.
Including that which determines what we think, say, believe, feel or express. Some of our many resources along with our physical body, our property and money, and our alliances and friendships.
It might then make sense to you how the visual image of a mandala helps those who meditate—a solid surface that is smooth and circular—the perfect “universe” and peaceful, successful, happy life we would all wish for. No “holes in the boundary.”
It seems that for us to understand personal boundaries at a level at which individual change may occur, enough people spreading what they learn to those they interact with might lead to more productive discourse over time.
However, there would need to be a comprehensive visual way of learning and teaching personal boundaries' intricate and complex functions.
Computers, social media, and the internet are no longer communicated over in DOS. We have GUIs, Graphic User Interfaces and respond more to visual imagery than ever. So we need psychology to get more visually graphic, too.
I hope we begin doing so with this article and those to come.
If maladies of the personal boundary are the singular root cause of our most desperate challenges as a society—then the notion that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not just an interesting approach but mandatory for us to make a path toward solutions to our public discord.
The Ego Defenses which form universal social patterns we see in other people reveal at least four divided levels of character development, “maturity,” degree of narcissism in us, and in parallel, sophistication of personal boundary function.
Those are the Primitive, Immature, Neurotic and Mature Ego Defenses.
It has become clear to me there are a limited number of “working parts” to the “anatomy” of the personal boundary. I’m convinced it is the case that personal boundaries have rules, laws, and processes such as the Ego Defenses that can be studied and improved no matter one’s walk of life.
There are dozens upon dozens of defined Ego Defenses, and we can learn them all if you like. You’ll be able to “see'“ them in others as easily as you can draw a circle interacting with another circle.
You may have studied biology if you are here.
You may have studied psychology if you are here.
You may have studied sociology if you are here, reading this.
Or you may just be a curious person.
Boundaries pertain to some facet of all three of these disciplines.
They all have an effect on our personal boundaries, and for this reason it will be important in beginning our study of them that we understand the Biopsychosocial model of mental (and physical) health.
The Biopsychosocial Model
This model is a way of compartmentalizing all the possible variables contributing to a person’s physical or mental health problem.
This diagram may help to show the features and healing resources involved in producing positive change in a person:
To the left, we see Biology as representing all the “hard-wired” aspects of behavior, including “brain chemistry,” instincts, and the genetic inheritance of behavioral tendencies that operate as hardware does for a computer—like the circuitry of the brain rather than the software of the “mind.”
For this aspect, with definable psychiatric illnesses, medicines sometimes manage or cure this part of the problem. But it is only a part.
In the middle, we see Psychology as representing all the “software” aspects of behavior that have been called “the mind”—which is akin to software running on the hardware called “the brain.”
To help these kinds of problems, we need a psychological “reset” to change how we use our minds in navigating the world or understanding ourselves. Spirituality (and religion), philosophy, general education about psychology, and ultimately, today’s various models of therapy also help in this area.
Together, our biology—which sets the foundation for the use of our psychology— and which comprise what is “inside us” in our “sense of self.” This connection is similar to how computer hardware is necessary to “run” computer software.
Now, what is outside our personal boundary is random—both positive and negative. It is characterized by stress, challenges in all areas of life, and interactions with others, some of whom have beneficial resources and others we could do without or who might even harm us.
This area outside our personal boundary is the world of Sociology, the “social” part of the Biopsychosocial model of behavior.
The most crucial aspect of understanding how impaired personal boundaries cause most of our personal and societal problems rests in seeing biology and psychology as “inside our personal boundary.”
Meanwhile, sociology and stresses are “outside our personal boundary”—in the world of groups of others.
Biology and psychology, combined, make me, “me.” Sociology makes groups of us “we.”
Everything else, including the beliefs, thoughts, communication, and actions of others, individuals, or groups, are all outside an individual’s personal boundary and are the domain of the trends, polls, variations in societal conditions, public policy, economics, and cultural aspects of our environment ruled by sociology.
Without the personal boundary, it would be easy to assume that sociology is the same as psychology’s functions, effects, or influence on behavior. One might even imagine that its principles could even govern biology.
This cannot be so because one’s personal boundary sets the conditions of interaction and can accept or reject the various sociological factors impacting an individual as unuseful or unhealthy.
The personal boundary contains our biology and psychology within it and negotiates and navigates whatever sociological forces are outside of us.
What’s more: if we treat individuals as if they are boundariless and helpless, accepting and absorbing the various beliefs and behavioral trends around them—as if they have no free will to make decisions or have opinions of their own—then we are infantilizing them, driving them to be more primitive in their character and the primitive ego defenses that define it.
Ah, but this is the forte of social media and what contributes to our addiction to it. Simply, it takes away our free will to accept or reject an idea, which is the very function of a personal boundary. It may feel good, in some cases, to be served up things to think, to not have to do the work.
We can’t force sociological conditions surrounding a person to become definitive of their personal psychology, or Self. The personal boundary is standing between the two and what allows an individual to grow into a truly unique person with their own opinions and, crucially, their unique contributions to society.
The denial, projection, and displacement so rampant on social media may be weakening our personal boundaries and, with this, our character virtue, as well as the collegial, constructive behaviors that spring from it.
This is the essence of what is “toxic” to our public discourse and social media.
What Makes Boundaries Narcissistic (“Toxic”)
Let me say that I need to work on boundaries as much as any person. We all need to work on them all our lives.
I might nevertheless, have some usefulness on the matter. It’s always struck me that boundaries have functional “mechanics” to them since I first started “drawing them” for patients as pencil-and-paper diagrams about three decades ago.
It is important I admit to you that, like anyone, I have a lot of work to do on myself—and my personal boundary—because of a principle at the center of this series of articles on discourse.
There can be no smooth or beneficial discourse if one can’t admit their imperfections to themselves. Recognizing flaws in our own personal boundary—places in us where we get misconstrued or are confused, or need the perspective of another to clarify our path forward—is probably the unadmitted spark that ignites our interpersonal curiosity.
And so I want to surrender to that process to learn and improve what I know about people and myself.
I’m not formally trained as a sociologist, and so these are more from the perspective of a former student of medicine and psychology, then eventually a psychiatrist.
Like anyone living in a democratic society, I know enough to understand that whatever circumstances that surround us sociologically do not define us as individuals. The personal boundary allows us to decide what is personally useful and makes us grow, prosper in our careers and find love and friendship from what does not, rejecting the latter.
I believe that becoming informed about their operations is always good, never bad, and pursuing a “technology of boundaries” as a part of overall human character has great promise.
Promise in the area of applying treatments and resources to healing some of those personal and societal woes that are nebulous (like impaired boundaries themselves) and, therefore, hard to solve.
Promise in the area of interpersonal relationships, from romantic ones to the politics between human groups.
Ultimately, there is promise in the study of boundaries—if we only had the time and energy to focus on one single thing: improving our public discourse, especially on social media.
Many who flock to social media are looking for entertainment. A minority are looking to educate. And a large number of us look to it for a self-esteem boost, sometimes and unfortunately at the emotional cost of others there.
This dependent need for a self-esteem boost from others is what originally gave rise to the vampire and zombie folklore known to exist around the world, in every world culture through history: the literal visual depiction of “sucking the blood of a victim” as symbolic of the narcissistic dependence on the stolen self-esteem of others.
The Ego Defenses—developed by the Freudian Psychoanalysts and greatly expanded by George Valliant (and the virtues of Positive Psychology today)—universally contain aspects of personal boundary function.
Defense mechanisms were also once the most sensitive measure of one’s developmental level (or maturity.) To psychoanalysts, they measure the progress that one has made growing out of narcissism and more toward a mature, higher “character” or “virtue” discussed at length by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle (The Nichomachean Ethics.)
In this series of articles, we will get into some of the academic material on the spectrum of character growth and function, whose negative end is called narcissism. The extreme end is the purely pathological kind that is the stuff of many blogs and gossip media.
However, the middle region and growth toward the positive end of this spectrum has been pondered by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and, in recent history, by a whole school of psychology called Self Psychology.
Pioneered by Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, it posits that some narcissism is in all of us, all our lives, but especially when we are starting out in life.
I believe this “Kohutian” narcissism to be intimately tied to the qualities and functions of one’s personal boundary and its high character opposite that some, today, call “emotional intelligence.”
Boundaries are the most important working parts of what have been called Ego Defenses or “defense mechanisms.” The most primitive ones are rampant in our social media, and they self-amplify in ways we will learn. In later articles, we will expound in great detail on how they work and what to do about them.
For now, the three that we will focus on, which you may have heard of before, are called denial, projection, and displacement.
They are the reason that I ought to admit to my imperfect personal boundary upfront.
Denial is the first obstacle to any valuable discourse, as it prevents honest, authentic connection and negates curiosity about other people. We just assume everything about them and what they think, fits our worldview (or should fit our worldview.)
If I just lecture at you without joining you as a student of psychology, myself, then my denial blocks any chance of us learning and growing.
DENIAL - Self Psychology discoverer, Heinz Kohut, posits that all human beings have some degree of narcissism to them. If narcissism is intimately tied to imperfections of boundary function, then for me to not admit my own would essentially set a negative example for others of “being in denial” (of my imperfect boundaries.)
This then prevents you from sensing intimacy and authenticity from me as we communicate.
I’m using a “defense,” so on an unconscious level, you already feel distanced, distrustful, or shut out by me. What’s worse: you can sense that because it is a “primitive defense mechanism,” I am a lower character (or more narcissistic) person than you.
It’s not to say that we shouldn’t interact with those of various developmental levels in their psychology. Still, a mismatch in them tends to be less valuable to both parties and uninteresting or emotionally taxing to at least one of the two.
The point is that now I will have contributed to making the internet, social media, and personal interaction worse. Perhaps you will then do the same thing I did: use denial with others, not admit any faults, flaws or work to do on yourself.
What would there be to discuss if nobody is going to be growing? There’s no learning to be done in our would-be discourse.
Discourse does take courage, however. There is a risk of offending, being wrong, being wronged, shaming and being shamed, or perhaps worst of all—after expounding with all your heart—not being understood or heard.
If you show your flaws to the wrong person, perhaps they will be manipulative or predatory toward you.
Yet if we don’t dare to truly know one another, there is no hope for us to collaborate on solutions to problems we equally face.
Attending to this does not make you vulnerable in the sense of “weakness.”
Instead, it makes you honest, which is strong.
If we can resist leading with a marching out of our bravado, we could honestly admit we have growing to do, but we can learn from each other no matter how distant on a spectrum our views. There is a nugget of truth to mine in every passionate statement we make.
So what if we are different people with different views.
This is different from the popular term “vulnerability.”
It’s more like honesty and authenticity than “vulnerability,” and it amounts to just taking responsibility for our imperfections, to not being in denial.
PROJECTION - this second primitive ego defense is dominant in our social media. It saturates and floods the internet as we speak. It is also related to Kohut’s principle that we all have at least a touch of narcissism to grow out of and into higher character virtue and maturity.
When we project, we get into the common accusations you see everywhere in social media and today’s public discourse.
What looks like debate or discourse is really not. It’s more like a schoolyard fray, a free-for-all of insults and oneupmanship.
Statements like, “You’re the real narcissist,” are now common in social media. “I am not the one with a problem. You are!” This is obviously ineffective at helping anyone learn anything from another person.
This is why I say I’m imperfect and have work to do on my boundaries, too. It’s that if I were to go around lecturing people on the topic of narcissism, it could sound like I’m saying that I’m not narcissistic, but you are.
That’s a perfect example of the primitive/immature ego defense of projection. It’s where we disavow something that’s a part of ourselves and attribute it to someone else.
It’s scolding, but with the added dimension of accusing others of something they’re not and instead what we ourselves are trying to dispense with.
Projection is also what is at work in any pejoratives—heaped on those we disagree with but who are trying to offer us something of themselves, if not actual, hard-won wisdom—such as “mansplaining” or “nagging” or “lecturing at me.”
Romantic couples misconstrue genuine supportive opinions in this way all the time.
We can’t help projecting because it’s an unconscious process, but at least, like romantic couples do, when we are in person we can sit, listen, ponder—face to face—and see a real, live human being sitting in front of us, feet or inches away.
What’s sinister to realize about the impersonal nature of social media, by contrast, is that these three primitive ego defenses have a way of hiding behind each other.
As such, we don’t know whether the person we are listening to takes accountability for their own flaws, is not in denial of them, and therefore is capable of accepting our correction of their projection—which would be more for their own good than ours.
Or are they significantly more narcissistic than us, use denial of their own boundary deficits flagrantly, and therefore when they clearly project onto us, are doing so as a further aggression on us? (To make us their victim, the receptacle for their negative emotions and unruly behavior.)
The problem then becomes whether we are dealing with a person who can be turned around to be reasonable—and even become a colleague and mutual teacher. Or are they just lost to the abyss of the primitive ego defenses and the narcissism therein?
Projection is immature and primitive, leading us into “tit-for-tat” arguments that resemble a grade school food fight more than mature discourse among adults. It’s where we resort to ad hominem attacks on others rather than considering their points, mulling them over before joining them to synthesize something new out of the discussion.
You can see how this one is running deep in the blood of social media, and because of its “clap-back” nature in arguments, it tends to spread itself like a virus, offending and hurting the feelings of each involved party.
DISPLACEMENT - this third primitive/immature defense mechanism is what happens anytime we see someone scapegoated. Often, this one is the driving force behind those said to be “canceled” in media, where “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” While often seen with regularity throughout the internet and social media, it may not be quite as frequent and common as projection, but it is growing in frequency.
Displacement is where there has to be a villain, or someone HAS to be at fault (for something we don’t like.)
One might see such statements as blaming the government for some problem of theirs or just a particular political party. A specific social or demographic group might be imagined to be the cause of all of someone’s problems or just a single acquaintance, friend, or family member.
Similar to projection, displacement can lower anxiety for the sufferer by sending it out onto others in blame or shame.
In the form of scapegoating, displacement serves as a kind of “relief valve” on the functioning of the rest of the social group or company, where all the woes and struggles of the members of the group can dispense with their negative emotions onto one, convenient party to carry it off.
Here, we can see that if a person can’t first be in denial of their flaws—and therefore not curious about the lives and ideas of others—then there is no need to project.
Likewise, if someone is not in denial, accepting of their limitations, and then doesn’t tend to project their poor qualities onto others, it would further be difficult for us to see them tend to extend that out into still persisting in blaming other third parties for their troubles, which is displacement.
Unless that is, the immediate person they seek to blame or shame is too powerful, or popular, or strong to accept the blame or shame willingly.
Thus, when we are in denial or projecting, our unconscious minds also look for a suitable, willing recipient of our projected ire, which is the automatic and primitive social habit of displacement.
These three primitive behaviors—denial, projection, and displacement—have the same boundary dysfunctions in their common roots, most notably, “boundary holes,” which we will get to in subsequent articles.
For now, know that the three primitive ego defenses common on social media work together to spread themselves in peoples’ unconscious behavior. They are amplified by lacking an in-person presence in our discourse (which makes it all that much easier not to read the authentic meaning in others’ language.)
We then fill in the gaps with our own unconscious material and imagination.
The unembodied experience of electronic communication and social media, not physically spoken in person, strongly encourages the most “primitive ego defenses” to flourish to the neglect of the “mature ego defenses” that are characterized by solid boundaries.
Social media and electronic communication lack inherent personal boundaries that people have in a most physical, embodied way when they are having a face-to-face discussion in person.
In subsequent articles, we will learn how to visually “see” these in others as never before, through graphic visual depictions of the personal boundary in operation.
Over the coming month, we will continue to explore the theme of personal boundaries and narcissism through such diverse topics as Artificial Intelligence and the symbolism of zombie films and television—such as in HBO’s The Last of Us—in what they have to say about the poor quality discourse of social media, related to boundary mechanics and narcissism.
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Courteous, vibrant discourse could begin here, for example…
Fascinating. I'll definitely be reading this a second time!