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.

Secondary Gains


Ever feel stuck and frustrated in a situation you want to change, but nothing seems to work? Sometimes this happens when we know the things we are “supposed” to do for self-care, mental health, or to find healing, but repeatedly find ourselves not doing those things. We suffer with the status quo, yet do nothing to change it. Other times this may happen in relationships, feeling the crazy making cycles repeating over and over, like a merry go round we want to get off of but can’t seem to find the exit.

When you feel stuck & frustrated, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on possible secondary gains. A secondary gain is a backdoor benefit that you receive from keeping the status quo. For example, a child that repeatedly gets in trouble may feel frustrated about constantly being punished, but not do anything to change her behavior. There may be an unconscious benefit of attention, even negative attention, that she receives from acting out. Perhaps a part of her is worried that if she stops acting out, she’ll stop getting attention. Sometimes the same happens in order to preserve relational dynamics. A child may act out in the family so the parents have to join together, unconsciously the child is preserving the marriage connection by providing a problem for the parents to solve.

As adults, we do similar things unconsciously. Perhaps someone stays just unwell enough to get the care and attention from others in their life. Some put up with behaviors in relationships that stand against values because of feeling terrified of being alone. Others fear succeeding for how that may impact relationships or change their life. Coming to terms with potential secondary gains can be difficult, but also provide the freedom to work through dormant fears that may be keeping you back from truly thriving. Identifying secondary gains may open the door to deeper self-awareness and the ability to write a new story.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some helpful questions to think through. How may I be benefitting from keeping things the same? How would getting better impact my relationships for better or worse? Is there any part of me that is afraid of the change that could occur if I got well/this situation changed? What does that part of me need in order to move forward?

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?

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.

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.

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?