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Psychosomatic Limit/Boundary


The term psychosomatic limit (or psychosomatic boundary ) designates the virtual demarcations and separations between the space of the body and that of the psyche. At the same time this boundary serves as a contact barrier where, if the person has good mentalization, psychic phenomenon take on symbolic or metaphorical significance at the somatic level or, conversely, somatic excitation is registered in the psyche.

This concept cannot be grounded in a monistic account of the psyche-soma (Pierre Marty, the Paris School), but should rather be understood as André Green explained in Somatisation, psychanalyse et science du vivant (Somatization, psychoanalysis, and the science of the living; 1994), in terms of a "structural dualism that comes out of a de facto monism . . . in which the psychic apparatus is posited as being rooted in the nervous system but as developing its own distinct properties from there, which data based on biological structures alone cannot account for." The concept of the psychosomatic limit is present but seldom explicit in the work of Sigmund Freud. The notions of the drives, conversion, and the ego bring this concept into play. One of its synonyms, the word frontier, appeared for the first time in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) in connection with the instincts; there Freud described an instinct as "the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation. . . . The concept of the instinct is thus one of those lying on the frontier between the mental and the physical" (p. 168). Instinct, representing a source of internal excitations, thus becomes one of the forms of the body's language. In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), Freud again used the word frontier to convey the idea of a limit or boundary: "An 'instinct' appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic . . . as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body" (pp. 121-122). The psyche works only because of its link with the corporeal, because without this virtual contact barrier, the psyche would be nothing and the body would be only an object.

In Studies on Hysteria (1895d), Freud dealt particularly with conversion, but that concept was defined for the first time in "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a): "In hysteria, the incompatible idea is rendered innocuous by its sum of excitation being transformed into something somatic. For this I should like to propose the name conversion " (p. 49). The psychosomatic limit is crossed and there is the mysterious "leap from the psychical into the somatic" that conversion involves owing to "motor innervation" (p. 49).

The ego, as described in the second theory of the psychic apparatus (1923d [1922]), is above all a bodily ego; it is not only a surface being, but it is itself the projection of a surface. It represents the surface of the mental apparatus. If the ego is a surface with both psychic and somatic limits, it can be ruptured, as when physical pain results in a heightened narcissistic cathexis of the body that empties the ego and leads it to defend and reconstitute itself.

Notions related to the psychosomatic boundary can be found. For example, there are the "transitional phenomena" described by Donald Winnicott (1971), an internal space and external reality where body and language, which together support this space, establish an intersection between psyche and soma. Babies experience burps and anal noises. "It can be supposed," Winnicott writes, "that thinking or fantasies acquire a link with these functional experiences." In his definition of holding (1965), Winnicott linked tonus (the physical holding of the body) to processes that may appear to be physiological but that in fact originate in the infant's psychology.

The concept of the psychosomatic limit, though not fully developed in Freud's writings, nevertheless turns up there in an essential way. In his 1994 book, Green described the concept as implicitly present whenever the body expresses itself directly within the framework of the psyche: in functional signs, conversion, actual neuroses, and psychosomatic pathology.

GisÈle Harrus-Revidi

See also: Body image; Ego; Drive/instinct; Holding.


Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1923d [1922]). A seventeenth-century demonological neurosis. SE, 19: 67-105.

Freud Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Green, André. (1994). Somatisation, psychanalyse et science du vivant. Paris: Eschel.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1965). The theory of infant-parent relationship. In his The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth.

. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock.

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