Background Shadow

Living with Boundaries….a Snake’s Tale

Proper boundaries make for  healthier relationships

Proper boundaries make for healthier relationships

My daughter has a California King Snake named Jake.  For almost 10 years, Jake has healthily and quietly reposed in a large aquarium, dining on a thawed, previously frozen mouse weekly.  Jake likes to leave the aquarium to explore the outer world, but we’ve learned that he needs appropriate boundaries outside his aquarium.

One evening years ago, my husband held Jake’s tail while sitting in his Lazy Boy recliner and talking to family members. None of us noticed as Jake’s long body slithered inside the chair, wrapped around its inner metal workings, and became stuck.   We worked hard to dislodge Jake without harm, but nothing worked.  That is, until my husband brought out the WD-40, sprayed the stuck spot, and gently pulled Jake out of the Lazy Boy.  After a few days, the constricted indentation around Jake’s body released and he was as good as new.  What did we learn?  While appropriate boundaries encourage safety for Jake the Snake, inappropriate boundaries can lead to a tight squeeze.

Many of us understand the importance of boundaries for pets.  Fences and leashes keep other dogs from getting in our dog’s space. An indoor bunny condo keeps our rabbit safe while it protects our home from unsupervised nibbling teeth.  Clearly, appropriate boundaries promote healthy relationships with our pets.  The same is true for humans.  What are boundaries for humans?  Think of a boundary as your personal property line – it clarifies what you are and are not responsible for in life.  A boundary indicates how you define yourself, shows the world who you are and who you aren’t, sets limits, and establishes consequences if others try to control you.

Without healthy boundaries, a mom may be unable to separate her own past from her teen’s present experience.  A man may act as his son’s friend and fail to function as a father.  A wife may sacrifice her well-being trying to control the addiction of her spouse.  A child may become responsible for regulating his parent’s mood.  In each of these examples, where is the personal property line of the mom, the father, the wife, the child?  Lacking healthy boundaries, maybe each feels a little like Jake the Snake – caught in a tight squeeze.  Perhaps it’s a good time to examine our relational property lines and determine if we have healthy boundaries.  The good news is that boundaries can change!

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Taking the Sting Out of Criticism…

Few people like criticism, and for good reason: other peoples’ negative opinions can prove deadly to our self-esteem.  Criticism can deflate self-esteem by arousing and arming what McKay and Fanning (2000) call our “internal pathological critic” (p. 147).  Think of your pathological critic as an inner mp3 player that effortlessly streams messages of your personal deficiencies.   Who wants to crank up the volume on that playlist?  Whether criticism is constructive (motivated by a genuine desire to help) or manipulative or pointless, it’s usually unwelcome.  So how can we keep criticism from eroding our self-esteem?  First, entertain this idea: “criticism has nothing to do with true self-esteem.  True self-esteem is innate, undeniable, and independent of anyone’s praise” (p. 148).  Second, consider that much criticism is not based on objective reality, and recognize that “we rarely perceive reality with 100% accuracy and objectivity” (p. 148).

Here’s an example.  One recent evening, three activities converged to create a critical response in my family.  While my daughter was drying her hair in the bathroom, my son placed a bag of popcorn in the kitchen microwave and pushed “start”.  Meanwhile my husband was glued to the TV as he waited to see a famous knockout in heavyweight boxing history.   Suddenly, a circuit breaker failed – the microwave lost power and the bathroom went dark, but the television still worked.  I descended the stairs, opened the circuit breaker box, and moved the offending switch to “on”.  The switch refused to stay “on”, so I moved it all the way to “off” and back to “on”.  As a result, the TV lost power one second before the awaited knockout.  My husband immediately criticized me for turning off the circuit breaker switch – even though it was necessary to restore power upstairs.

In my family story, each of us perceived the event differently: our teens thought something odd had occurred; I suddenly remembered that one of our circuits has an overload problem (usually observed only when Christmas lights and the microwave are simultaneously in use); my husband, engrossed in TV land, assumed that human ignorance had messed up his evening.  My point is that we each regularly and uniquely filter and edit what we perceive of reality, and our emotional reactions fall in line with our perceptions.

It’s like we each play a reality show on a TV screen in our heads.   Maybe you and I have cameras aimed at the same scene in real life, but we see different images and hear different voice-overs on our mental TV screens.  We each uniquely filter and edit our reality shows, but neither screen permits either of us to see reality directly.  I can’t fully know what’s on your mental screen and you can’t fully know what’s playing on mine.  I can’t even tell you  some of the messages displayed on my screen – they come and go faster than I can communicate.  Due to reliability issues, I can’t automatically believe what I see on my screen, and neither can you.  Our voice-overs interpret reality and sometimes distort what we see.  I may think my reality show is very accurate when, in fact, it is really distorted.  I can’t control all of what I see on my mental screen all the time.  Yet sometimes I can focus my awareness on one thing when I pray or meditate.   Although we can each improve the quality of our personal reality shows, neither of us can eliminate the screening process.  Here’s the kicker: critics don’t criticize us, they only criticize the versions of us that show up in their personal reality shows.  What critics see and who we are may be vastly different.

Through five senses, we humans perceive reality, but our perceptions are influenced by our genetic wiring, momentary physiological and emotional states, memories of similar past experiences, beliefs, and our needs (McKay & Fanning).  These influences provide many opportunities to distort perception.  A person who is genetically wired to be gregarious may criticize you for being shy, without considering that you may be genetically wired that way.  A critic’s unpleasant attitude may be attributable to a bad enchilada eaten at lunch, and have nothing to do with your job performance.  Your loved one may come home angry from work, throwing off rejecting vibes that have absolutely nothing to do with you.  Sometimes people criticize us because they are responding to reruns of the past – stuck in past habits: I grew up in a family where sarcastic humor reigned, and I learned that habitual sarcasm feels like a negative, critical attitude.  Prejudices, values, and beliefs all influence our perceptions.   If a mother values neatness, she may critically exaggerate any sign of sloppiness.  A prejudiced person can’t trust what he sees when hated groups appear in his personal reality show.  Someone may reject you in the present based on a belief learned from past experience, having nothing to do with you.  A critic’s needs distort her perception of reality:  a woman in constant need of physical reassurance may regularly criticize the appearance of others.

With all this potential for distortion, none of us can take criticism at face value.  Perhaps remembering that will take some of the sting out of criticism.


McKay, M., & Fanning, P.  (2000).  Self-esteem.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.


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Most of us go through each day looking for what we saw yesterday and, not surprisingly, that is what we find. – James A. Kitchens

The inspiration for this post came from an author I’ve never read, but his single sentence, found in a Google search, resonated with me.  It prompted a question of which I can’t let go: what do we look for each day?

Think about relationships and consider something most of us have: a problem relative.  Let’s call him/her, Pat, and imagine that Pat regularly fails to meet our expectations in some area.  Maybe Pat has a history of whining or avoiding responsibility.  Each day, we expect Pat to behave as he/she did the day before, and we are rarely surprised.  So we daily respond to Pat just as we did the day before.  When a change for the better occurs, we don’t believe it is real.  We still perceive or look at Pat as having the same historical problem behavior.

Now think about how we look at ourselves.  Imagine a woman who is frustrated by a lifelong failure to lose weight and maintain it.  She has dieted numerous times, lost the weight, and gained more back too many times to count.  So when she starts a new eating/exercise plan, she may expect failure even as she hopes for success.  Perhaps her expectation colors the way she responds to inevitable slips:  all or nothing thinking causes her to look at each slip as abject failure, and another diet crashes and burns.  What would happen if the woman did not look at a slip as ultimate failure?

Maybe we need to experiment with changing the way we look at (think about) others and ourselves.

How might the way we look at things affect our daily experience?  How might it help or hinder change?

Are You Ready to Start?

If so, please Contact Me and describe your concerns and we'll discuss how counseling can help.