bound·a·ry ˈbound(ə)rē/

In my field of work, sometimes words and phrases get a bit overused. Terms like “co-dependence” or even diagnoses like “bipolar” start to get used in society where they don’t apply. That overuse makes terms get distorted. The term’s meaning becomes part pop culture and part industry specific making them no longer the concise description they used to be.

The term “boundaries” is one such word. I find in my practice, I hear more and more people describe that they know they need them but they feel uncertain about how to go about implementing boundaries.

Let’s tease out the term boundary to start. The dictionary states a boundary is, “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” The term’s meaning in pop culture is often, “a nebulous thing you should do to prevent your aunt from making you uncomfortable.” What a boundary is in a relationship is the line that separates your expectations and comfortability from another person’s. In other words, it is simply the line that defines what you are comfortable with and what you will accept.

Part of what makes boundaries confusing is that so many are decided by society.  We collectively decide things like how close is too close to talk to a stranger or that it is kind to hold the door for someone. Those types of boundaries are covert. A lot of people do them so from the time you are very young, you begin implementing these boundaries. This happens in families too. Family members collectively decide covert boundaries or rules like, it’s important to watch football on Thanksgiving. No one says it out loud but magically every Thanksgiving the game is on the TV.

The boundaries often referred to in therapy are the overt boundaries. For whatever reason, they require that you state your preference. These become important for people like in-laws or new relationships. Since they didn’t evolve around the same covert boundaries they need descriptions.

Where I see people get stuck is thinking that this is the same thing as confronting someone. It may feel uncomfortable to state your boundary to someone you care about, but that is only because as a society we don’t communicate all of our boundaries. It is just a conversation that doesn’t happen often. Boundaries only become a confrontation when they are not communicated for a long time. The relationship goes on and on with one person feeling walked on and then the boundary doesn’t really get stated at all but rather the built up anger gets expressed. This damages the relationship. Not only does one person feel walked on and hurt but the other person was never even given a chance to respect this undefined boundary.

Think about what you need from a difficult relationship or the behaviors that make you feel walked on. What could be different? What is in the other person’s control? Would it help if they asked you? Could they call ahead of time? Maybe there is subject best left out of Thanksgiving conversation.

Often people know intuitively what needs to stop or what boundary they need to set. But before people state their boundary they say the three words heard in therapy rooms across America, “Is it ok?” These overt boundaries have to be overt because they are not widely accepted or implemented in society. So they are personal. There is no societal norm to compare your boundary to and that makes it feel uncomfortable.

So there are two components to the discomfort of implementing a boundary:

  1. There is no comparison. This boundary is just between you and this person.
  2. Stating boundaries takes conscious effort because so many boundaries are covert.

Remember that these boundaries not only free you from feeling intruded upon they also set the other person free from worrying about overstepping. Boundaries clarify, prevent arguments and hurt feelings. They also give the other person a chance to show they can be trusted and it feels good to feel trusted.

With all of that being said, what are one or two boundaries you could state to help you have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving?

Happy Thanksgiving 🙂


Listen to Understand

Seems simple, huh?

Some times therapy gets boiled down to simple tasks. I was reminded of this while taking voice lessons. My instructor continually pushes me to “stand up straight… but not too straight.” At first this felt so frustrating. Number 1; I felt often that I was standing up straight. Number 2; I understand it is important but sheesh, how much time can one really spend practicing something that should come naturally.

In therapy, this shows up as discussing simple communication. It is a vital part of our existence as human beings and since we learn from a young age it feels as though it should just function automatically. People, places, and experiences begin shaping our communication at the same time that we are learning. No one learns perfect communication and then can just go back to that perfect pattern. Instead, just like posture, we learn ways of being that get us by. They function to protect or to serve us in ways we may not have even thought about. Therefore, letting go of that old posture or communication pattern (or habit) can feel uncomfortable…. just like me singing standing up straight but  not too straight.

Try giving yourself of others permission to fumble through new ways of being. Some of our most basic habits, postures, thoughts, topics, or self-talk, can seem so small but difficult to change.


I recently listened to an episode of This American Life in which they were exploring the old adage, “you will understand when you are older.” In the final act, they are talking to a man in the early stages of dementia. He describes what it is like to go to his doctor and be asked questions like “Who is the president?” and “What day is it?” and worst of all, they ask him to draw a analog clock depicting a particular time.

The man, a former engineer professor, is bothered that he struggles so much with this task. His life before was centered around numbers. He sits down one day and deconstructs the issue. He figures out and later articulates to his wife, the difficulty is that they are three layers. The hours, 1-12 (even though there are 24 hours in a day), the minutes (which correlate with the numbers 1-12 but represent 5’s) and on top of that, the larger hand tells the minutes while the smaller hand tells the hour. No wonder I am 30 and still have trouble reading an analog clock!

Anyway, this was an amazing story but that was not what fascinated me the most. What caught my attention was that his wife of decades kept feeding him words and prodding him along. It reminded me of many therapy sessions with parents and children. This constant need for your loved one to achieve in a way that society can recognize. It broke my heart. Here are people, young or old, trying to find their way in their own words, as fragile and disjointed as it may be, and we as a society have lost our ability to simply wait.

The evidence of this impatience and obsession with boiling every part of a human into a number is all around us. The survey of your doctor, what stories post in your Facebook feed, or what makes me most sad, the number of smiley or sad faces an elementary child comes home from school with.

I wish I could remember who said this, but I heard someone say that the true tragedy of our society isn’t what law has been or will be passed or the absolute joke of candidates in this presidential election, but instead the loss of humanity. The loss and oversimplification of the infinitely complex experience of being a human being. Our children are not numbers and our loved ones are not defined by the words they struggle to find. And each one of us deserves patience and quiet loving support to find who we are today even if it appears to be drastically different from yesterday.

So next time you feel like filling in a word or take a test score to mean something about you or a loved one’s intelligence, ask yourself, “does this really mean something or do I just feel a general pressure from society?” Or if you are really up for a challenge, “what is it about this score, lack of ability, or mistake that makes me feel uncomfortable enough to correct this person?”