Learning Boundaries as a Self-Parenting Skill


I recently saw this tweet from writer Jacinda Townsend:

Jacinda, you are definitely not alone!

For those who grew up in a family of origin with appropriate boundaries, learning how to set boundaries probably happened as invisibly as learning to walk, write their name, or sing songs. Interpersonal interactions were healthy and just “happened that way.” Those people often don’t even realize that’s how they are living. (See: fish, water!)

But for those of us from families with more dysfunction, we may have just as invisibly learned unhealthy boundaries, and it will greatly affect our daily lives. Like much of self-parenting, this is harder to learn in adulthood, but necessary and definitely worth the work.

Since I am also a therapist who hands out materials on boundaries to my clients, here are links to two articles I frequently use with clients. Others may also find them useful:

Like any skill, boundary setting takes repeated practice over time. We may see how we’re “supposed to” do it right away, but that doesn’t mean we will be able to implement it right away. Throw away that perfectionistic expectation. But you can start experiencing relief right away from even small changes! Read the articles and see what parts apply to your experience. Start small, keep working on it, and develop the habit of treating your boundaries as being important! ❤








Acceptance: Making People into Trees

Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert) expresses acceptance of self and others with a beautiful metaphor:


“…when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Remember, emotional and cognitive skills take practice just as physical skills do. Many of us have years or decades of practice in thinking destructively and judgmentally! So practice a little self-acceptance today, and then again tomorrow, and the next day…


Know Your Personal Rights: With Explanations!

Based on the Personal Bill of Rights from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Edmund J. Bourne):


#1: I have the right to ask for what I want.
You are allowed to ask. You don’t have to mind-read beforehand to make sure the answer will be yes. You don’t have to swallow everything you want or like or need. Sure, it’s possible the answer will be “no,” but you can prepare for that possibility. It’s not wrong to ask.
#2: I have the right to say no to requests or demands I can’t meet.
Just because someone asks (or demands) something, you are not obligated to do what they want. You are also not required to come up with justifications, apologies, or rationalizations for saying no. It’s okay to just say, “No, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to do that.”
#2 is also the corollary to #1. If at some level you believe people are not “allowed” to say no, you may feel guilty asking for anything because it feels like you are “forcing” someone to do what you want. (And you may resent others asking anything of you for the same reason.)
You are allowed to say no to others, and others are allowed to say no to you. (That’s how autonomy works.)
#3: I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative.
You are allowed to have feelings, whether you or others think they “make sense” or not. You can acknowledge a feeling to yourself or to others. Emotions are your feedback system about events, whether in the outside world or within your mind. As such, they aren’t “right or wrong.”
Thoughts and judgments generated by feelings can be true or untrue, reasonable or unreasonable, but the feelings themselves are not right or wrong.
For example, you can feel scared about something that wouldn’t scare most others. The fear is still real, even if there is no threat. Likewise, you can be sad, or angry, or even happy about something that doesn’t make sense. The feeling itself is still real.
So it doesn’t make sense for someone to say, for example, “You shouldn’t be sad about that.” If you’re sad, you’re sad. Or, it’s okay to tell someone, “You’re scaring me,” even if they believe they have a right to shout at you, or tell you you “shouldn’t” be scared.
In fact, telling someone your responses to their actions is an important thing for them to know about how their behavior affects others. (If it’s not safe to tell them how you feel, then that relationship is not safe.)
A good formula to express feelings to self or others is “I feel ______________ when ___________ happens.”
“I feel anxious and vulnerable when there’s violence in the news.”
“I feel abandoned and angry when you forget to pick me up.”
#4: I have the right to change my mind.
It’s okay to try something and then realize you don’t like it halfway through. It’s okay to discover your feelings about a person or situation have changed. It’s acceptable to learn and grow and develop new beliefs. You do not have to continue something you don’t like.
#5: I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect.
It’s often much easier to apply “no one is perfect” to others, while still beating yourself up for mistakes or “flaws.” This is usually an internalized voice that is just waiting for any chance to criticize. Whosever voice that was, you don’t have to keep repeating that tape.
It’s certainly valid to try doing something differently if that works better in your life, but you are already acceptable, even as you are “messing up” or being flawed. Too many people are waiting until they achieve perfection to love themselves, and they will wait forever.
It can be invigorating to strive for excellence, but “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” This means that you may end up doing nothing at all if you can’t do it perfectly (which no one can).
#6: I have the right to follow my own values and standards.
You are allowed to wear clothes that others think are too childish, too weird, too sexy, or too boring. It’s really none of their business. It is your choice if you want to eat vegetarian food or to include meat. It’s not wrong to have sex or to completely abstain. YOU choose. If you want to go to church, that’s your business. If you want to not go to church, that is also your business. If you want to be a parent, great! If you want to be child-free, great! You don’t have to legalistically justify your values to someone else.
#7: I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates my values.
You are allowed to say no when you need to! (See #2.)
#8: I have the right to determine my own priorities.
No one else can live your life for you. It’s not a trial run. Prioritize what is really important to you, which may not be what your friends, parents, or society expect. They get their own turn. This is yours!
#9: I have the right *not* to be responsible for others’ behaviors, actions, feelings, or problems.
This one is tricky. People misinterpret it to mean that it must be fine to be selfish and you should not care how you treat others or how they are affected by you. That is not what it means.
It does mean that you are allowed to take your own side. You are allowed to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. You do not have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.
It means that ultimately you cannot control how others respond to you. For example, if you are “walking on eggshells” trying not to upset someone, then at some level you believe you can (and must) manage their feelings — to make things okay for them. This is not true!
It means that if someone is abusive to you, you did not “cause” it, because you are not responsible for others’ behaviors — they are. It means that you don’t have to keep rescuing someone, especially from problems they create, because you are not responsible for their problems.
The reverse is also true! If someone is hurtful to you, you are the one responsible for protecting your feelings from further injury, whether by telling the person to change how they treat you, or by ceasing to interact with them (insofar as that is possible) if they do not.
#10: I have the right to expect honesty from others.
A relationship without honesty is not a relationship, but rather a one-sided experience for each partner.
#11: I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
Too often people imagine that love and anger are incompatible. But we can hold many contrasting feelings at once! If someone hurts or disappoints you, it’s natural to feel angry. We don’t want to express anger in an abusive way, but feeling and expressing anger is to be expected.
#12: I have the right to be uniquely myself.
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” Your individuality is to be celebrated. That doesn’t mean others are wrong to be who they are. It means that you get to be anything from “boring” to “weird” if it makes you happy and fulfilled (and so do others!)
#13: I have the right to feel scared and say “I feel afraid.”
Feelings are not wrong in and of themselves. No one can tell you that you “shouldn’t” feel afraid (not even you). You do not deserve to be mocked into ignoring your vulnerability or your wish to be careful, even if your fear is not based on a reasonable threat.
#14: I have the right to say “I don’t know.”
You don’t need to be pressured into making a decision when you are unsure. And you can’t be expected to know everything — no one knows everything! It’s reasonable to take the time to figure out what you don’t know.
#15: I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behavior.
If you want to explain to someone, you certainly may. But too often people feel they *must* come up with scrupulous, legalistic, unbreakable explanations for everything they do.
Who are you allowing to judge you? You don’t have to put yourself one-down to someone else’s judgment. After all, you don’t judge them and argue every little thing they do, right?
#16: I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings.
Pssst! Here’s the big secret: ALL (yes, ALL!) decisions are based on feelings. Someone who tells you otherwise is not very self-aware, and they are rationalizing their own (feelings-based) decisions in hindsight.
What about logic? What about rationality?
Yes, we want people to be rational and to be logical. That’s the best way to get the outcome you want… and “want” is a feeling. Without feelings, there is no reason to do anything at all. You are not an automaton, nor is anyone else. Logic incorporates rationality AND feelings in deciding your path. If you believe something will make you happy and you know (rationally) how to do it, then logic says “try doing that thing.”
There is no such thing as “pure logic” or “pure rationality” in terms of human behavior.
All desired outcomes are feelings. For example: “I want to have a house and a car [because I will feel satisfaction].” or “I want to become a physician [because I will feel better if my parents are pleased].”
So if someone criticizes you for deciding things based on your feelings, they have absolutely no grounds for criticism. It is completely illogical to exclude feelings from decision-making!
#17: I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time.
Whether you need a little or a lot of alone time to recharge, then you are allowed to take that time. Others may *want* more of your time than you have available, but it’s not your responsibility to sacrifice taking care of yourself to fulfill their wishes.
You can’t give to others from an empty well!
#18: I have the right to be playful and frivolous.
It’s okay to have a childlike side. That’s part of what keeps you alive and happy! It doesn’t mean you are are not to be taken seriously, or that your needs should be ignored, and it doesn’t mean you can’t also be a competent adult.
#19: I have the right to be healthier than those around me.
When you begin to set boundaries, take care of yourself, and ask for needs to be met, you may be met with resistance from those still caught in dysfunctional dynamics. You are allowed to take care of yourself even if others aren’t, and you can’t save them by sacrificing yourself.
#20: I have the right to be in a nonabusive environment.
You are not required to tolerate a stressful and abusive environment just because you know how to do so and have done so in the past. A big part of therapy is *lowering* your tolerance for BS so that you will get out of bad situations before they get terrible!
#21: I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
If the atmosphere in your childhood environment was insular and suspicious, you may feel guilty about being social or out in the world. But those are part of your rights as a human — to connect with other humans as you see fit, to like and love those you are drawn to.
In an abusive relationship of whatever kind, someone may seek to make you feel guilty for or afraid of having any connections besides the abuser. This is a control mechanism, and is not healthy.
#22: I have the right to change and grow.
“But you didn’t use to mind when I did X” … It’s okay to say, “Well, now I do mind, so please don’t.”
#23: I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
It’s also okay to limit or cease time spent with those who do not respect your needs, wants, and boundaries. Even if they are loved ones.
#24: I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
Again, it’s okay to limit or cease time spent with those who do not treat you with basic human respect. Even if they are loved ones.
And don’t confuse “respect as an authority” with “respect human rights”:
Finally, #25: I have the right to be happy.
The simplest but by no means the easiest to accept.
(Previous post about personal rights here.)

Self-Care: It’s Okay Not to “Optimize” Yourself

Many people have been making New Year’s resolutions, and some are even sticking to them! For most people, however, they won’t last very long.

It’s completely valid to want to make changes to yourself and to your life, but pay attention to what you are telling yourself in the process. You may be telling yourself that you will finally be acceptable if you can meet your goals. The “if” lets us know that if we don’t meet our goals, we are not acceptable. We often believe (consciously or not) that there are only two choices: exceptionally fantastic, or…crap. (To state it plainly.)

Guess what? You are already acceptable! You are wonderful and miraculous! Yes, even on your bad days.

The idea that you aren’t good enough unless you are the best of the best is an expression of perfectionism, and perfectionism is a life-killer, a progress-killer, a killer of the good. We seek progress, not perfection.

Instead of telling yourself that you “must improve,” try the dialectical approach:

“I am already acceptable as I am, AND I would like to try doing this a different way to see if I like that better.” (No “buts” allowed!)

This makes it clear that it is a choice you are undertaking, rather than a “should.” Also, it is a way of making a choice to try change but without browbeating, judging, and criticizing yourself–all things that, ironically, make change much more difficult.

If you accept yourself as already okay, then you are free to try changing things all year around, as the opportunities present themselves. But–this is key–you don’t have to “improve” yourself in order to be acceptable.

While we’re here talking about accepting yourself, here is a great article about expressing your vulnerabilities:


Checking In With Yourself

When you’re feeling really depressed, upset, or anxious, it can be hard to come up with ways to understand what is happening with yourself, let alone what to do about it. Even the most basic self-care can be hard to remember when your executive functioning is down.

This is a very helpful list to have handy for those times when you are unable to generate the energy to remember how to support yourself:


Know Your (Personal) Rights

Most relationship difficulties are a result of some kind of difficulty in setting boundaries. If your childhood environment was chaotic or abusive, you may not have been allowed or encouraged to have personal boundaries, so you may need to learn to develop them in adulthood.

In order to develop good personal boundaries, you need to know what rights those boundaries are defending. If you haven’t thought much about your personal rights, you might not even know what they are! In that case, a good place to start is the Personal Bill of Rights from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Edmund J. Bourne).

Personal Rights

Click here to see further explanation of individual items on the list.

Self-Care: Becoming Your Own Good Parent

I frequently hear people describing “luxury” activities, such as getting a manicure or buying things for themselves, as “self-care.” Often it’s said jokingly, but I get the sense that many people do not really know what self-care is. Sure, self-care may usefully incorporate some luxurious activities. But that’s really not what it’s about. Self-care is simply doing for yourself what a very good parent would do for you, to the best of your ability. And a good parent would make sure your needs were met. Every day.

We learn what we live. If you grew up in a chaotic, dysfunctional, or abusive household, you may not have received a complete template for what a good parent does.  If that is the case, then you have had a long time to practice not treating yourself very well. The only way to retrain yourself in that skill is the way you develop any other skill–by practicing. So here are some things a good parent would do for their child that you can practice doing for yourself:

A good parent would make sure you had a regular bedtime and enough sleep, maybe even a nap when you’re feeling cranky or sick. They would make sure you were getting enough nutritious and enjoyable foods. They would make sure you bathed, brushed your teeth, and had clean clothes.  They would make sure you had some time to run around outdoors. They would make sure you got medical care.

Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you make yourself operate on too little sleep and put off eating until you’re drooping? Do you treat meals like sins or punishments instead of necessary and pleasant events? Do you treat exercise like a penance for eating? Do you ignore illnesses and injuries until they are simply unbearable?

A good parent would arrange for playtime with nice friends, and would limit time spent with those who were mean to you. A good parent would comfort you when you were sad or afraid, listen when you were angry, and share your happiness. A good parent would maintain healthy boundaries: they would allow you to have your own feelings and not make you responsible for theirs.

Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you spend more time with unpleasant people out of obligation, and less time with people who are good to be around? Do you dismiss your feelings, swallow your sadness, minimize your anger, ignore the importance of your joy?  Do you call yourself stupid for having a feeling? Do you take responsibility for making sure things are okay for everyone around you, even if it means you are unhappy?

A good parent would encourage your interests, your curiosity, and your work habits, and would help you develop your talents. A good parent would also give you adequate unstructured time to relax between all that working and practicing.

Do you do those things for yourself? Or do you dismiss your interests as silly or insignificant? Do you put off necessary tasks repeatedly? Do you tell yourself that your talent for sewing, mechanics, dancing, writing, music, art, is unimportant and not worth practicing? Do you always forgo pleasurable, enriching, or relaxing activities in favor of your to-do list or more work hours, even when you have some free time?

One of the tasks of adulthood is to re-parent ourselves, which really means developing the habit of self-care. If you want to feel better and function better, start the practice of becoming your own very good parent.