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.

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.

Externalizing the Problem

Our language is important in how we conceptualize our life, our identity, our struggles, and our successes. Often we can join ourselves with our struggles in our language, enveloping those issues into our identity. This happens subtly, like saying “I am depressed” versus “I’m struggling with depression” or “I’m feeling depressed today.” Language can reveal if we are operating in guilt (I did something bad) or shame (I am bad). These subtle shifts in how we narrate our story can help us externalize our problems, thereby highlighting our strengths, resilience, and ability to write a new story.

Beginning to externalize the problem is all about separating ourselves from the issue. Externalizing language asks questions of the problem like, in what context does that _____ usually occur? What types of things happen right before _____ takes over? What does _______ tell you to do? For example, rather than saying “I’m depressed,” you may say “Depression really got me today,” or “I really gave into Depression’s tricks last week.”

Externalizing problems is not about abdicating responsibility, instead it’s about becoming responsible agents of our own narratives. This process of shifting our language helps us move back into the driver’s seat. Instead of things happening to us, we become active agents in our own story, accountable for our responses to events that happen. We can move from a problem-saturated narrative where we feel powerless, to a story that we choose to rewrite, highlighting our ability to resist our problem areas, celebrating our growth, and noticing our competencies.

What does your language indicate about how you conceptualize your struggles? How may it help to externalize issues to get back into the driver’s seat? What struggle can you externalize in your life now? How would you like to rewrite your story?

Co-Addiction vs. Trauma Informed Treatment for Betrayed Partners

In the early days of sex addiction treatment, clinicians took a copy + paste approach from successful substance abuse treatment protocols and applied it to sex addiction treatment. While some of this was (and remains) helpful for treating addiction, it unfortunately misunderstood and ultimately mistreated the partners in the process. This copy + paste approach left treatment addict-centric while looking to the partner and family for support for treatment rather than understanding the family needs their own support too. It also carried the co-addict or codependent label over to the betrayed partner.

The co-dependent model can make the partner feel culpable or responsible for the addiction behaviors by somehow enabling their acting out or for the very reason of choosing an addict as a mate. This model requires the partner to also be in lifelong recovery as they unpack and release their own addictive tendencies. This left many partners feeling blamed for their spouse’s addiction and further traumatized when seeking treatment.

As new research emerged over the years, however, the field is acknowledging how poorly the partners of addicts have been treated along the way. It has become clear that the most helpful approach to supporting betrayed partners is a trauma informed lens. Rather than label with codependency or other mental health diagnoses, the trauma informed model assumes first and foremost that the partner’s responses (emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally) fit those consistent with traumatic stress. Often the betrayed partner has done the best they can to adapt to an addictive system, one that they were likely unaware of until discovery of the sexually compulsive behaviors. The discovery of the behaviors plus the secrecy and double life required to keep it hidden is doubly traumatizing.

While some betrayed partners may also identify with some codependent qualities, certainly not all will fit this list. The vast majority, however, will display symptoms of traumatic response as a result of the betrayal. The trauma model empowers the partner, normalizes their responses, and holds hope that healing and restoration are possible. If you find yourself looking for healing after discovering your spouse or partner’s betrayal, I encourage you to find trauma informed support through counseling, coaching, or support groups that will journey with you this process.

Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

Boundary Myths

Many people aren’t taught what boundaries are or how to properly set them. Just like any new skill, learning to set boundaries can feel clumsy and awkward at first. As you learn how to set boundaries, you may run into some common myths:

1. Setting boundaries is mean.

I hear this one a lot, “I don’t want to be mean, but… I feel so rude!” When you are used to accommodating other people's’ needs and ignoring your own, setting boundaries can feel cold. Boundaries are not meant to control or manipulate others, they are intended to protect you from being taken advantage of.

2. Boundaries are punishment.

While there may be natural consequences involved in boundaries, they are not intended to be punitive in nature. Boundaries exist to say, “here is my line in the sand, please don’t cross it. If you do cross it, I will need to ____ in order to take care of myself.” Boundaries exist to protect and care for the boundary maker, not punish the boundary breaker.

3. Boundaries are selfish.

People that struggle to set and maintain boundaries often also struggle with disappointing others. In her research on vulnerability, Brene Brown found that the most compassionate people were also the most boundaried. Setting and keeping boundaries allows you to have your needs and self-care met, allowing you to be more genuinely present to the emotional state of others. Think of how airlines tell you to put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else; it is not selfish to protect yourself.

4. Boundaries are permanent.

You have the right to change your mind at any time. If a boundary isn’t working or something changes, boundaries can always be renegotiated.

5. People won’t respect my boundaries.

Boundaries are not designed to change or control other people’s behavior. The only thing you can control is yourself and the only boundary you can successfully enforce is your own. Boundaries do not depend on other people bending to your wishes, but rather on your ability to consistently follow through on your needs. Other people respecting your boundaries is much less important than you respecting yourself enough to keep them.

Disclosure After Infidelity

There is often a mixed reaction when we talk about a full disclosure - some couples want to race into it, others are scared to face it. Sometimes one party wants it, and the other doesn't. Research shows, however, that 94% of couples that go through the full disclosure process find it to be healing, helpful, and are glad they did it.

Full disclosure is essentially the acting out partner giving a complete account to their spouse/partner of all sexual behaviors from the inception of the relationship and forward. Understandably, this is a very challenging day for both partners. Often the disclosing partner fears the information will hurt their partner, and the partner fears they may regret hearing information that they cannot unhear. Despite these potential risks, there are many benefits.

Often partners of sex addicts will experience staggered disclosure, bits and pieces of information gathered over time, either from an addict self-disclosing or being caught. Usually the information is spoken as if it's the full truth, so when more information comes along, it can be all the more traumatizing. This leaves the partners feeling uncertain if there is more information hidden and fearful of trusting again. Yet many partners need to know the full truth in order to move forward in healing the relationship. Therapeutic disclosure helps reduce that fear by creating a safe space to hear all of the acting out behavior in one setting. This is a painful day, yet the structure helps contain the trauma into one setting rather than being re-traumatized with each staggered disclosure. 

Though there may be some trepidation approaching disclosure day, the disclosing partner often reports feeling a sense of relief in having all of the secrets and information clearly out in the open. By bringing the secrets into the light, shame can dissipate and recovery can continue. The full disclosure is an important step that allows the couple to put secrets to rest, share the same information, and work through the pain to move forward.

I carefully walk couples through the disclosure process in three parts: Full Disclosure, Emotional Impact Letter, & Emotional Restitution Letter. In future blogs we'll talk more about what the next steps entail. 

If you think a full disclosure may be helpful in your journey, reach out today to get started!