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.

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.

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.

Self-Care, Self-care, Self-care

Self-care, self-care, self-care. A mantra I heard over and over again during my grad school training years. It’s a mantra I find myself passing onto my clients on a regular basis, something that is integral to the healing process: “What are you going to do to take care of yourself this week?”

Sometimes “self-care” conjures images of extravagant self-pampering, a la Parks and Recreation’s “Treat Yo Self” day, filled with shopping and massages and fancy food. In reality, self-care may be much less exciting, but much more important.

Self-care is taking the time to pour into your tank so that you can continue to function well physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally. You may have heard the metaphor that in the event of an emergency, airlines require you to put your own mask on before assisting others. Self-care is the oxygen mask that keeps you running, allowing you care for others well too. These activities recharge you, help you wind down, recenter you, and allow you to release the build up of life stressors without blowing up.

Intentionally creating routines and rhythms that sustain you, bring you life, work through feelings, center you, keep you healthy, bring peace, laughter, and joy are essential to your well-being. We are embodied people, so using our bodies in all the senses is a great way to engage in regular self-care.

Here are some great regular self-care options you can weave into your regular routines:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Sit outside in the sunshine
  • Take a walk
  • Journal regularly
  • Talk with a close friend
  • Shower regularly
  • Cook
  • Color or draw
  • Paint your nails
  • Exercise
  • Read a book
  • Laugh
  • Cuddle with a pet
  • Play a game
  • Make something with your hands
  • Take a technology time-out
  • Hike
  • Go to the beach or lake
  • Spend time in the forest or mountains
  • Listen to music
  • Breathe mindfully
  • Light a candle
  • Pray or meditate
  • Enjoy family time
  • Have coffee with a friend
  • Ride a bike
  • Yoga
  • Get some fresh air

What are you going to do to take care of yourself this week?

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!

Responding to #MeToo

In the last few weeks stories of Harvey Weinstein have littered news sites as celebrity survivors come forward sharing their experiences of sexual victimization. Weinstein is not the only high profile person to gain the spotlight for sexual assault allegations, prompting the viral #MeToo campaign, where women have courageously come forward sharing their experiences of assault, rape, and sexual harassment.

Tragically, the experience of womanhood includes enduring unwanted sexual advances, the unsolicited up-down glances of strangers, unsolicited sexual images, infantilizing comments like “Honey, sweetie, babe, sweetheart” made to adult women, catcalling on the street, unwanted touch, unsolicited sexual comments, and for one in four women, sexual assault. These unwelcome sexual advances may be made from friends, family, strangers, or people in power.

In the midst of these behaviors, women are often told to lighten up, get a sense of humor, and learn to smile or brush off these advances for the sake of their careers, relationships, or reputations. Essentially, women are taught to minimize their experiences and remain silent as “boys will be boys”.

As thousands of women come together to demonstrate that these stories are not just Hollywood scandal, but a pervasive, enduring problem in our society, how do we respond?

Listen. Take time to ask and understand the experiences of women in your life. Respect their stories, and respect if they are not able or willing to share at this time. This is not your chance to argue or blame shift, but to truly hear what her experiences have been like. Use phrases like, “Tell me more. What was that like for you? What do you need right now?”

Educate. Take time to do research about what constitutes sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. At least one in four women will experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime.One third of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In California 99% of women have endured street harassment.

Evaluate. Behind each #MeToo is a man or boy who made the advances. Challenge yourself to ask hard questions like, “Have I been that person before? How do my attitudes towards women affect my behavior? In what ways do I act or speak disrespectfully about women? Have I remained complicit or silent as others have treated or spoken about women disrespectfully? How do ‘jokes’ about women contributed to #MeToo? How can I stand up for women when I witness harmful conversations, jokes, or behavior around me?”

Support. For many assault and rape survivors, when stories like Weinstein’s break, a flood of memories, flashbacks, and nightmares may return. Many other women struggled to offer #MeToo because of rampant minimization, thinking their experiences of harassment were “not that bad”. Support your sisters by naming and denouncing sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and rape. Support women as they heal. Become advocates for change in your own circles and beyond.

Girls & Sex

I recently read Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex then attended a workshop she hosted for Bay Area parents about the changing landscape of adolescent female sexuality. (Side note: This is exactly the type of hot pink, bold front cover books that therapists read on airplanes and in coffee shops that turn heads.) Professionally and personally, I have spent a lot of time with young women navigating the pressures, challenges, expectations, and relationships of the high school and college years.

With young girls I know personally, I see the type of selfies & photos that are posted online, and that photos that show more skin tend to get more likes & more comments. The same behavior is modeled from celebrities and marketed as some freedom of sexual expression. Peggy argues that this self-objectification does not reclaim power for females, it merely trades the appearance of sexiness for money, fame, or approval. It continues the idea that worth is received from the outside in, rather than than inside out. The sexual economy of the digital age is changing faster than we can catch up in conversations at home. What we see online is a symptom of a greater problem, the divorce between looking sexy versus experiencing sexuality.

Girls & Sex is a must read for parents of both girls & boys who live at home. Peggy reveals the ineffectiveness of our current sex education, both at home and in schools. Our system has woefully failed our young women in awareness of their own bodies, empowering them to voice their needs and desires, and preparing them for pleasure in relationships rather than focusing only on avoiding pain & risks. Without information, kids are turning to pornography as a sex education of sorts.

Peggy tackles the big issues like the effects of pornography, lacking definition of virginity, slut and prude shaming, the exponential rise in casual oral sex (female to male), young women becoming spectators rather than present to sexual experience, sexting, the problem of sexual assault, and the notion of hook-up culture. Peggy argues for intimate justice, the idea of reciprocal, mutually satisfying, joy filled, respectful and responsible sexual experiences.

In order to empower our young women for joy, equality, and agency in their sexuality, conversations must start at home -- and the earlier the better. Girls & Sex was at times an overwhelming read, but an essential pulse on the current landscape of female sexuality. Pick up your own copy today & discuss it with other parents and your own children.

For a teaser of some of Peggy’s work, read “Parents need to talk to their daughters about the joys of sex, not just the dangers”, an article posted in the Washington Post.