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.

Celebrating Mini-Milestones

Life traverses various seasons, some joyous and light, others dark and difficult. Regardless of the season you’re in now, it’s human nature to zoom in on the difficulties of a day or week and filter out the positive. It can feel natural to celebrate the big milestones in joyous season, but it takes more discipline to celebrate the little, everyday milestones that go easily unnoticed.

We are often our own worst critics, quick to offer praise to others while beating ourselves up for small mistakes. Taking the time to celebrate growth, big and small, can help reorient your perspective toward gratitude, honor your growth and progress, and help you be on the lookout for good news. This shift in perspective may also reframe the way you engage with or interpret your difficult seasons.

For example, if you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, take time to celebrate the small moments that go well: conversations that felt connecting, using your tools in conflict, a fun date night, handling a parenting situation on the same team, etc. Reinforcing these positive moments helps give encouragement to both you and your partner that you are progressing and working hard and appreciate the effort being put in. If you’re struggling with depression, take time to celebrate when you choose to reach out for support rather than isolate, when you have a good week, when you choose to exercise, etc.

Celebrating these mini-milestones can be simple - a high five, an encouraging note, giving yourself a small treat, scheduling some pamper time with a friend, going out for ice cream or coffee, etc. You may even record these mini-milestones in a journal or diary, intentionally choosing to remember and honor the progress, especially on days you need the reminders or encouragements.

Take some time to reflect on your current season of life - is it one that is primarily light and joyous, or perhaps one that feels draining and hard? How do you feel about celebration? What mini-milestone can you celebrate this week? How may you encourage someone else when you see their milestones?

The Power of Affirmations


We are often our worst critics, judging ourselves more harshly than we would others. It is often easier to extend grace and compassion to friends and family than it is to ourselves. The messages we tell ourselves often perpetuate lies that root from shame, our negative core beliefs. Things like “I’m not good enough. No one loves me. Everyone leaves. I can’t rely on other people.”, etc. Healing these negative core beliefs takes great intentionality. One great way is to practice affirmations.

Affirmations are simply positive truths about ourselves. An affirmation concisely speaks truth about who we are, challenging the negative core beliefs that may be loud in our head. These affirmations can cross out the messy first draft left behind by shame & replace it with a more true, more helpful draft.

Sometimes affirmations can be general, like “I am loved” or can be more specific to a situation, like “I can handle this”. Write your affirmations specifically to areas of yourself and your life that need that extra support and tune-up. Find yourself beating yourself up over small mistakes you make socially? Write affirmations about your belovedness, connectedness, support from others, etc. Working toward a big test? Write affirmations toward your preparation, your ability, your strength, your confidence. Struggling to hold onto hope in a difficult season? Write your affirmations about your confidence that you will be okay, you can handle this, you will get your happy ending.

I encourage you to give it a shot - even this weekend. Think about a difficult spot in your life now, it may be self-esteem, family, relationships, infertility, grief, loss, fear, lack of hope, a trial, etc.. Now challenge yourself to write 25 positive affirmations. Here are a few to get you started:

  • I am strong.
  • I am loved.
  • I am doing the best I can with the tools I have today.
  • I can handle this.
  • I can trust myself.
  • I am resilient.
  • I choose hope.
  • I will be okay.

When you have your affirmation list, commit to reading your affirmations out loud over yourself daily. You may even record yourself speaking these affirmations slowly, then listen to the recording as you fall asleep each night. Practicing affirmations may feel strange at first. We are often not used to speaking kindly to ourselves. Negative shame messages are usually deeply ingrained and can feel much louder than the soft whisper of a positive affirmation. Keep at it consistently, with practice and discipline the affirmations will eventually start to feel more true and take up more space in your head.

The 3 Essential Parts of Forgiveness

Recently my church community has been focusing on forgiveness - what does it mean that we are forgiven and what does it look like to be a forgiving people? It’s a challenging process, and one that’s been rattling around in my head quite a bit recently. Forgiveness has often been something I've had to work at, perhaps you can relate. Sometimes we feel stuck, and forgiveness seems an impossible task. Other times we can be too quick to offer forgiveness, dismissing the pain the wound has caused. Either way, how in the world are we to forgive?

I am a bit of a Brene Brown groupie (if you haven’t seen her TED talks or read her books, make that top of your to-do list). Brene outlines 3 crucial steps to forgiveness:

1. Acknowledge the pain.
The very fact that forgiveness is necessary depends on there being some breach of relationship, pain, wounding, disappointment, or betrayal. If we are to truly forgive others, we first must acknowledge that we were wronged and feel the pain that was caused. (The same is true in offering apologies, another topic for another day.)

2. Let die.
Of an already difficult process, this is arguably the most difficult step. Letting die means grieving the loss of the relationship as it was. Sometimes letting die means choosing to bury our loss, pain, anger, power, or being right. According to Brown, forgiveness always involved grief and in forgiveness we will "die a thousand deaths". This part of the forgiveness process takes great sacrifice, and it may be a step we need to return to and choose again and again, putting to death the parts of us that want to continue to punish, withhold, and use our pain as a shield or weapon to oppose the other. This grief and burial of something old may make space new life to be born. Other times it may be a loss without the continuation of the relationship.

3. See new life.
Burying and grieving what used to be can create fertile soil for new life to be born. The pain that required forgiveness in many ways means that the relationship may never be the same, it is truly something new. Sometimes embracing this new life can bring hope, joy, and beauty from brokenness. This may be a reconciled relationship, or it may be new life in a different way. I loved the reminder in my church that recognizing the new life is a task only for the forgiver. When others step in to point out new life may (i.e. “I know it was painful, but look at all the good that came from it!”), it may feel minimizing or patronizing. But when the forgiver can genuinely see new life sprouting after acknowledging their pain and grieving their loss, the new life may even be sweeter than the old.

When we walk through the difficulty of extending forgiveness to others, it can truly free us from being tethered to our pain and anger, and it can revolutionize the way we receive forgiveness as a sacrificial gift from others.

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?

2018, The Year of ______

I recently had coffee with a friend who was looking forward to 2018 as her year of adventure. Adventure was a word spoken over her coming year from a trusted friend, and a word she has embraced as a guiding principle as she approaches decisions in the New Year. This may be as simple as embracing adventure of learning how to cook a new dish or as life changing as choosing to move to a new city and explore a new season of life.

My friend’s full embrace of this word spoken over her reminds me of the power of words. Words can speak both life and destruction. Choosing a word or theme has the great potential to speak life preemptively into this new year, knowing that curveballs and unexpected challenges will come. Perhaps choosing a word can provide an anchor within the storms that may arise.

Her word has prompted me to reflect on what word I would use to describe the theme of my 2017, and wonder what I want the next calendar year to embody. So often I head into the New Year with excitement and personal goals or resolutions that I only half-heartedly commit to because I know my track record is not great. And yet the process of reflecting and goal setting is an important one nonetheless, so I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As you reflect on 2017, what word would you use the describe the months, memories, lessons learned, personal growth, challenges, etc.? 2017 was the year of _______.

As you look forward to 2018, what hopes do you have for yourself, career, physical health, relationships, mental health? What do you hope to learn next year? What traits do you hope to grow towards?

2018 will be the year of ______.

So...you're a Christian Counselor?

I currently see clients at Community Presbyterian Counseling Center (CPCC) in San Ramon. At the center, we often get questions from clients like "Presbyterian? Do I have to be a Christian to come here? Are you going to use the Bible in session?" The root of these questions is about how faith plays a role, or doesn’t, in professional counseling. You may have even wondered the same. Here are a few answers to common questions:

What is Christian counseling?
Christian therapists may answer this question differently from practice to practice. I answer that I am a therapist who is also a Christian, whereas other therapists will advertise themselves as Christian therapists. These answers likely impact the type of integration of faith into sessions. I believe that good, evidenced based mental health care can be an extension of God's healing hand toward spiritual, emotional, and relational wholeness. The desire to integrate faith into the therapy room, or not, is always exclusively the client’s. I will always respect the values, worldview, and beliefs my clients bring into counseling.

Is this Biblical counseling?
No. Biblical counseling is typically provided by lay counselors or pastoral counselors and is generally aimed at understanding the challenges of life solely through what is written in the Bible. Though some biblical or pastoral counselors may have advanced training or certifications, it is not generally regulated through a licensing board nor does it require advanced degrees. Biblical counseling does not always take into consideration what we know about mental health from research. My undergraduate and graduate training is in psychology and marriage and family therapy; though my education took place in Christian institutions, I am not a pastor. If you are looking for a Biblical counselor, I may not be the best fit for you.

Do I have to be a Christian to come here?
Absolutely not. I see clients of all faith backgrounds and clients without any religious association. Some clients come to CPCC because a shared Christian faith feels comforting. Many clients walk through the doors because they have heard we provide professional quality help in the community. In practical terms, therapy sessions between these two groups of clients may be indistinguishable.

How will faith be part of therapy?
The decision to integrate faith into therapy, or not, is exclusively the decision of the client. We all walk through life with a worldview lens, which may include religion. We may explore the ways your worldview affects your experiences or find ways to help you live more congruently with your values. If faith is part of your worldview, this may come into sessions. Some clients appreciate the understanding of a shared faith background, and desire no further explicit conversations of faith in sessions from week to week. Other clients explicitly do not want faith to be discussed in session. Still others request elements of faith to be included on occasion in counseling sessions. I will follow your preference and level of comfort.

Do the counselors use the Bible or pray during sessions?
Praying, using the Bible, or other spiritual practices are sometimes requested from clients of faith. If these elements are included, it is always after a discussion of comfortability with the client’s expressed faith, and not intended as an influence from the counselor’s values. Similarly, prayer or Scripture may only be used if it supports the overall goals of well-being and mental health of the client, which may be discussed between therapist and client.

If you have more questions about how faith and counseling interact, please contact me.

Building Resilience in Your Child

Watching your child endure disappointment, heartbreak, and setbacks is heart-wrenching. Perhaps watching them make mistakes, knowing disappointment is right around the corner, is even more challenging! Whether they are 5 or 25 years old, it can be tempting to step in to protect your child from pain. The extreme of this is what we call helicopter parents: hovering over their kids, intervening for them, making decisions for them, fighting their battles, and protecting them from consequences. While it can be tempting to fight those battles for your child, the best way to develop resilience in your child is to allow them to endure small hurts and disappointments. Children who rarely experience small hurts, boundaries, or consequences will struggle when bigger struggles inevitably cross their paths. As your children survive bumps along the way, they learn to tolerate distress, grow, and make better decisions in the future.

Part of your job as a parent is to equip your child to be a healthy, happy, and successful adult. One day your child will have to navigate conflict in their relationships, personal struggles, difficult coworkers, and financial choices all on their own. Moving out of the house does not magically bring about these life skills, they are learned and practiced at home throughout childhood. As parents, you can create safe boundaries within which your child can practice (and fail!) navigating those difficulties. Giving your child the freedom to make those decisions and deal with the consequences of their actions can be a huge learning opportunity and confidence builder.

Try to identify small, age-appropriate tasks that your child can learn to navigate on their own. For example, it may be appropriate to talk with your elementary aged child’s teacher about school concerns, but middle and high school aged kids can learn to talk to their teachers about homework and grade concerns by themselves. It is important that these tasks are small and the consequences are ones that your child can endure. Remember, it is also your job to protect your child from harm!

Whatever the issue, help your child brainstorm solutions, create a plan together, and help your child to execute that plan on their own. It is important that your child learn that their choices are connected to their consequences. Maybe it is the parent’s job to make their child’s lunch, but the child’s responsibility to remember to bring it with them. If they forget their lunch, they may have to skip lunch that day. Perhaps you and your middle school aged child make a plan to tackle a big project with you checking in daily -if your child chooses to procrastinate to the last minute, he or she may get a poor grade or be sleepy at school from staying up late to finish.

As your child grows they will be able to brainstorm, plan, and execute more and more on their own. Along the way, ask your child “What are you feeling? What do you need? How can I help you?” As your child learns to tolerate small setbacks, they will be better prepared to handle bigger disappointments down the road.

How to Listen so your Kids will Open Up

Just as children navigate new developmental stages, so parents must learn to relate to their children differently in each stage. This can be extremely difficult, especially when your sweet little one who used to share everything with you is navigating the adolescent years and suddenly wants nothing to do with mom and dad. Many parents are curious about how to better relate to their child so that they are willing to open up and share about their life.

Remember, your adolescent is learning how to become more independent, and will inevitably start to push a bit further away from the family. This is normal, and good! Your relationship will change as they learn to become more independent, to develop more intimate friendships, and form their identity. As a parent, you will likely not be your teenager's go to processing buddy, and information may become more limited. With that in mind, here are a few tips in how to cultivate a space where your teen will continue to share with you.

1. Get curious (but not too curious). Casually ask about your child's day, what was great and difficult about their day, what they love right now, what they may need. Let them teach you about the teenage landscape. Remember that teenagers become suspicious and often shut down when they feel they are being interviewed or interrogated. If your teen starts to shut down, ask them "It seems like you don't want to talk right now. I may be asking too many questions, is that right? Maybe we can talk more later."

2. Create a family culture where it is safe to share deeply. If the adults are not modeling how to share about feelings, talk about difficulties, or share joys, teenagers will not magically start talking about their deepest struggles and pains. Work on creating a family culture where everyone can feel safe to share (or not share) as they need. Around the dinner table make a habit of sharing your highs and lows from the day, put a feelings word list up on your kitchen, and practice using feeling words to help give your kids the language to talk about their internal world. When appropriate, share your own struggles that are still in process, not merely ones that have already been figured out.

3. Reflect back. Rather than jumping in with a solution to a struggle, learn to reflect back what your child is saying. Aim to reflect both content and the emotion behind it. If your child shares about a tricky friend situation, you may say "Wow, this conflict with your friends is messy, and you're feeling confused as to what to do." If your child seems irritable in the midst of a big project, you may say "You seem pretty stressed about this presentation," rather than "Why did you procrastinate to the last minute?" Reflective listening communicates care about your child's day and internal world, while respecting their desire to solve their challenges on their own.

4. Ask for feedback. Children and teens are rarely given a voice to make decisions or speak up for themselves. They are often spoken for, preached at, or have decisions made for them. If your child is consistently shutting down in conversations at home, notice it with them and ask what they may need instead. For example, "Tommy I notice that when I ask about your day, you give me one word answers. I really care about you and want to know how you're doing. What could I do differently that would help?" This could be as simple as giving the child 30 minutes of down time after school before asking about their day or planning for homework. Ask when they feel heard, what kinds of things you can do to support them, how you can respect their privacy and independence while staying involved in their life. They may surprise you with their answers!

5. Get in the car. Any parent that has driven carpool can attest to the world of information that opens up when your kids share with their friends in the car. It's as if the children completely forget that an adult is present, and the parent gets a sneak peak into their child's world. If you hear something in the car that your child hasn't shared with you, don't use this against them as a secret weapon. Instead, follow up with a gentle question later when friends aren't around. Teenagers in particular may be intimidated by face to face conversations with adults. They are often more comfortable when sitting parallel, just like what happens in the car. If your child tends to open up more in the car, take them with you for an errand, put your phones away, and let them fill the silence. Car rides are great times to ask open ended questions.

If you are really struggling to maintain a positive relationship with your teen, don't be afraid to reach out for help!

Practicing Gratitude in the Midst of the Struggle

Practicing gratitude when life is smooth sailing is easy, but practicing gratitude in the midst of struggle is where new muscles are developed. Celebrating Thanksgiving can be really challenging for those who are grieving or in the midst of a painful season of life. When pain is in the forefront, offering gratitude is often the last thing we want to do. Try a little experiment with me -- put your hand directly in front of your face with your nose touching your hand. What can you see? Just your hand! Now gradually move your hand away from your face. Notice how your vision changes. Similarly, expressing gratitude does not erase pain, but it does help provide a larger perspective. Here are a few challenges to try to help you practice gratitude:

  1. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Fill the pages with moments small and large that you are thankful for. Even on bad days, push yourself to find at least 3 things you are thankful for -- for example another day of living, health, the sun rising, a favorite song playing on the radio, a smile from a stranger, etc. This discipline will become more natural over time as you continue to practice gratitude daily.
  2. Tell someone you love the reasons you enjoy and appreciate them. Be intentional and specific.
  3. Go on a nature walk to enjoy the beauty around you. Leave your phone at home and let yourself stop at whatever catches your eye. Savor the textures, smells, sights, sounds, etc
  4. Write down as many things you can for which you are thankful for about a trying situation. In a particularly hard season of my life I used this challenge as a discipline. I pushed myself to write down 50 things I was thankful in the midst of my pain and anger. I was amazed to see the small ways hope and healing and joy were surrounding me, but how often I struggled to see it. Writing down the names of people that had come into my life, deeper relationships, more awareness of myself, engagement with my feelings, etc. was a great reminder of the growth I was experiencing in my pain.
  5. When a negative thought invades your mind, intentionally reframe the thought to find the positive. For example, if angrily stuck sitting in traffic, I may remind myself that I now have some extra moments to myself or to prepare for my day.
  6. Create a visual gratitude board. Cut and paste images, quotes, or drawings that represent gratitude or things you are grateful for.
  7. Share your moments of gratitude daily at the dinner table with family and friends. Create a daily rhythm of practicing gratitude in a community. Not only can gratitude be contagious, but sharing together also provides accountability for this new practice.
  8. Thank people for a job well done. Whether this be a barista after a good cup of coffee, the grocery store clerk, coworker, friend, your partner, or your child, be intentional about thanking them for their effort.
  9. Volunteer for an organization that uses your gifts and passions. Volunteering with others in pain can also provide a wider perspective on life.
  10. Remind yourself of ways previous struggles and challenges produced growth of character in your life. Reflecting on the ways you have overcome previous struggles can enable you tap into strengths and skills that will help you cope with your current struggles.

Remember that practicing gratitude does not necessarily mean that you feel grateful, and that’s okay. Keep with the discipline and your thoughts and feelings may change over time.