Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Mindful Monday: Four Steps to Better Personal Boundaries

Mindful Monday: Making Boundaries
On Mindful Monday, my readers and I practice the art of pausing, TRYING to be still, or considering, ever so briefly, the big picture. We’re hoping this soul time will provide enough peace of mind to get us through the week!
As I mentioned on my Ash Wednesday video, I am dedicating each Monday during Lent to one of the six practices of simplification that Abby Seixas writes about in her book, “Finding the Deep River Within.” The second week of Lent, then, is about “making boundaries,” or learning the skill of saying “no.”
I feel like such a hypocrite when I write about boundaries because, while I am trying desperately to erect some in my life, it seems as though the plow comes through every day to make sure none stay up for longer than 24 hours.
But after reading spiritual author Henri Nouwen this morning, I think I understand why boundary-building is so difficult for me, and why I feel so rejected when someone in my life holds up their sign “Sorry, closed for business.” In “The Inner Voice of Love” (my Bible if you haven’t already noticed):


The great task is to claim yourself for yourself, so that you can contain your needs within the boundaries of your self and hold them in the presence of those you love. True mutuality in love requires people who possess themselves and who can give to each other while holding on to their own identities. So, in order both to give more effectively and to be more self-contained with your needs, you must learn to set boundaries to your love.

At the moment I suppose I am “other-contained,” and that in itself contributes too much my rollercoaster of moods. On the days that I receive a few warm fuzzies in my in-box, I feel great. On the days someone withholds her love, I cry. If I were “self-contained,” I would exist with a kind of plastic wrapper of self-acceptance and divine love around me so that I wouldn’t be as affected by feedback and conversations throughout my day. I might be able to write and give graciously without expecting anything in turn.
I’m farther along in my boundaries building task than I was last year this time. Now I know what boundaries are, what they look like, and that I need to erect some ASAP. That’s progress! It means I’m on the third rung of the four steps to personal boundaries I came up with:
1. First, you are unconsciously incompetent.
You don’t know how much you don’t know. And your ignorance can be bliss until you get sick or suffer from stress-related symptoms like dizziness, a weird rash, or chronic fatigue. You’re baffled as to why you’re always run down, because you don’t realize how much energy you’re using in stuff that’s not your problem


2. Then you become consciously incompetent.
Holy boundaries! you say to yourself upon waking one day. I have leaks of energy all over and I don’t have the faintest idea how to plug them all. Now you’re getting somewhere! You can do something about your fatigue because you’ve identified the problem…boundaries that look like your grandmother’s window screens: with more holes than wire, and totally ineffective. In twelve-step language, I guess this would be the first step: admitting you have no boundaries–that your life has become unmanageable.
3. Third, you become unconsciously competent.
In the third stage, you start to erect boundaries and take care of yourself but you don’t realize it yet. As I mentioned above, this is where I am. I’m beginning to be able to form the “n” consonant, and I’m hopeful that the “o” vowel may someday soon follow it.
4. Finally, you are consciously competent.
Yah! This is the goal: to be so confident in your boundaries skills that you no longer worry about not being nice or generous. Your boundaries automatically erect in dangerous, energy-leaking situations so that you don’t need to spend so much energy and time analyzing them, or whether or not you are building them the right way. The person at stage four is proof that the stuff in the Serenity Prayer is possible: accepting what you can’t change, changing what you can, and knowing the difference.
If I can continue to say no to the things I simply don’t want to do, not only will I have more energy, I will be able to accept without resentment the boundaries of those loved ones in my life. Writes Nouwen:


Part of your struggle is to set boundaries to your own love–something you have never done. You give whatever people ask of you, and when they ask for more, you give more, until you find yourself exhausted, used, and manipulated. Only when you are able to set your own boundaries will you be able to acknowledge, respect, and even be grateful for the boundaries of others.

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  • Megulator2

    I especially like the last part – not until we are able to set our own boundaries will we be able to acknowledge, respect, and even be grateful for the boundaries of others.
    When I think about it, I wouldn’t want to “suck dry” those around me, consciously or unconsciously. If, by having boundaries, they protect themselves and I learn not to do that, then we both benefit.
    On the other hand, it must be awfully hard as a parent to set boundaries, especially with adult children.

  • Sue

    Thank you for this timely blog post. I was inspired by your blog to blog on this topic myself, and I quoted what I thought was really most valuable here:
    “If I can continue to say no to the things I simply don’t want to do, not only will I have more energy, I will be able to accept without resentment the boundaries of those loved ones in my life.”
    So very true (and I have linked to your full post on my own blog.)
    Thank you!!!

  • sandee

    Your words were such a blessing to me this morning. Learning to set boundaries has been of the most difficult struggles for me in attaining mental health and freedom. I know I have made great progress, especially in the last year, but having my son home from college this week has reminded me once more of how far I still have to go. I have been feeling very discouraged and, consequently, down on my self. Being reminded of Henri Nouwen’s compassionate insights and wisdom was very healing and reminded me that we must set boundaries for our own mental health as well as those we love.
    Thank you for having the courage to share your soul. God is working through you in powerful ways. May he bless you richly.

  • John

    I enjoyed reading your lesson on setting boundaries. I have a strong religious background and have attended seminary. Early on I had the idea that it is superspiritual to be superhuman ie love endlessly without any restraint, iow save the world type mentality. It is much better to play a part in the process and let God do his part ie that which we can’t change and do what we can…

  • Kari

    Thank you, I have always had a problem setting boundaries. Finally I have something that makes sense.

  • sandra weisz

    i let all kinds of ppl take advantage of me and now i have insurmountable obstacles. i should have set bounderies but always wanted to please. now i am in horrible trouble and very very angry at those that used me so brutally. so i am forced to think only of myself now, or die.

  • Sherry

    For some of us, taking care of “me first” is the hardest thing in the world to do… yet the more I read about psychology and self, the more I have come to understand that people like myself (the enablers, the used, the givers of the world) actually feel pretty damn terrible deep down inside. You give and give until one day, all you have left to give is bitter resentment. I realize what I have to change about myself… but I simply have no idea how to make that change happen – to go from helping others to being able to say no, and even (some day!) asking others for help myself. Thank you, Therese, for helping me to see there are others struggling with personal boundaries just as I am, and also for helping me to see the glass is actually half full instead of half empty (after reading the four steps, I would say I’m pretty close to step 3, if not already there).

  • Cecilia

    Thank you Sandra and Sherry for sharing that you both struggle with boundaries. I give and give also and I feel used then I make plans and they will be chaneged at the last minute. I say yes but really want to say no this is not how we planned it I am nt comfortable with this. I have on occasion but when I say Yes I don’t feel good about myself and I am ill I have fibromyalgia and it affects my condition because I become tense. Reading about bboundaries is great I have them I just need to be able to say no more alot more. I have let some friends go because even talking to them they would repect them. So it cangt kind of lonely at times but I do not have that stress. Its very difficult but I like to read about them and see others are wanting to chage this part about them. Thank You

  • Lady of Light

    Boundaries was an issue for me for a long time. I was told that adult children of alcoholics in particular have the characteristic of difficulty setting boundaries. I believe I changed when I was willing to recognize my own limitations in order to live a healthy orderly life. Prioritzing my own responsibilities and personal goals helped me to put in perspective what I was able to do for others and to what extent to allow others into my life. I find I like myself better, have more confidence and less stress since I did some redefining of who I am, what my goals and priorities are, and the fact that I don’t have to continue with “approval addiction” because God approves of me and I approve of myself and through prayer and with God’s help, I make decisions that are healthy for me and I do have more energy and am able to put more energy into the things that are really important. As you stated, I also respect other people’s boundaries and am less dependent on others. It has given me a new sense of freedom. Sometimes when we don’t know how to deal with our own life, we lose ourselves in activity and in the demands of others to the point where it is unhealthy. This has changed in my life. Surprisingly, I didn’t lose friends or family – they respect me more and seem to appreciate when I do have time for them.
    Lady of Light

  • Lady of Light

    I enjoyed your article. Boundaries have always been an issue with me. I was told that especially adult children of alcoholics have difficulty setting boundaries. First, I realized my limitations. Second, I took stock of my priorities and goals and this gave me new confidence to say no to things that interfered with my life. I also realized that I liked myself better and felt better about myself so I was not hung up in approval addiction. God approves of me, and I approve of myself so I don’t have to prove it by constantly saying yes to everything. I feel freer and as you pointed out, I also respect the boundaries of others and am less dependent on others. Through prayer I believe God gives me guidance on what he wants me to do and I no longer use my overinvolvement with others as a way of avoiding my own responsibilities and problems.
    That is what works for me Pray, Prioritize and live with things in better perspective.
    Lady of Light

  • Your Name

    This article has really enlightened me. Wuau! When loved ones set a limit with me ; I usually get mad. Why? Because I have never set a limit to them. If I don´t do it, why should them?
    Might be a lack of love in my childhood and a need to not be lonely; that makes me act like that. As two posters mentioned, it is also that you are too dependent on them; which is not good for any part.
    Well, this life is a never ending learning process.

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