Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Jason Harris
I’m writing an update/summary to this original post from February 2022. In essence, having healthy boundaries is about controlling what is truly ours to control in a healthy manner, and not attempting to control that which is not truly ours to control. This gets into “ownership” as noted below.
Below I mention Vicki Tidwell Palmer’s podcast, The Beyond Bitchy Podcast, in which she talks extensively about setting healthy boundaries. Her last podcast was July of 2021. In addition to her “five step boundary solution” (noted below), her last two podcasts, #142 and #143 are extremely high yield. These are titled “The Four Essentials of Mastering Boundaries.”
- “Who’s Got the Power?” Where does the power for the situation exist? Are we trying to take control of something that truly isn’t ours to control? Are we not claiming the power that we do in fact have? At the heart of our own healthy boundaries is healthy self-control.
- “Stinkin’ Thinkin'” Cognitive Distortions get in the way of healthy boundaries. When we misperceive what is happening, responding more to the narratives in our head rather than the actual facts on the ground, sometimes the “boundaries” we set can be inappropriate. Either too strong or not strong enough.
- “Live and Let Live.” She emphasizes how this wraps back to #1. Like most mental health professionals, she believes each person is the expert at knowing what is best for their own life. She used as an example, an addict? Even in the case of an addict… sometimes an addict hitting bottom is the best thing that they need for their own life. Trying to intervene in areas where we don’t truly have ownership can be a recipe for disaster… and can hamper growth for all involved.
- “Change, So that I can Feel Better.” So often so much of our behavior is about wanting others to change so that we can feel better. This is sometimes couched as ‘boundary” work. Again, this ties back to #1-3. We truly only have control over ourselves. When we insist another change (so we can feel better), we are setting ourselves up as a God figure for them… and simultaneously giving up our own personal power. We can only change ourselves. Healthy boundaries is about respecting that when needed and removing ourselves if necessary, etc. Yes, we can request change of another, but recognize this is fully in their control, not ours. Often if we think another has to change for us to feel better, we may not be doing enough self-work to feel better ourselves. Such as by removing ourselves from the situation, taking care of ourselves in other healthy manners, etc.
So why then can boundaries be so difficult for those who have been brought up Mormon? I touch on this below, but in short, Mormonism often severely violates all four of these barriers to healthy boundaries above. 1. Personal power and autonomy is frequently ignored or violated. 2. Cognitive distortions such as magical thinking, prophesying, catastrophizing, mind-reading, all-or-nothing thinking, etc. abound. 3. There is very little “live and let live” in Mormonism. Home teaching and Visiting teaching programs are evidence of this. 4. And Mormonism is notorious for wanting others to change outside the faith so it can feel better. The Mormon Church’s abhorrent historical involvement in politics over the past several decades (race related, women’s rights and LGBTQ issues) is proof of this.
Writing This Post Has Taken Me a While
Within two months of starting “Jason’s Voyage” in 2019, I started this post on boundaries. I’ve worked on it off an on since then but It’s taken me until now (February 2022) to publish it.
I grew up in a large very orthodox Mormon family and a small rural Mormon community. I have many fond memories of this. But this was also an environment where principles of healthy personal boundaries were frequently ignored or violated.
This is an area of my life I’m still actively figuring out and growing within. Probably part of the reason I have hesitated writing about it until now.
At its heart, I believe healthy boundaries are about enabling the nourishing of the most important relationship we all have, the one that impacts every other relationship. Our relationship with ourselves. (Something I’ve heard Adriene Mishler, say on more than one occasion).
Lots could be written (and has been written) about healthy boundaries.
Healthy Boundaries Are Essential.
“Boundaries” is a term that can be triggering to some. It has sometimes been a “triggering” word to me in the past as well. Probably because the concept sometimes is misused or misunderstood, including by myself. The truth is though, life can’t exist without boundaries.
Without boundaries, we would all be part of one giant homogenous conglomerate mass. Boundaries mark where each of us begin and end. We are all inter-related and inter-dependent in a system much larger than ourselves. So none of us are truly islands. But within this system, clear boundaries (that are permeable to varying degrees) also exist. I love the photo of farmland above. It is a beautiful reminder of this concept to me.
Healthy boundaries are necessary for life, for healthy relationships with ourselves and for healthy relationships with others. Healthy boundaries allow each of us to grow and thrive. Healthy boundaries enable both safety AND freedom. Freedom and safety are more limited if our physical or psychological areas are occupied by unwanted boundary violators.
Healthy boundaries enable both safety AND freedom.
Setting Healthy Boundaries is a Skill and and Art that Can be Learned
Setting healthy boundaries is a skill and an art that can be learned. Healthy boundaries are also usually a byproduct of many other healthy core beliefs being sufficiently in place as well. Examples include practices of self love and self-esteem as well as unconditional positive self-regard.
Given this, I believe learning to set healthy boundaries is a “pinnacle practice” in mental health. The effective setting of boundaries is greatly facilitated by many other aspects of mental health also being in place.
This said, let’s dive into more depth discussing boundaries!
Setting healthy boundaries is a skill and an art that can be learned. Healthy boundaries are also usually a byproduct of many other healthy core beliefs being sufficiently in place as well. Examples include practices of self love and self-esteem as well as unconditional positive self-regard.
Legitimate Ownership, The Foundation of Healthy Boundaries
As mentioned above, at its foundation, I believe healthy boundaries are about enabling the nourishing of the most important relationship we all have, the one that impacts every other relationship. Our relationship with ourselves.
I believe the essence and core of healthy boundaries is recognition and acknowledgment of appropriate and accurate ownership. And within that ownership (or lack of ownership), accepting (or rejecting) the responsibilities that go along with it (or that don’t go along with it).
Just as I could put up a fence line to clearly define where the boundaries to my physical property exist… ownership… Healthy boundaries in other domains also involve the recognition of where ownership begins and ends… And appropriately accepting (or not accepting) responsibility depending on the ownership one does or doesn’t have. Do we have sole ownership of an issue? Is it someone else’s to own? Is it a joint-ownership situation?
Recognizing and owning our own behavior. Recognizing and owning our own perception of reality. Recognizing and owning our own thoughts. Recognizing and owning our own emotions. Recognizing and owning our own needs, wants and desires. Recognizing and owning our own sexual drives and being. And recognition and respect of the ownership another has of their own behaviors, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, desires, sexual drives, etc. Not trying to control or dictate the responsibilities surrounding that which is not ours to own. Not owning or fusing with the emotions of others, even when we have empathy for them.
In setting boundaries, it can be easy to be too porous or enmeshed on one end or too rigid on the other side (see below for more discussion of this). Both extremes are often unhealthy.
Healthy boundary setting is something that takes time to learn, express and develop, especially if one grew up in an environment of sub-optimal personal boundaries.
I have had to learn to be patient and provide grace and compassion to myself as I have strengthened my own skills in this area (as well as the core beliefs that support these skills).
Mindfulness for Healthy Boundaries
This may go without saying, but as noted above, it is impossible to do any of the “owning” mentioned above if we aren’t first mindful of what we are thinking and feeling. And mindful of the reasons for this. So skills of mindfulness and of curiously examining reality must be in place before we can healthily “own” any of the above.
Core beliefs that would shame us out of examining and “owning” the above also can’t be present to any strong degree if we are to healthily recognize and “own” that which is in fact ours to own and accept and be responsible for.
Healthy Boundaries are About Self-Control.
Healthy boundaries are about controlling what is ours to control and not trying to control that which is not truly ours to control. And recognizing the differences.
With healthy boundaries I define what I am going to do and what type of behavior I will allow towards myself. With healthy boundaries I don’t dictate what your behavior may or may not be. I can make requests of you, but under the vast majority of circumstances, I don’t issue demands. I don’t try to force you or manipulate you to do anything.
If your behavior violates my boundaries, I can choose to remove or distance myself… This is about controlling my own actions and behaviors. Not about controlling yours.
Our “Yeses” and Our “Noes”
Healthy boundaries are about our “yeses” being true yeses, and our “noes” being true noes. There are no healthy boundaries where there is a decreased ability to say no.
Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.Jesus as cited in Matt 5:37, NKJV
Unhealthy Boundaries Stem from Lower Self-Differentiation
Setting healthy boundaries is greatly facilitated if one possesses a very high and healthy degree of self-differentiation. Paradoxically, the boundaries from this high self-differentiation help prevent resentment (from saying yes when we want to say no) and thus promote authentic connection with others.
With unhealthy boundaries there are typically lower levels of healthy self-differentiation. Areas of responsibility may not be sufficiently owned as might be the case with a narcissist or someone with an addiction. Or on the flip side, there may be excessive owning of responsibilities… taking too much responsibility for issues in a relationship or excessively trying to “help” the other person. This can show up as classic “co-dependent” or “enabling” behavior. Despite intentions to help, these efforts to control what is not truly within one’s ownership can end up being very dis-empowering to the other individual (and to one’s self).
With lower self-differentiation there can also be excessive fusing with the emotions or thoughts of another. We can’t show up in a relationship how we really are (and be loved and accepted as such) because we are too busy changing and adjusting to or emotionally fusing with those we surround ourselves with. Poor boundaries.
The Ability to say No (and to Celebrate Another’s No)
It can’t be too strongly emphasized that the foundation of healthy boundaries is healthy self-care. We are responsible first and foremost for ourselves. Without taking ownership of this fact, healthy boundaries can’t exist.
Where we recognize that we have ownership, we also possess the ability to say “no” if that ownership is impinged upon. Thus the ability to say no is at the very heart of healthy boundaries. Likewise, celebrating another’s “noes” is also crucial to healthy boundaries.
“No, you may not do what you’d like within my boundaries. I own this area of responsibility, not you!”
We may not always like another’s “no,” but another’s “no” is also often cause to celebrate! This is the case because it lets us know they aren’t doing something resentfully if they say yes. Another’s “no” can also help clarify the actual state of our relationship to another. This can help give us information on how we can then proceed to move forward (or not) within that relationship. Relationships built on authenticity rather than resentful obligatory yeses are healthier and happier relationships.
It is OK, even desirable that sometimes people are upset by our “noes.” If we are rarely experiencing anger or disappointment from others towards us, one possible reason is that we aren’t saying “no” enough. Another possibility is that we are surrounded by people that honor and respect, even celebrate our “noes.”
Boundaries are Also About More Fully Saying Yes
But boundaries are not just about saying no. Setting healthy boundaries is also about more fully being able to say YES. Healthy boundaries establish both freedom AND safety.
For example with an intimate partner, we may decide that for a particular encounter sexual intercourse is off the table, but many other things are not. Those other areas can then be more fully and joyfully explored by both parties within the boundaries established knowing boundaries exist and there are limits.
Boundaries Exist Along a Continuum
As touched on above, boundaries exist along a continuum. At one end boundary lines can be overly enmeshed or non-existent. On the other end, boundary lines can be more like rigid impermeable walls. There may be times when these extremes are appropriate. Most of the time though, the healthiest boundaries exist in varying locations along the continuum between these two extremes depending on the relationship.
If one is the victim of overly enmeshed boundaries, there is almost always a lack of saying “no” where or when appropriate or there is a lack of one’s “no” being respected and honored. One may not be saying “no” enough due to a fear of offending another, or not “measuring up” or of losing conditional acceptance or conditional love. Alternatively, it may be that “no” is said, but the other party or parties are still insisting on a “yes” or “yeses” where we don’t really want them. And we then cave in or don’t remove ourselves from the situation or don’t make our “noes” crystal clear.
Sometimes there may even be a tendency to go along with the yes enthusiastically on the surface when deep down this isn’t what we really want. In the long run, this can be very harmful to all parties involved.
Not sufficiently saying no, or giving resentful yeses is often a symptom of deeper issues… of insufficient value placed on our own internal voice and own internal needs. This can be for cultural reasons or religious reasons, “It is bad to be selfish.” Or this may stem from living in a state of a large power differential, where saying “no” can actually be threatening to our well-being in other areas.
Regardless of the reasons for saying “yes” when we want to say “no,” such negating of our own internal voice can lead to showing up in relationships in inauthentic ways. And this can hurt everyone in the long run. Honesty to ourselves is paramount to healthy boundaries and healthy relationships.
The Power of “No”
As suggested above, saying no will sometimes invoke anger or frustration in another. This is OK!! It is OK for another to be angry. This is often a symptom of their own poor boundaries, or ownership expectations where they in fact don’t have any ownership. We don’t need to take ownership over another’s anger. It is theirs. Nor do we need to take ownership over a matter that is properly theirs to own. Thus it is OK to say “no” to many requests of us unless we have a firm agreement ahead of time, in which case the agreement may need to be revisited if following it is causing problems.
Healthy boundaries can’t exist where there is excessive fear or shame of upsetting another, by saying “no.” This often is the case in settings where one is participating in part of a conditional worth or a conditional acceptance paradigm (such as is the case throughout Mormondum). In these settings saying “no” can even sometimes be emotionally or socially dangerous. Thus the power of cults.
Healthy Boundaries Can Be Difficult in the Setting of Large Power Differentials
As mentioned above, it can be difficult to set healthy boundaries in relationships where large power differentials exist. Unfortunately, the roles that Mormonism prescribes for men and women often create massive power differentials within the institution and within most orthodox mormon families. This then can lead to very unhealthy boundaries and sub-optimal mental health for all involved.
For example, how can a Mormon woman feel safe saying “no” sexually within a relationship she is no longer sexually interested in (or may have never been truly sexually interested in) when doing so may lead to divorce, and subsequent poverty because she diligently filled the role of staying home with the children and didn’t develop a career? Resentful “yeses” that can lead to later resentment and depression. And much of this fueled in large part due to large power differentials imposed or encouraged “by God.”
In some families, saying no to parents is not allowed and is punished. Sometimes severely. Part of “honoring one’s parents.” This is how I was raised.
In some institutions this is the same. The Mormon Church frequently counsels members not to say “no” to “invitations to serve” within the institution and in fact commonly shames those who do. Thus healthy autonomous boundaries are discouraged.
Setting Healthy Boundaries is First Learned at Home
We’ve tried to change this with our own children by learning to celebrate our children’s “noes” as long as they aren’t saying no to something absolutely necessary for their own health. (e.g. Our small children going to bed at a healthy hour on a school night).
Autonomy doesn’t truly exist without “noes.” If our children can’t safely say “no” with us, who will they be able to safely say “no” to? How will they be able to assertively and comfortably set healthy boundaries outside the home when they are older if they haven’t learned how to do so within the home?
Many Other Healthy Core Beliefs go Into Being Able to Say No
As suggested repeatedly above, being able to say “no” is not just a healthy behavior one adopts. Giving a healthy “no” is also a byproduct of a host of other healthy behaviors and core beliefs. It is a byproduct of sufficient safety being sensed and felt that “no” can be said. It is a product of healthy self-esteem and self-love. It is a product of being OK with oneself and approving of oneself. Even if another is not or if another disapproves.
A healthy “no” is often about rejecting paradigms of conditional worth and acceptance and embracing principles of grace and radical self-acceptance. This ironically leads to deeper love and respect of others, even WHILE saying no to them.
Sometimes we offer the deepest respect and love to another by saying “no” to them. The fact is, inauthentic “yeses,” given from places of having been coerced or from locations of obligation or of “just being kind” can be very damaging to others and to ourselves. Especially over extended periods of time.
One example of this is a partner saying “yes” to a long term relationship that they don’t really want to be in but they say “yes” because they want to be kind. Or perhaps they say “yes” because they are fearful of being alone (but the “yes” is not based in a genuine desire to be with that person). In the long run, saying “no” to such a relationship right up front often is in fact the kindest thing to do, even despite the feelings that may be hurt.
“Noes” and Self-Care
So being able to say no and have healthy boundaries is also about fiercely caring about our own interests. It is not “wrong” or “bad” to be somewhat “selfish” sometimes. Its OK to watch out for ourselves. To not over-extend ourselves. In the long run, this is often better for all involved.
Like the oxygen mask in a plane, we don’t have the capacity to give to others unless we are also ensuring our own needs are being met. If we don’t adequately care for ourselves, nobody else will (or can). If we care more about our own self acceptance and our own self-care than we do about being accepted by another, we can more easily establish healthy boundaries. If we care most about receiving self validation and love “by proxy” from others, well then saying no and disappointing others (both sometimes essential to healthy boundary work) will be harder to do. In the long run this hurts both us and the people we aren’t saying “no” towards.
The Losing “Yes-Person” Battle
Nobody wants to be around a “yes-person” all the time. Because that person isn’t an authentic version of themselves and doesn’t know who he or she is. The “yes-person” also often has deep resentment under the surface.
We all have “mirror neurons.” These are neurons that mirror to varying degrees what another is feeling or thinking as if these are also originating within ourselves. These are necessary to experience empathy at a physiological level. It doesn’t feel good to be giving a resentful or hollow yes. Thus it doesn’t feel good when this is “mirrored” inside ourselves if we are around a “yes-person.”
Indeed, trying to please others just to please others can be a losing battle for all involved. Authentic “yeses” and authentic “noes” MATTER in healthy relationships. Boundaries.
Cults Thrive by Violating Healthy Boundaries
Unfortunately, high-demand religious organizations (a.k.a. “cults”) thrive by violating healthy boundaries. This is done directly by healthy boundaries themselves being straight up discouraged or violated. For example, in Mormon culture: “Never say no to a calling” is frequently stressed. The personal boundary or autonomy of saying “no” is strongly discouraged.
Healthy boundaries are also violated in cults indirectly by instilling core beliefs that bear as their fruits a decreased ability to set healthy boundaries. For example, “Don’t trust your own thoughts and feelings. These can be deceptive. Only trust your own thoughts and feelings if they align with the mouthpiece of the Lord. He will never lead you astray.”
Other examples of core beliefs that disempower healthy boundary setting include: Self-care is “selfish.” (Translation, it is not selfish for the cult to seek its own care and needs). Selfless sacrifice is best (Translation the cult at the highest levels is not going to sacrifice, give to the cult and sacrifice your needs instead). It is wrong to seek what one wants. (Translation It is right for the cult to seek what it wants instead, even if this involves you “sacrificing your time, talents or even all the Lord has blessed you with.”)
High demand religions are all about obtaining “yeses,” often through coercive, deceptive or manipulative means. Physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual, financial, etc boundaries.
Cults exert control via indoctrination mechanisms, shame based mechanisms, deceptive “facts,” or sometimes even more overt means. They may use forms of coercion or punishment that are not right to exert.
The BITE Model for Cults
Steve Hassan’s BITE model describes this very well in his criteria for a cult. According to Hassan, cults exercise excessive control of behaviors (B), information (I), thoughts (T) and emotions (E). Literally every one of these four criteria involve boundary violations of the institution towards the individual… areas where the institution in fact does not have any proper claims to ownership.
By the BITE criteria, I believe the Mormon Church clearly meets the definition of a cult, though not as strongly as some other organizations.
I talk more about this HERE.
How Cults Justify Violating Boundaries
In the case of high-demand religious organizations, boundaries are usually violated by claiming an authority and an implied ownership that is NOT in fact there. High-demand religious organizations subscribe to views of God that cross personal boundaries. Their God has ultimate ownership over the other person’s being… And cult leaders have unique insights into what their God wants. Thus imposing beliefs, restricting information, controlling thoughts and emotions (BITE model) is “appropriate” in the view of the cult.
When one realizes the scriptural literalism most high-demand religious foundations base their claims of authority upon is in fact false, a farce… the shackles can begin to fall away. Their claims of ownership begin to slip away.
This is probably the reason these same organizations often impose so many barriers, including barriers of shame or “poisoning the well,” to exploring any information that might threaten their own claims to Divine authority. AKA, tell you what to do invoking the name of God. Literally “taking the name of God in vain.”
Truth can (and DOES) bear scrutiny. And yes, when it comes to factual items… some things are VERY black and white, very cut and dry. For example, Nephi either did exist as an actual historical figure in the Americas or he didn’t. Abraham either did write the racist doctrines recorded in the Book of Abraham or he didn’t.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t nuance in other ares of life and morality though. Just because some things are black and white doesn’t mean everything is. In fact, I believe most ares of life are very nuanced with many different shades of gray or color. I’ve written more about that HERE.
A Benefit to My Faith Transition
One huge benefit of my faith transition has been learning more about setting and keeping healthy boundaries. I have benefited from both learning better boundary setting behavior as well as internalizing healthier core beliefs that naturally can lead to more healthy boundaries. As I have increasingly done so, my relationships with myself and others have improved.
This takes time and has been a gradual process for me. Probably because this has also involved rooting out many unhealthy core beliefs and replacing them with more healthy paradigms that help support healthy boundaries.
Below are a few sources I have found helpful during this journey:
The Beyond Bitchy Podcast and The Five Step Boundary Solution
Vicki Tidwell Palmer has a podcast, The Beyond Bitchy Podcast, in which she talks extensively about setting healthy boundaries.
The bulk of her podcasts are directed towards those whose boundaries are overly porous or non-existent. Thus most of her podcasts deal with the “no” side of boundaries more than the “yes” side of boundaries.
I find many of her podcasts to be very helpful. She mentions four types of boundaries that we each have. Physical, Sexual, Talking and Listening. Of these four, she says the listening boundary is often the most difficult. This involves exploring what is true with us (little “t” true, involving our perceptions) without necessarily becoming overly defensive against that which we disagree with or fusing with that which we disagree with (changing our minds so easily). It also involves listening with compassionate curiosity.
In addition, she frequently mentions a five-step boundary clarifier she has developed when going about setting boundaries.
- Identify what the data of a situation actually is and our thoughts and emotions about this.
- Identify our needs and create a vision of what we want. Make it measurable. Own it!
- Identify our power center. We either have the power to create our vision, we need help with this, we can make a request for it, or we are powerless to create the vision we want.
- Take action as appropriate/able.
- Evaluate our results.
More information about this can be found on her website: https://beyondbitchy.com/
Ms. Winston related her boundary approach to setting “yeses,” setting “noes” or setting “maybes.” She tunes into her own body to see how she feels about various situations to make sure she is acting congruently and authentically. She talked about paying attention to her own anatomical “chakras” in helping identify her feelings of safety, sexuality or arousal, confidence, compassion, her voice, thoughts and higher spirituality.
Other Sources I have Found Helpful in Learning about Boundaries
Books that I have found helpful in this journey include Boundaries and Boundaries in Marriage. The authors of these best-selling books address primarily Christians. They use a biblical perspective to try to persuade more healthy boundaries in a population that frequently uses Biblical passages to justify unhealthy boundaries.
The Six PIllars of Self-Esteem was also helpful as was Julie De Azevedo Hank’s The Assertivness Guide for Women (it has information in it useful to both men and women). These latter two books were mostly helpful in addressing core beliefs that need to be in place, and how to get them in place, in order for healthy boundaries to then be easier to apply.
Some articles I have found helpful: The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries, Why Boundaries are Important in Relationships and How Boundaries and Self-Esteem Affect Your Relationships.
In addition to the above, I’ve also found professional counseling to be helpful.
In Summary, healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships with ourselves and with others. Appropriate ownership of responsibilities is at the heart of healthy boundaries. Recognition of where appropriate ownerships starts and ends is necessary to claim appropriate ownership.
Setting healthy boundaries is not merely a practice of saying “yes” or “no” in a healthy way. Rather, setting healthy boundaries is also made possible by the internalization of healthy core beliefs and practices such as healthy self-love, radical grace and acceptance towards ourselves and unconditional positive self-regard.
Cults thrive by violating healthy boundaries. This is done through coercive means that directly attack healthy boundaries. This is also done indirectly by instilling unhealthy core beliefs that erode healthy boundaries as a byproduct. Examples of such unhealthy teachings include: Self-care is “selfish.” (Translation, it is not selfish for the cult to seek its own care and needs) Selfless sacrifice is best (Translation the cult at the highest levels is not going to sacrifice, give to the cult instead). It is often wrong to seek what one wants. (Translation it is right for the cult to seek what it wants instead).
Healthy boundaries are necessary for life, for healthy relationships with ourselves and for healthy relationships with others. As we give authentic “yeses” and authentic “noes” and honor, respect and even celebrate other’s authentic “yeses” and “noes,” we can develop robust authentic relationships with ourselves and with others.
Jason Harris lived as an orthodox Mormon for forty years. He writes about his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made, potentially helpful and harmful. He believes there is Divinity in all of them and everywhere.