When it comes to our preferences on physical space, it’s a very personal matter.

For example, imagine your typical conversation at work with a colleague; some of us prefer to maintain a physical distance whilst others like to get up close. What’s interesting is that your need for personal physical space may also reflect the ‘thickness’ of your psychological boundaries in other areas.

The concept of thick and thin boundaries was first proposed by Ernest Hartmann in his 1991 book Boundaries in the Mind and in it he points out a number of characteristics of individuals with thick and thin boundaries.

For example people with thick boundaries tend to:
  • See the world in very black and white terms
  • Be organised
  • Keep things in a designated place
  • Be organised
  • Keep things in a designated place
  • Prefer rooms with specific functions
  • Can feel alienated and out of touch with their own feelings and other people
  • Be rigid, well defended and less intimate
  • Brush aside emotional upset and just handle the situation
People with thin boundaries tend to:
  • See the world as shades of grey
  • Appear disorganised and operate spontaneously
  • Fall in love more easily
  • More prone to déjà vu
  • Have constant drama in their life as they let people in easily
  • Become easily stressed due to emotional overload
  • Be open, overly, trusting and easily intimate

It’s important to consider that Hartmann’s research showed that people with thick boundaries don’t actually feel their feelings any less. Bodily indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension show their considerable agitation despite looking unruffled on the surface. Interestingly, women tend to have thinner boundaries and our boundaries tend to thicken with age.

So which one is best, thick or thin?

People tend to value their own boundary type and may look down on the qualities associated with the “other” type. Thin boundary people for example may see themselves as “creative”, “innovative” and “exciting” and can look on people with thick boundaries as “lacking in imagination”, “rigid” and “boring.” Thick boundary people on the other hand may see themselves as “reliable”, “steady” and “consistent” while considering those with thin boundaries as “flaky”, “out there” and “ unreliable.”

Like most things in life it’s about recognising the strength in our preference and ensuring it doesn’t hinder us in other aspects of our life.

For example, someone who works in an extreme environment may need thick boundaries to cope at work and may not realise the impact of those thick boundaries in other aspects of their life. The leader that needs to be hard on issues at work and requires thick boundaries when dealing with specific issues may continue those boundaries with the people around them.

So the next time you feel a little hard done by, a little bruised by an interaction, perhaps the other person is just being a little thick without realising it. Or the next time someone tells you your approach is cold and unfriendly and you normally consider yourself the opposite, perhaps you’re just being a little thick? After all, we can all be a little too thick sometimes. What boundaries do you set yourself with the people around you?

Is that deliberate or do you do it without thinking?

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