Why Are Boundaries so Hard For Me?

Many people I work with have a hard time understanding and implementing boundaries. Boundaries are a learned skill. It takes time, commitment, and some emotional risks to realize the world won’t swallow you whole when you say no, set limits, or choose to you take care of yourself. The resistance of implementing boundaries is typically rooted in messages we’ve internalized throughout our life. If you struggle with boundaries, see if you identify with the boundary hurdles below.

#1 Boundary Hurdle – Enmeshed Families

Members of enmeshed families have a hard time differentiating themselves from their family members. Typically these children are well trained to notice and care for the feelings & needs of members that take up the most space in the family. So if mom has big feelings, the family members learn to tip toe around or cater to mom’s needs and expressions. A child may become attuned to their mom’s emotional temperament and needs, but ignore their own feelings or needs. Likewise, mom may expect that family members feel the same way they do. Learning healthy boundaries requires healthy individuation, which means accepting you will have feelings and experiences that are different from your family’s, and that’s okay.

#2 Boundary Hurdle – Detached Families

The same result can stem from detached families. In this context, emotions and needs are not recognized in the home. This can come from a myriad of dynamics, like cultural expectations, authoritarian parenting styles, abuse, addiction, or parents that weren’t taught how to appropriately express feelings themselves. Children then learn to bottle or ignore their emotions rather than express them in a healthy way. It may not be safe to express emotional needs or emotional needs may be ignored. Eventually, children in this environment learn to cut off or mute those feelings & needs. Our feelings act as thermometer or alarm system, alerting us to what’s going on internally. Without connection to that internal world, it’s very challenging to discern you have a need at all, much less implement boundaries.

#3 Boundary Hurdle – Messages from Church

Faith communities are notorious for modeling very poor boundaries. Burnout and unhealthy relationships are masked in a martyr-like attitude “for the sake of the ministry”. People are praised for saying yes, while boundaries may be implicitly or explicitly treated as selfish or unnecessary. Overcoming these deeply ingrained faith messages can be challenging. There are plenty of scriptural concepts in alignment with boundaries. I assure you, if God rested, so can we.

#4 Boundary Hurdle – Myths & Misconceptions

There are plenty of myths & misconceptions about boundaries. Namely that they are selfish, mean, punishing or controlling. If the myths feel compelling, people have a hard time believing boundaries are worthwhile or healthy.  

Any of these messages sound familiar? Identifying the distorted message is the first step in adopting a healthy sense of boundaries.

3 Ways to Battle Shame

3 Ways to Battle Shame

If we slow down to pay attention, we see the many small moments our shitty first drafts fight for our attention. It can be as simple and subtle as the moment your spouse looked away from you when you came out in your new sweater for the first time (SFD: He thinks it looks bad on me, I’m not good enough), or the look that stranger gave you walking Lake Merritt (SFD: She heard what I said and is judging me), or the drop of your stomach when a group of coworkers make lunch plans without you (SFD: They don’t like me, I’m a tag-a-long). Once those everyday shame moments are in our awareness, how do we battle it?

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Sh*tty First Draft

I recently had a scuffle with a friend that left me spinning. I felt consumed by it, it seemed every waking moment I was rehashing and replaying our conversation, trying to make sense of our argument. The more I tried to shake it, the more I found myself thinking about it. I became more and more anxious, unsure, and critical of myself.  I felt a pull to smooth it over. Unconsciously, I went to an old, familiar story that my worth is dependent on whether people are pleased with me. My anxiety was oozing out of my shame exposed behind my likable, charming armor. In her research on vulnerability & shame, Brene Brown calls this reaction “The Shitty First Draft”. We all have a shitty first draft. It’s our knee-jerk, go-to story we tell ourselves when we feel vulnerable, shame, or fear.  So how do we break the cycle?

1. Notice the hustle

My first indicator that I was spinning in my shitty first draft was that I was pulling on my well-practiced go-to’s: first to people please, and if that doesn’t work, get scrappy and defensive. I was tempted to hustle to win back my friend’s approval, not necessarily to repair the relationship (though of course that was part of it), but because my shame was so uncomfortable to deal with.

2. Identify the story I’m telling myself is…

Once I noticed I was hustling, I had to take a look at the story I was telling myself. Our shitty first draft normally reveals some negative core belief we have. Mine was a distorted thought thatI have to be perfect to be loved by others. I jumped from, “Oops, I really blew it there” to “Omg, I’m a terrible friend.”

3. Write a new draft

The best news about our shitty first drafts is that they are just that - first drafts. We have the power and the opportunity to re-write that draft into something more true & more constructive. Yes, I made some mistakes, yes I hurt my friend’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad friend or that if people are disappointed with me that I’m not loved. My worth & dignity as a person is not dependent on being perfect. Phew!

Even as a therapist with all the tools & training to manage conflict at my fingertips, I felt stuck & overwhelmed. Shitty first drafts can be swift, sneaky & take us out by the knees. We all have them, it’s how we notice them & rewrite that story that has profound results on how we show up for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our work.

Ready to do battle with your shitty first draft but feeling stuck in recurrent shame cycles? Reach out today, I’d be honored to walk through rewriting your story with you, one step at a time.

What are Good Therapeutic Disclosure Questions?

When you discover your partner’s sex or love addiction, you want to want to know everything. This usually yields conversations late into the night, rehashing the past in an effort to seek safety and make sense of the past. I like to call these conversations drive-by disclosure. It is profoundly disorienting to doubt your own history. Enter the formal therapeutic disclosure process, aimed at restoring dignity and providing information so you can make informed decisions about your future. (You can read more about that process here)

The professional containment & guidance of the disclosure process is vital in order to reduce unnecessary trauma. It is always recommended that couples engage the therapeutic disclosure process under the guidance of therapists specifically trained in sex addiction treatment & experience in facilitating formal disclosures. If the addict is preparing disclosure under this expertise, a standard therapeutic disclosure will include details such as: type of acting out behavior, frequency of behaviors, general timeline of behaviors, number of partners, estimate money spent, and alibis used to cover up behaviors.

Assuming the addict is working with a sex addiction therapist expert, you can relax the pressure to ask all the questions for fear they won’t be covered if you don’t ask it explicitly. Your job, as a partner, is to determine what level of detail/information you want to know, what you don’t want to know, and specific questions you’d like answered. These specific questions are the meat of your disclosure preparation. 

Good formal disclosure questions are things your therapist would never know to ask, incidents from the past that still rattle around in your brain. Getting clarification around these events can help reinforce your ability to trust your instincts in moments that felt off, and give you some context and timelines for grounding. Some specific question examples:

“Did you act out that Christmas that you told me you had work to finish up & arrived 3 hours late to my parents’ place?”

“Did you act out on that business trip to New York?”

“What is your relationship with the person I caught you texting, but you told me it was a coworker?”

“What is the story behind the flower delivery you told me was for your mom?”

“Were you acting out the day you missed our daughter’s school play?”

“Do any of my friends or family know about your acting out?”

When you are preparing for therapeutic disclosure, it’s helpful to carry a notebook or keep a running document on your phone. Questions and memories will pop up as you stand in line at the grocery store or as you are falling asleep - quickly jot the question down and go back to your day. 

Preparing for formal disclosure is an important step in your recovery & betrayal healing. If you need support, reach out to get started.

Boundaries for Beginners

Boundaries. A popular therapy & self-care buzz word that’s thrown around all the time. Often boundaries are presented with the metaphor of a fence separating your yards from your neighbors. You are responsible to water your own garden & take care of what’s in your yard, regardless of what’s going on in your neighbors’ side. That’s lovely, but what does that mean?

We could spend many blogs talking about boundaries, but for the sake of simplicity, at their core, boundaries are a combination of a request + a commitment to yourself for the aim of taking care of yourself. Let’s break that down:

Request: Asking someone to do something or refrain from doing something. Making a clear request about your expectations sets you up for success. Other people can’t read your mind, nor is it fair to punish others for request we have not communicated. Remember, the other person has the right to say yes, no, or let’s negotiate to the request you present.

Examples: “Please don’t yell at me” or “Please be here by 3pm”.

Commitment to yourself: This is what you will do to take care of yourself if the other person is not willing or able to agree to your request. This piece of the puzzle is essential, and is the most neglected part of setting & maintaining boundaries. When clients say “They don’t respect my boundaries!” or “My boundaries aren’t working!” it’s usually because they have not followed through on their responsibility to themselves. The only person you can control is yourself.

Examples: “If you speak to me that way, I will leave the conversation until we can speak calmly to each other.” or “I’ll be leaving at 3pm, so if you aren’t here on time, you’ll need to find another ride.”

Boundaries exist for your self-care & enable you to live within your values. They are not intended to change another person’s behaviors. At the end of the day, a boundary may have an impact on how another person treats you, but the end goal of successful boundaries is to take care of yourself. Successful boundaries will help you look in the mirror and feel good about how you behaved, whether the other person “respected your boundary” or not.

On the boundary struggle bus? You are not alone. Boundaries are hard work and take lots of practice. Reach out if you’d like some support taking the next step toward a healthy, boundaried life.

Hello, Downtown Oakland!

I am thrilled to announce the launch of my private practice & new therapy office location in downtown Oakland, California! I have a spacious, peaceful office space in a secure office building within walking distance of many downtown Oakland office locations + public transportation (12th & 19th Street BART + AC Transit), and just a few blocks from Lake Merritt.

Take a peak at my new office here.

Can’t wait to see you in my new space!

The Importance of Good Goodbyes

I’ve been in a transition season, which means I’ve been saying a lot of “goodbye” and “see you later” to many people in my life. As I navigate these closing moments, I’m reminded of two things: first, goodbyes are hard (and we don’t like them), and second, good goodbyes are very important. Sometimes we are tempted to cut and run, avoiding the emotions that come with saying goodbye. Sometimes we stay in denial about the impending goodbye and stuff our feelings.

I’m finding that healthy goodbyes come in waves. Some days are joyful, some days are painful, some days it’s a mixture of both, and some days we don’t feel anything at all. When we say goodbye to people we love and are important to us, the goodbye may contain a mixture of anticipation and joy for one person, and grief and loss for the other. Both can be valid. This means holding complicated and sometimes opposing feelings simultaneously. Goodbyes can be fully of bittersweet, happy and sad, joy and grief. These feelings can be difficult to feel at the same time, often one feeling may feel louder than the other or we are tempted to drown one out because the other is more comfortable to feel. It can be important to talk through what feelings come up at different stages of the goodbye. We often stuff our feelings until we arrive at the “I’m so happy for you!” stage, but we neglect voicing the other feelings that surface along the way.

As I say goodbyes, I’m finding that healthy goodbyes often include honoring and voicing what that person means to you. Too often we wait until it is too late to share with others what they mean to us, how they have changed our lives, what we appreciate in them, and speaking life into them. The beauty of goodbye and see you later is that it provides a natural opportunity to reflect, to honor the relationship, and to name the ways in which you care for and have been impacted by that person. The willingness to be vulnerable in this way can feel scary, and it can be very impactful.

After a few weeks of intentional & reflective goodbyes, I find myself feeling all the more grateful for the blessings of relationships. We are wired for community, we need each other. I am profoundly grateful that there are many connections in life that make goodbyes difficult. And I’m reminded that these connections are so are worth doing the hard work of a good goodbye.

Escaping the Drama Triangle

Last week’s blog focused on the frustrating dynamic of Karpman’s Drama Triangle - the dance between the victim, persecutor, and rescuer. It’s a dance we may be all too familiar with and one that can happen subtly. But once we recognize it, how do we step out of it?

Like I mentioned previously, each of the three roles needs someone to fulfill one of the other roles in order for the dance to continue. So a huge part of stepping out of the drama is to become aware of which roles you play. These roles are often learned early on in our families but can become fluid in relationships. For example, if you notice you have a tendency to rescue, intentionally work toward expanding awareness of how, when, and where you tend to rescue others.

Once you have cultivated some awareness of your role, the next step is to stick to your side of the fence. Sticking to your side of the fence means using I-statements like “I’m feeling ____” or “I’m noticing ____.” At the core, all of the roles focus on the other person rather than yourself, essentially blame shifting and giving power away in three unique manifestations. By choosing to stick to your feelings, experiences & responsibilities only, you are practicing being accountable for your feelings and actions and allowing others to do the same.

Finally, expect the drama to continue for a little while. When you step out of the drama, the other person will likely still play their role for a bit, but abstaining from your role cuts off the fuel to the fire. Relationships are like baby mobiles, changing up one role disrupts the whole system, and often the system is eager to get back to the familiar status quo. It will take practice over time to notice the role, learn to step out of it, and allow your relationships to adjust accordingly. Like practicing any new skill, this often doesn’t happen seamlessly at first. Over time, I hope you will find more peace and clarity in yourself.

The Drama Triangle

Ever reflect back on an argument with a loved one and wonder what the heck you were actually arguing about? Somewhere the conversation must have derailed. In any conversation there are two important elements at play -- the actual content of the conversation and the emotional subtext below the content of the conversation. When arguments derail, it’s often because we are getting stuck in the content without paying attention to the emotional process underneath. This leads to feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and feeling unresolved.

The Drama Triangle is a helpful way to recognize when your conversation has jumped on the crazy train. The Drama Triangle (or Karpman Triangle) was developed by Stephen Karpman as a way to understand the social dynamics and roles played out in dysfunction. He describes the following 3 roles:

The Victim is characterized by learned helplessness (“woe is me!”), feeling ashamed & powerless, difficulty making decisions, and negative view of self. Victim behaviors are often intended to prompt the other person to either affirm their helplessness or rescue them, reinforcing the victim’s neediness.

The Persecutor takes an aggressive, prosecutorial, blaming approach. This role is characterized by a superior “I’m better than you” attitude that belittles and criticizes the other person.

The Rescuer is just as it sounds, the role of taking power over another person by rescuing them, being in charge, and being morally or emotionally superior to others. This is a classic fixer or helper role that can enable helpless behavior of the victim to continue and can aid the rescuer in avoiding their own issues by focusing on helping others.

Each of these three roles needs someone to fulfill another aspect of the drama triangle to continue - i.e. the rescuer needs a victim, the victim needs a persecutor or rescuer, and the persecutor needs a victim. It’s not uncommon to shift roles within the span of a conflict, for example the rescuer being tired of fixing and becoming the persecutor, or the victim and persecutor flip flopping roles. And the drama continues.

In dysfunctional conflict we tend to favor one role over the others. What role do you resonate with? In a future blog we’ll talk about how to step out of the drama triangle and into healthy interactions.

Investing in Your Marriage

Marital research guru John Gottman is the author of the popular book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. As the title suggests, Gottman identifies principles that healthy marriages embody. One of those principles is the idea of turning toward rather than turning away from your partner.

Every day in relationships we make small bids - bids for attention (“Oof, what a day…”), bids for connection (“Want to play a game tonight?”), bids for affection (reaching to hold hands), bids for humor (making a joke or laughing at something funny you see), etc. These moments are small and routine, but the responses are important building blocks for relationships. Turning towards looks like responding or accepting those bids from your partner. For example if your partner laughs at something they’ve just seen, turning toward may look like sharing in that joy and asking “What’s so funny?” Turning towards a bid for attention may be responding to a long sigh or other non-verbals, “You seem stressed, want to talk about it?” Gottman argues that these small moments are much more important for the relationship than the occasional extravagant trips and gifts.

Gottman likens the idea of turning toward to an emotional bank account shared between you and your partner. For each moment you turn toward one another, you make a small deposit into the emotional bank account. For each moment you turn away, ignoring the bids for connection, you make a small withdrawal. The more deposits you make by turning toward, the more emotional capital you have in your savings, strengthening your relationship for when crises and challenges come in the future. If a crisis arises and there isn’t enough relational capital saved up, the relationship can feel bankrupt by challenges.

How can you invest in your relationship today?