Rigid, Diffuse, and Flexible: Three Types of Psychological Boundaries in the Voice Studio

Here’s how psychologists John and Linda Friel introduce psychological boundaries: “Each individual human being should have a clearly defined boundary around himself/herself, which is like a psychological fence around us, defined by us. This individual boundary lets certain things into our lives and keeps certain things out of our lives.” Drs. Friel outline three types of personal boundaries that they encounter in their practice: rigid, diffuse, and flexible:

  • Rigid: The person’s boundary is too closed.
  • Diffuse: The person’s boundary is too open. 
  • Flexible: The person’s boundary is neither too closed nor too open. 

A flexible boundary is like a cell membrane: it gives shape and structure to the cell and protects it from its surroundings while also selectively allowing substances to enter the cell that will allow it to survive. Likewise, our boundary can give shape and structure to our identity, protect us from things that might harm us, and allow things to pass through that can feed and nurture us. 

Characteristics of the Three Boundary Types

Boundaries are active in any kind of interaction with another person: teacher-student, boss-employee, parent-child, etc. Boundary types aren’t static. They may change based on the person and situation. Here are characteristics of people in each boundary type. 

Rigid Boundaries

  • Wants control.
  • Believes their ideas and techniques are superior.
  • Believes they are the authority at all times. Forces their beliefs onto others. Often shames people for questioning their authority.
  • Everything is either black and white. 
  • When things turn unpredictably bad, they don’t know how to take it in stride. They generally feel scared, cheated and manipulated rather than being able to accept that bad things just happen sometimes.
  • Scared of looking like they don’t know something or can’t do something well. Avoids any scenario where their “weak” spots could be “exposed.” Hides “weaknesses” at all costs.
  • When even the smallest thing is rejected, they fear the avalanche of losing all authority, respect, and control. Thus, perfection is of utmost importance.
  • Sometimes uses guilt or manipulation to maintain control. 
  • Becomes jealous easily. Fears losing control of the relationship.
  • Extremely uncomfortable with trying something unfamiliar. Wants to know everything ahead of time so they don’t look “foolish.”
  • Gets upset when their plan is thwarted. Usually says “no” to anything outside of their approach or plan.
  • Distant, detached. Lacks playfulness and empathy. 
  • Identity is crystal clear, but it never changes. They rarely open themselves to relationships with people who are different than them. As performers and teachers, they have trouble growing and changing throughout their life since they don’t allow their beliefs to change.

Diffuse Boundaries

  • Feels they have nothing to contribute. Wants others to be in control.
  • Believes their ideas and techniques are generally inferior.
  • Never questions the other person’s authority.
  • Afraid to contribute ideas. Fears that if their idea is rejected, they will lose human connection.
  • Generally says “yes,” no matter how uncomfortable or resistant they feel to the request.
  • Gets nervous or upset when pressed to make a decision. Hates taking charge.
  • Terrified of losing human connection, even when the connection is detrimental to them.
  • Depends on others to tell them what they should do, when they should do it, and how. Refuses to take an adult role. 
  • Often expects others to fill all emotional needs.
  • Identity is very fuzzy. With no clarity of identity or needs, has difficulty identifying and connecting with their “people.” They connect with many on a surface level, but can’t get to deeper connections because they won’t declare any personal values or beliefs. Artistically, their identity is too fuzzy for a fan base or a potential student to be able to figure out whether they deeply connect.

Flexible Boundaries

  • Shares contribution and control.
  • Believes their ideas and techniques have the potential to be helpful and effective, as do other people’s ideas and techniques.
  • Seeks out guidance from trustworthy individuals who have more knowledge and experience. Believes that people with less knowledge and experience also have wisdom to share. 
  • Incorporates what they’ve learned from others in ways that honor their own personal needs and boundaries.
  • Regularly contributes ideas. Takes risks. Is able to set aside their idea for the sake of trying someone else’s, even when they’re not sure the other person’s idea will work.
  • Trusts in their own logic and intuition enough to make a decision when needed. Willing to take responsibility for their actions and decisions and make things right when they experience failure. Doesn’t allow shame to shut them down from making future decisions and actions.
  • Willing to say “yes” even when they’re afraid, but also willing to say “no” when they sense that their boundaries are being violated.
  • Is okay with letting someone go when the other person is violating their boundaries. Remains open to connection with people who will respect their boundaries.
  • Makes plans and takes action without being asked, but is willing to change course and include others in their goal-setting. Is open to feedback about others regarding their plan of action.
  • Identity is clear, but flexible. They nurture relationships with people who are similar to them…family, friends, fans, students…because they know what’s actually similar. They also remain open to connection with people who are different and allow themselves to grow and change over time as people.

Boundary Combos

Rigid Teacher + Diffuse Student

Here, the teacher is the authority, and the student is either the silent sponge or the perfect parrot. It’s a very ego-building scenario for the teacher, and a perfect hiding space for a student who is terrified of speaking up.

The teacher dictates all content, rarely (if ever) asking the student what they want or what they think or what should be done, and generally brushes student opinions aside when they are shared. The teacher fears that allowing the student to have input will make the teacher’s plan seem weak or flawed. The student generally prefers not to state their opinion for fear of losing their relationship with the teacher. The student never takes action outside of lessons to find and develop their own contributions or goals, but the teacher likes it this way since they never have to compete with the student’s agenda.

Lessons are rigidly structured. The teacher rarely changes course mid-lesson if they realize that something isn’t working or another path might be better. To do so would mean to admit that their first plan wasn’t perfect. The student doesn’t trust their “gut” very much at all, so any signals that an element of the teacher’s lesson plan might not be working is dismissed without question or discussion.

The teacher constantly plants seeds of fear about any options outside of their recommendations. Failure is certain unless you follow their exact plan. This teacher is very fearful of other teachers undermining their authority or affecting their control on the student, so they tend to describe other teachers as incompetent. They teach the student to see the world through a lens where all other teachers are sub-par and the teacher is the only one who knows what to do, how to be successful, and how to stay safe from the terrors that surround the student. 

Since this teacher is solely responsible for the artistic identity of the student, the student will still be completely lost about who they are and what they want if they ever move on from that teacher’s studio. The student may fear moving on to bigger and better things because they believe their progress was only due to that specific teacher and not to anything they themselves did. If they do work with a new teacher, they will likely morph into whatever that new teacher thinks they should be. They prefer to be whatever others dictate so they don’t have to make choices, which then requires that they take responsibility for those choices. Since the student doesn’t have strong emotional self-support skills, they depend entirely on the teacher to “comfort” them when something bad happens or when they don’t know what to do.

The teacher is aloof and detached emotionally. They struggle to have fun or be playful in lessons. They struggle to be empathetic with the student, especially when the student is experiencing failure. If the student fails, the teacher never takes any responsibility. Failure and rejection aren’t seen as a normal part of life. Instead of empathy, failure is often met with advice or I-told-you-so’s. Ultimately, the student believes they don’t really bear responsibility either because the teacher was the one dictating every step that led to the failure.

Forward progress happens in this scenario, but it is skewed in the teacher’s direction. When the student isn’t being dead weight, they are pushing in the teacher’s direction.

Diffuse Teacher + Rigid Student

Here, the student is the authority. The teacher is a silent figure who supplies any and all of the student’s needs without argument. This is the perfect place for a teacher to hide. 

The student dictates all lesson content and structure. The student believes they know best and rarely asks the teacher for critique or input. On the rare occasion that they ask, they almost never take the advice given and can become defensive. They generally shut down when hearing critiques, unable to see any other option than the one they planned and worked on. Since rigid boundaries create a black and white view of the world, the student believes performers are either innately awesome or innately terrible, and there’s no getting from one to the other. Critiques open the door to the possibility that they’re innately terrible and just don’t know it yet. Since they tend to believe that greatness is innate, not earned with work, they believe that if they had to work hard to earn something, they weren’t innately awesome.

The teacher doesn’t trust their “gut” very much at all, so any concerns about a student’s choices are dismissed without question or discussion. They leave full responsibility for the student’s progress in the student’s hands. If the student has any resistance at all to an approach, they immediately change course before allowing the student to benefit from the challenges that approach presented.

Failure is earth-shattering for this student. When things go wrong, they don’t know how to cope. They blame everything around them before taking responsibility, including the teacher, even though they never really allowed the teacher to have any say in their progress. These students tend to leave a string of “used” teachers in their wake. This student can be very jealous about the teacher working with other students, especially if those students seem to be experiencing more success than they are or diverting the teacher’s time or attention.

It’s difficult for this teacher’s ideal students to find them because they won’t declare any clear values and beliefs and preferences in their teaching. They struggle to even identify their ideal student. They deeply fear that they won’t have any students at all, so they accept any and all students, regardless of how well the teacher’s skill set matches the student’s needs. They keep their skill set so broad that they miss out on the benefits of specializing and attracting students to that specialization.

This teacher is too dependent upon students to make them feel fulfilled, both professionally and emotionally. They lack the skills to self-support and -nurture outside of lessons, and generally blame their students for their lack of personal fulfillment.

Forward progress happens in this scenario, but it is skewed in the student’s direction. When the teacher isn’t being dead weight, they are pushing in the student’s direction. 

Rigid Teacher + Rigid Student

With this pairing, lessons are a battleground. Both people know best and are just waiting for the other person to be proved wrong so victory can be declared. Conversations are an endless string of one-ups and tear-downs. When the teacher pulls the “because I said so, end of story” card, the student either blows up or shuts down. If they don’t explode and leave, the student may temporarily obey in the lesson, but they will not obey in the practice room. The teacher considers the student’s resistance “disrespectful,” and never moves past being offended about the disrespect to actually considering the student’s alternative ideas. The teacher’s shaming and manipulating tendencies are most likely to show up here because the rigid student is the most likely to resist authority. When things go bad, angry finger-pointing ensues, and both will continually blame the other, even after they are no longer working together. Separations here are generally loud and ugly.

Forward progress is impossible in this scenario because the relationship is stuck in lateral gridlock. 

Diffuse Teacher + Diffuse Student

With this pairing, lessons are out to sea with no rudder. Neither person is willing to make a decision or choose a direction because neither wants to be responsible for any bad outcomes. Both passively push the other to take charge by playing “hot potato” with choice-making. Both are afraid to offend or to lose connection, even when the connection is very surface and thin. If ideas are presented, they are as neutral as possible so that neither person feels offended or alienated. Both are afraid to really run with an idea in any direction for too long because that involves making choices that may prevent other choices in the future. Separation is passive. One or both parties usually lie about why they’re ending the relationship so they neither imply nor admit to responsibility. 

Forward progress is impossible in this scenario because the relationship is stuck in a directionless holding pattern.

Flexible Teacher + Flexible Student

When both the student and the teacher are flexible, forward progress is ideal. Both the student and teacher are pulling their weight and influencing the direction of progress. Both contribute to the content and structure of the lessons. The teacher knows that less experienced and less knowledgable people still have great ideas, and the student knows that someone else’s experience and knowledge can take you to wonderful places you could have never reached alone. 

A healthy cycle of feedback exchange happens each week. The student tries what is asked in the practice room, and returns with ideas and suggestions and feedback of their own. The teacher then takes the student’s feedback into account when creating the next week’s assignments. Both are able to listen to the other’s ideas and to try new things, even when they’re afraid or unsure. They take risks together. They know when to be serious and when to have fun.

Both take responsibility for their parts of the progress. They leave room for the role of uncontrollable circumstances in progress, which have nothing to do with their abilities or choices. Failed plans are mourned and new plans are made…together. 

The student-teacher relationship is one of many healthy, flexible relationships that both have in their lives, so they are not dependent upon one another to provide the bulk of emotional or professional support. They share caring, encouragement, and connection. They encourage each other to have healthy connections with other people in their field for the purpose of personal and professional growth.

If one decides to end the teacher-student relationship, they communicate clearly about why they are doing so. Even if there is sadness, the other person ultimately knows it’s impossible to supply everything that’s needed, and gladly releases the relationship so needs can be met by someone else in the manner and timing that’s needed.

What now?

So what do you do if you realize that you and/or your student is on one of the extremes? 

First of all, it’s important to know that people on the extremes often swing from one to the other when the person can no longer deal with the lack of either connection or self-protection. And, as I said earlier, people can switch boundary types depending upon who they’re with and how that other person’s boundary is presented.

If you recognize rigid or diffuse boundary tendencies in your students, here are some suggestions for working with them. You can also apply the suggestions below to yourself if you find yourself on either extreme. NOTE: It is not your responsibility to help another human being “fix” their boundary issues. No one can be forced to make choices. But these tools might encourage a student to make choices that help them find a better balance between openness and self-protection in the lesson context. Remember that lessons are a very small part of a much bigger life picture that includes parents, friends, and many others who are also playing into their boundary choices.

I highly recommend working with a professional therapist to develop and maintain healthy, flexible boundaries. It has done wonders for my teaching and life in general. I’m much better able to work effectively with students thanks to my therapy work. I recommend this work to students, as well.

Working with Diffuse Students

  • Ask regularly for input about content and structure. On their practice sheet, include a section where they write songs they want to do, things they noticed when practicing, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things they had questions about, etc.
  • Try some of their ideas instead of yours. Acknowledge the idea’s value, especially when it was just as good or better than the idea you had.
  • Build the student’s connection to their “gut” feelings by letting them make choices that they can’t really give reasons for.
  • Give the student the opportunity to make choices. Provide a few options, then have them rate each one.
  • When your ideas don’t work, say so, and brainstorm with the student about a better solution.
  • Encourage students to participate in activities that scare them a little, but where they can experience success, too.
  • Require students to be responsible for certain elements of their performances.
  • When failure happens, talk about it. Own your part without shame. Talk about the parts that weren’t anyone’s fault.
  • Be observant of their strengths and personality traits. Praise and encourage the things that make them special and unique…the things that people will eventually be drawn to about them as an artist. Ask what their favorite things are about themselves.

Working with Rigid Students

  • Designate a large section of the lesson where they decide what to do and how to do it, then designate a small section of the lesson where you decide what to do and how to do it. Adjust the ratio as needed.
  • On their practice sheet, ask for feedback about the assignments they did: what worked, what didn’t, what they liked, if they didn’t do it and why, etc.
  • Try something together in the lesson that neither of you are good at. If you’re struggling together, they are more likely to open up about their issues and ask for help.
  • Incorporate something silly or fun on occasion…something that doesn’t have an obvious purpose. 
  • When they seem to be stuck on one path or option, brainstorm together about other options. 
  • Encourage them to continue trying if they shut down after criticism. Guide them through thinking about other options with gentle, encouraging questions.
  • Encourage the student to work on a project where their limitations are tested.
  • Create small improvisation experiments in the lesson.
  • Encourage the student to work on a project with peers and people who are better than them. 
  • Create space for indecision. If they’re unable to make a decision, don’t force one, and don’t fill in the gap right away. Let them know uncertainty is normal and okay.
  • Reward and encourage their work and practice, regardless of the results. Build connections between hard work and greatness in their mind.

Balancing Boundaries

Navigating the different boundaries in a lesson scenario can be very challenging, especially because they expose the boundary issues we each bring from our own childhoods. We must be willing to face and work with them, to be compassionate with others and ourselves as we do so, and to be okay with the reality that they will shift from time to time. It’s a constant balancing act both internally and externally. 

This is just one way to see boundaries that was helpful for me. I hope it can be helpful in some way for you. For further reading, I highly recommend the author and researcher Brené Brown. She has excellent ideas and applications for boundary work and leadership.

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