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Four Steps to Better Personal Boundaries

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.

Four Steps to Better Personal Boundaries

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). Four Steps to Better Personal Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 Mar 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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