The Road to Good Boundaries (Experience Life magazine)

If we’re going to talk boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving.

The late comedian George Carlin famously quipped that “anyone who’s driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” After all, who hasn’t felt the frustration of being stuck behind a slow mover or the outrage of almost being hit by a road hog?

Whether they’re Sunday drivers or back­seat drivers, tailgate drivers or distracted drivers, those who speed up when we’re trying to pass or those who stop when they’re trying to merge, all types of drivers share the road with us. The opportunities for all of us to get in each other’s way — and to tick each other off — are simply endless.

Yet the truth behind Carlin’s joke is that each one of us typically believes that we’re driving at the perfect speed, and, more important, if everyone else could only drive the way we do, we’d all be safely home in time for tea.

A possible explanation for this collective delusion is that we can’t bear the reality of how dependent we are on the driving skills of others to stay safe on the road. We unconsciously inflate our own semblance of control to help ourselves feel better. But no matter how we try to fool ourselves, the truth ­remains: We are all completely interdependent and inter­connected, not only on the road but in all aspects of life.

This brings us to the slippery topic we call boundaries. Boundaries help us navigate the traffic of our personal relationships. They help us draw the line between what’s mine and what’s yours. They determine where I end and where you begin, how I manage myself and my needs in the presence of you and your needs, and how we manage relationships so that all feel ­respected and safe.


The Three Types of Personal Boundaries

Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries themselves.

We learn about personal boundaries in our families of origin, so it makes sense that it was a family therapist who first drew them on paper. When Salvador Minuchin met with families, he would watch for clues about how they operated: who sat next to whom, who responded to questions, who interrupted, who took up more emotional space than others, and who would shrink to keep the peace.

Armed with his observations, Minuchin would then draw a family map depicting the three types of boundaries he saw at work: the clear boundary, the diffuse boundary, and the rigid boundary. To understand how they function, we need to get back on the road.


1. Clear Boundaries

Clear personal boundaries look a bit like lane dividers on the highway — long, thin stripes with gaps between them. The stripes help us stay in our lane, while the gaps tell us that we may change lanes if we choose. If we do switch lanes, we have a responsibility to other drivers to make sure that we don’t run into them, or force them to brake or swerve to avoid us.

Observing clear boundaries on the road means remaining in our lane, adjusting our speed to go with the flow of traffic, checking our mirrors and blind spots, and clearly signaling our intentions (that’d be our blinkers, people) before changing lanes so that nobody is taken by surprise.

When we maintain clear personal boundaries, the long stripes distinguish where we end and where others begin. The gaps allow us to relate — sharing parts of ourselves with others and receiving what others choose to share with us. There is clarity about what belongs to whom, so we can hold on to the essence of who we are — with all of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, stories, and value systems — while still allowing others to be close to us if we choose.

Clear boundaries free up cognitive and emotional energy. They also allow us to be welcoming and curious toward others, including those who may be different from us or who do things differently than we do.

During conflict, clear boundaries enable us to acknowledge the importance of the relationship, take responsibility for any harm done (whether intentional or inadvertent), and invite conversation about how to meet everyone’s needs moving forward.

Here’s the key:
As adults, we can adjust how much we give of ourselves and how much of others we absorb, even if they are not operating with clear boundaries. For example, if we know someone can’t keep a secret, we stick to public topics. If someone loves to chat and we’re short on time, we don’t tempt them with open-ended questions. If we’re interacting with someone who tends to emote in big ways, we can be kind without trying to comfort, offering them the chance to feel their competence.


2. Diffuse Boundaries

Think of a time you were driving along, minding your own business, when the lane markers suddenly jogged sharply, disappeared, or were replaced by disparately placed cones. That’s what a diffuse boundary looks like.

We may intend to stay in our lane, but it’s hard to see where the lines are, and we can inadvertently merge into someone else’s lane or find them veering into ours. Roads without predictable lane dividers are trickier to navigate: Everyone must be on high alert and ready to adjust, which is chaotic and exhausting for all involved.

Diffuse boundaries in life:
The exchange of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and value systems — as well as physical or sexual touch — is so overwhelming that it’s hard to know what’s ours and what belongs to others.

Diffuse boundaries in life look a lot like diffuse boundaries on the road: It’s unclear who has the right of way, and at least one person must constantly anticipate and adjust to whatever the other might decide to do. Such relationships may be described as “enmeshed,” “engulfed,” “fused,” or “merged.”

If we operate with diffuse boundaries, we may struggle to maintain our own feelings and point of view in the presence of other people. Their anxiety causes us to feel anxious, or their anger makes us feel small and afraid. Meanwhile, a kind and comfortable person causes us to feel a sense of secure well-being.

We may mistake this sensitivity to others as “empathing,” but being caught in an endless cycle of reaction to other people’s thoughts and feelings is more likely the hallmark of a diffuse boundary. A healthy empath can read a person or a room without needing to respond in any way.


3. Rigid Boundaries

On the road, solid, continuous lines mean Do Not Cross. These are deployed when it’s too dangerous to switch lanes, such as in a narrow tunnel, or on two-lane roads where oncoming traffic isn’t visible. The Do Not Cross line means you need to stay in your lane, because a collision would have serious implications.

Rigid boundaries in life:
We are in close proximity to the other person, but any attempts at relationship get rebuffed.

The rigid boundary is the opposite of the diffuse boundary, and it’s the rigid boundaries in life that give the whole concept a bad name. When we exclaim, “I’m drawing a boundary!” we rarely mean “Our relationship matters to me, and I’d like to discuss how we could do it better.”

Instead, we mean something closer to “I’m cutting you off, because I’m too conflict-avoidant to ask if we could do this differently.” Such abrupt disengagements can be confusing, even traumatizing, especially if they awaken old wounds.

What’s more, the person being ostracized often has no idea the other was unhappy.

The only time a rigid boundary is called for is when repeated requests for a clear boundary have been ignored, or when the line-crossing is so egregious that it causes significant harm, such as in the case of threatened or actual physical or sexual violence. Otherwise, it’s more appropriate to begin the work of creating healthier boundaries.


The Childhood Road Trip

If no one modeled clear boundaries for us when we were children, we may have no idea that they’re even an option. As adults, we might find ourselves bouncing between the diffuse boundary, where we feel routinely overwhelmed by other people’s needs, and the rigid boundary, where we meet our own needs at any cost, including at the expense of others.

This makes sense if you think of growing up in a family with diffuse boundaries as an endless road trip. We’re strapped in the back seat between the poking of one sibling and the whining of another, hearing the fight between our parents in the front. Add to that the driver’s refusal to stop for a bathroom break, and we have absolutely no control over our well-being or our destination.

Naturally, when we get our license as a teenager, we feel entitled to crank up the music and drive wherever and however we like, without a second thought for anyone else on the road or who else might need the car.

But we don’t need to drive like our teenage self to have some control over our well-being.


A Road Map to Better Boundaries

The following strategies can make strong, clear boundaries much easier for us to find, even if no one ever showed us the way.

1. Match your words with your energy.

A little-known fact about boundaries is that they have less to do with what we say and more to do with how we say it. Ideally, our words and our energy match, creating congruence. If our boundaries are diffuse or rigid, congruence is unlikely.

This is best illustrated by the sentence “I’m fine.” How we say this can mean anything from “I’m doing well, thanks for asking” to “I’m actually not fine, and maybe we could talk about it later” or even “I’m not fine, I’m furious, and it’s all your fault!”

A mismatch between our words and energy requires others to decode our statements, which can create confusion and anxiety. It also indicates that we’re operating from a diffuse boundary.

Alternatively, if we slam out of the house and turn off our phone, we’ve just created a rigid boundary, cutting off the relationship altogether. 

If we’re not fine, and especially if we’re angry or hurt, and we would like to operate from a clear boundary, the best move is to own it and ask for some time. This could sound like, “Thanks for asking how I am. I’m not OK, but I need a bit of time alone before I can talk about it.” This congruent way of communicating honors us and the relationship.


2. Offer truth, good wishes, and no excuses.

People know when we’re lying, fudging, avoiding, or agreeing resentfully. Thanks to the energy accompanying our words, it just feels icky. So, what to do when we need space for ourselves, but we still want to protect the other’s feelings?

One useful formula is Truth, Good Wishes, and No Excuses. Start by being honest, and avoid any kind of excuse. Saying, “I can’t come because my sister will be here” not only invites negotiation (“Bring her along!”) but also creates the potential for judgment or hurt feelings about your priorities (“You could see your sister anytime”). Skipping the excuses avoids both of those detours. Conclude by offering goodwill to care for the connection.

These are some examples of clear-boundary responses that follow this formula. Notice how they create space and honor the relationship at the same time:

Declining invitations: “I won’t be making it, but I hope you have a lovely time.”

No second date: “It’s not a fit for me, but I wish you all the best.”

When a meeting runs long: “I have a hard stop at 5, but I’d love to chat another time.”

Saying no to a request for a favor: “That’s not going to work for me, but I hope you find a solution!”

Deflecting an intrusive inquiry: “I really appreciate your concern. It’s so kind of you to ask.” Full stop.


3. Take up your space, your whole space, and nothing but your space.

When we talk about people with “bad” boundaries, we usually mean those who take up too much space: talking incessantly, standing too close, emoting too dramatically, and eating more than their fair share of the pie. Someone who parks a noisy, gas-guzzling truck across two parking spots or drags an oversize roller bag onto the plane.

Yet while the “too-much-spacers” do impinge upon the rights and needs of others, they also take care of their own needs, and they’re genuinely baffled by those who don’t.

It’s important to recognize that those of us who don’t take up our space or care for our needs create just as much of a burden on a relationship as the gas-guzzlers. Whether we call our diffuse boundaries self-sacrifice, martyrdom, or codependence, our burnout and resentment also land on everyone else’s shoulders.


If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations.


For example, heroic, “selfless” acts can almost never be repaid. We might think we’re helping when we offer a kidney to a distant relative even if it will put us out of commission for weeks, or when we allow our sister’s family to stay rent-free in our home for a year while we sleep on the couch. Such grand gestures can create a chasm of indebtedness that makes it almost impossible to maintain a balanced relationship.

If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations. Then we honor the other person’s boundary by asking their permission before we help. Finally, we give them the dignity of returning the favor — or at least paying it forward.

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world,” writes author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Indeed, one of the greatest acts of love — which is also the greatest demonstration of clear boundaries — is taking up our space, caring for ourselves, and meeting our own needs, thus freeing up everyone in our lives to do the same.


Improving our boundaries

If we’re going to improve our boundaries, we might as well start with driving. My driving, your driving, and especially everyone else’s driving. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a wave of thanks for letting someone into our lane, or some humor when we’re waiting on each other at the stop sign? The opportunities to extend grace and space to ourselves and our fellow travelers — whether anxious drivers or running-late drivers, professional drivers or vacation drivers — are simply endless. And the truth behind Carlin’s joke remains: There will always be those driving faster and those driving slower, yet all of us deserve to make it safely home for tea.



Sidebar: Energetic Boundaries

Our heartbeat generates an electromagnetic field that can be detected up to three feet away from our bodies on all sides, surrounding us in a sphere of energy — what could be described as an “energetic boundary.” This may be what we pick up on when we enter a room and can feel that a fight just happened, or someone is in shock, or something just isn’t right.

According to the research organization HeartMath, stressful emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety create an erratic, herky-jerky heart rhythm that is broadcast in this energetic field, putting everyone in our immediate sphere on edge.

Conversely, emotions such as compassion, appreciation, and love create a smooth, wavelike rhythm that invites everyone into a calmer, gentler state of being.

Breathwork, meditation, yoga, and the use of biofeedback devices can help us become more aware, not only of the rhythm of our heart but also of this energetic space we take up — our energetic boundary. When we learn to bring our heart into coherence, it helps us manage what enters our energetic space, as well as what we broadcast to others. (Learn more at


Copyright notice:

This article was written by Jane for the November 2022 issue of Experience Life magazine.
It was nominated for a national award. receiving an honorable mention.
View the online version, with cross-references to other articles, here.

The Arizona Mug

On February 3, 2015, I bought a mug in a hotel gift shop. While I took my time choosing my favorite, the purchase was not in any way intended to be auspicious. It was simply that I was staying for a week-long training, and I needed something bigger than an espresso cup to drink my morning tea. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but that day, and all that happened on it, marked the start of a seismic shift in the trajectory of my life. When I returned home, drinking tea from the mug became a daily ritual – a devotion of sorts; each sip from the slender rim filling my heart with gratitude, the tears pricking behind my eyes as I acknowledged the care of so many guides, angels and loved ones – human and otherwise – who’d met their soul appointments to help direct my path.

As my new life unfolded, my daily devotion continued, right up until about three weeks ago when, in an act of careless inattention, I took the mug out of the dishwasher and bashed it on the granite countertop.

While it was “only” a mug, I was devastated.

In a true labor of love, my husband got to work. A master-gluer since the tender age of 8 years old when his football held an impromptu meeting with his mother’s ornaments, he specialized in cosmetic repairs that bought valuable time between breakages and their eventual discovery. Yet, while he was miraculously able to restore my mug’s appearance, sadly, it was only partially teaworthy.

A scouring of the internet for souvenir Arizona mugs confirmed what I already suspected – this was not some mass-produced Starbucks collectible that could easily be replaced. I wondered if it might have been hand-thrown, but without another to compare it with, I couldn’t be sure. I could have kicked myself for not taking better care of it.

I had all but given up hope when, having scrolled through every mug design imaginable, I found one just like it on Ebay. It’s slightly squatter with a thicker rim than mine. It feels marginally heavier in the hand. The hand-painted design shows the sun at a different angle and a little farther away from the mountain; perhaps because it was painted later in the day. But it’s a true kiln-sister of my mug, and it represents so much.

As I resume my daily devotion, I add two sips of gratitude. One for the artist who made both mugs. The second for the stranger who listed one on Ebay, for just a klutz like me.



PS: If anyone happens to recognize the work and can put me in touch with the artist, I’d love to make a connection ❤️.


Hair Repair

“No Jane, I did NOT leave the color on too long, and if you don’t like it, that’s on you not me,” Mindi snapped, stomping her Doc Martens across the tiny salon.

Despite the multiple sizzling come-backs I could have offered, I held my tongue. It’s an old trick from my couples therapy days: when someone says something outrageous, you just let it hang in the air. That way, the person who said it can hear themselves.

Not that I had a lot of options.

Mindi (not her real name) was one of only three hair stylists on the island. Of the remaining two, one was known for her one-size-fits-all men’s cuts. The other was Mindi’s mom.

I had a video presentation in a couple of days, my roots were showing, and Mindi’s previous coloring-oops was becoming increasingly obvious. And, unless I wanted to take a floatplane every time I needed my roots done in future, I needed to fix this now.

“If it’s possible to have the highlights go all the way to the roots, I would prefer that,” I replied, offering her a path to repair.

Mindi continued her stomping, banged a few cupboard doors, and turned me away from the mirror. I wondered if I’d be leaving with green hair and a half-shaved head, but I reminded myself that if the worst came to the worst, I do own a wig.

I waited while she mixed the color and cut up the foils.

“How are you settling in to your new place?” I ventured, recalling that she was in the middle of a move the last time I’d seen her.

“Fine.” She responded, flatly.

I waited a few more minutes and tried again.

“Did you say you were headed back to college this Fall?”

“Next Fall.”

I  closed my eyes and let her do her thing.

And there we sat, in semi-uncomfortable silence, while she did her work and I breathed.

After about half an hour, she finally spoke.

“My mom says your husband is the sweetest man she’s ever met.”

Bob to the rescue.

“He is.” I replied.

I told her our story. Our previous marriages. The therapists, the coaches, the energy healers who’d helped get my life back on track. The angels who’d shoved someone into my path to distract me right before I almost screwed everything up. The clients whose stories had given me hope.

I advised her on her own dating journey.

I encouraged her to start loving on herself.

We lapsed back into silence while she blow-dried my hair.

“You know, I did leave the color on for way too long last time,” she admitted.

“And I’m a Gemini-rising, so sometimes I get a bit hot.”

“Did you hear the part where I told you I loved the cut?” I asked.

“Yes.” She said. “Thank you.”

The Vision Board

Many of my clients have been noticing the change in the office behind me, and have been asking about our move.

And there’s an interesting story behind the place where we find ourselves, which – for a variety of reasons – I’ve been hesitant to tell. But those who’ve heard it have found both encouraging and uplifting, so I decided to share it more widely in the hope that it uplifts you too. 

Back in 2015, I was in the process of leaving my first marriage – a situation so painful, devastating and scary that one of my energy healers described me as “a seeping, open wound”. It was around then that an image appeared in my mind – of looking through an open window across a body of water to land in the distance, with a drape blowing in the breeze. I had no idea if the image was a picture I’d seen or a place I’d been, nor what it might represent for me, but somehow it offered me a feeling of hope, of possibility, and a new vision for life.

One of my clients at the time was a big believer in creating vision-boards, and while I had no time or patience for cutting out pictures from magazines, I instead began visiting galleries and scouring the art sections of homeware stores to see if I could find anything like the image in my head. It took about a year (and a new love in my life!) before I stumbled across an artist whose work came close, and when I researched more of her collection, I found it. 

The picture is called Long Golden Day and the artist is Alice Dalton Brown. I ordered a print and gave it pride of place in my newly decorated office. When clients asked me about it, I told them it was my vision-board: my vision of being able to work from home and look out on this view.

It took 8 years to do, but we did it. 

Why the picture came into my head in the first place, I really don’t know. But a hypothesis I like comes from Michael Newton’s book, Journey of Souls where he describes a process right before we incarnate, where the most important signs we need to pay attention to are imprinted into our minds to make sure we don’t miss them. I wonder if this image was one of these.

All this to say, when you get those little images or ideas in your head, don’t dismiss them. Hold them, nurture them, meditate on them and give them space to come into being. You never know what they might bring.

[Image: Long Golden Day by Alice Dalton Brown]

My stuff, your stuff, our stuff

Murray Bowen, one of the fathers of family therapy, believed that we all marry someone of the same “level of differentiation” as ourselves.

What this means in layman’s terms is that while our stuff may manifest differently from the stuff of our significant other, we have exactly the same amount. And the interaction of our respective-same-amount-of-stuff will keep playing out in the same old predictable cycle until someone decides to get help.


Cycles of interacting stuff

By far the most common arrangement of interacting stuff that I see (in both my individual and couple clients) is the anxious/avoidant relationship. The terms anxious and avoidant come from John Bowlby and Margaret Ainsworth’s attachment theory, which broadly identifies three relational templates – formed through our relationships with primary caregivers – that are pretty much in place by 2 years of age.


The strange situation

To assess these templates, researchers in the late sixties created an experiment called “the strange situation”, whereby they would watch mothers interacting with their 18 month old children. Mom, with a bug in her ear, would be asked to leave the room and a stranger would enter to watch over the child until mom came back in again. The researchers were particularly interested in the demeanor of the child when mom left, the child’s interaction with the stranger, and then the reunion when mom returned.


Secure attachment

The first set of kids interacted well with mom and were a little perturbed when she left, but were able to carry on playing with the stranger (in an albeit distant and polite kind of way) until mom returned for a happy reunion. These were the “securely attached” kids, who had received consistent caregiving and attunement since before birth. They had learned very early on that mommies never leave them with anyone frightening or dangerous, and more importantly, that mommies always come back.

When securely attached kids go to pre-school and see another kid crying, they offer comfort. Not only is this the pattern that’s been modeled to them, but they’ve also learned that the world is generally a safe and predictable place, and there’s no need to be upset for long.


Anxious attachment

The second set of kids interacted with mom as did the first set, but when mom left they became absolutely inconsolable and sometimes enraged. When mom returned they would do the cling/kick maneuver; clinging to mom because they were so terrified she’d leave again, but kicking at the same time because they were so mad that she’d left.

These were the “anxiously attached” kids, who had received inconsistent caregiving and a lack of emotional attunement. These kids never knew for sure if mom would come back or if the stranger was trustworthy. Furthermore, they were acutely aware of their inability to protect themselves, and thus lived in constant fear of abandonment. Every time mom left, they had to believe she was never coming back, because maybe this time, she wasn’t.

When anxiously attached kids go to pre-school and see another kid crying, they get upset too. Heartbreakingly, this is often what they’ve seen their caregivers do. And, when the world is scary and unpredictable, whatever trouble is befalling the other child is likely on the way to them too, even if they don’t yet know what it is.


Avoidant attachment

The third set of kids didn’t really interact with mom as the first two had, and didn’t show much of a response to mom’s coming and going at all; nor did they interact with the stranger. These were the “avoidantly attached” kids, who had learned at a young age that mom comes when mom comes, and that there’s very little they can do about it. Rather than using up valuable energy to summon help like their anxious counterparts, they close off and take care of themselves.

When avoidant kids go to pre-school and see another kid crying, they look over and wonder “why on earth would you do that?” and go on with what they are doing. Once again, this is what’s been modeled to them by their caregivers, and they’ve learned that regardless of the state of the world, there’s really no benefit in getting upset.


Pairings of attachment styles

The crunch comes when kids grow up and start engaging in romantic relationships. On the basis that we get together with someone who has the same amount of stuff, young adults with a secure attachment style manage to find each other, and their relationships play out pretty well.

While there are those who strongly believe themselves to be securely attached while care-taking a partner who is not, the proof is typically in the state and length of the relationship. Generally, the only time I see clients in therapy who have a secure attachment style is when something non-normative happens, like a botched surgery or the death of a child, that has nothing to do with how they grew up, or how they relate to their significant other.

With the secures all wrapped up with each other, this leaves the anxious and the avoidant styles available to pair up in one of three combinations; anxious/anxious, avoidant/avoidant, and anxious/avoidant.


Anxious/Anxious couples

Put an anxious with an anxious, and the result is a mess. These are the “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” always-in-crisis, high-drama couples where there’s so much clinging and kicking and fear of abandonment going on that it’s really hard to maintain any lasting relationship. These are also the couples who send therapists into early retirement.


Avoidant/Avoidant couples

Alternatively, you can put an avoidant with an avoidant. On the surface, this looks like a stable relationship where each party meets their own needs and drives for their own goals. Many power couples fall into this category, and can maintain their relationship for long periods of time. The problem comes when one of them unilaterally decides to have a baby, or to take a job in Hong Kong, and is astounded when the other objects. Because avoidants have always focused on their own well-being, they have no idea how to negotiate a solution that takes into account the needs of both, and typically end up calling it quits.


Anxious/Avoidant couples

That leaves the anxious/avoidant combination, which actually works pretty well for a time, as the anxious person provides the “glue” keeping things together, while the avoidant regulates the distance, keeping things from getting too messy. But after a while, the anxious person – who is acutely aware of their unmet needs – gets tired of their partner’s distance and lack of awareness. Meanwhile, the avoidant person – who is largely unaware that they have any needs, let alone that their anxious partner has been meeting them – is baffled by the “sudden” demand to step up.

These are the couples who come to therapy – usually because the anxious partner (the one with abandonment issues) desperately wants the relationship to work. The avoidant still doesn’t understand the problem, but comes anyway – largely because they just want things to return to how they were.

Whether therapy results in an improved relationship depends partly on how much “stuff” each side has to deal with. Mostly, however, success is predicated on each partner’s willingness to acknowledge that their stuff is impacting the relationship, and to do their own work.


The work ahead of the anxious partner

The anxious partner is usually fully aware of both their stuff and their partner’s stuff, but is of the mistaken belief that each person should be fixing the other. Not only are they mad that their needs have not been met by the avoidant, but they also get up in the avoidant’s business, unintentionally triggering their greatest frustration – the avoidant’s disappearance down into an avoidant hole. The work of the anxious partner is to learn how to meet their needs for themselves, and realize they can be in this relationship (or in any other relationship) out of empowered choice, rather out of powerless desperation and fear of abandonment.


The work ahead of the avoidant partner

The avoidant partner, on the other hand, is generally less aware of their stuff, and although they’ve heard ad nauseum about their partner’s stuff, they don’t see it as having anything to do with them. They are of the mistaken belief that everyone should – and does – take care of themselves, and have no idea how their avoidance, self-focus and unilateral decision-making unintentionally triggers their partner’s fear of abandonment. Their work is to learn how to carry their own weight in relationship, and realize that their partner needs to be nurtured, cared for and considered if the relationship is going to survive.


Earned secure attachment

The goal of the work is to achieve what’s called “earned secure attachment”, where both partners transform the templates of their early attachment experiences enough to be able to show up in secure, respectful, adult relationship.

Sometimes, it happens.

More often, however, the avoidant – who was perfectly happy before the anxious partner blew everything up – decides it’s just too much work, and enters into a new relationship – often with a new anxious person who is happy to do all the relational running (at least for a while). With their unknown needs being met again, the avoidant convinces themselves that all of the problems in the previous relationship were with their partner, and so the cycle begins again.

The true potential (at least in this therapist’s mind) is when the anxious person realizes that they are a fully competent adult who no longer needs to fear abandonment. At this point, they can go out and find another formerly anxious person, and the two make a beautiful, securely-attached life together, where each are attuned to the needs of themselves and the other.

You Can be Right or You Can be Married

“You can be right or you can be married” is a saying of the famous couples therapist, Terry Real*. He even goes so far as to list “being right” as the first of five losing strategies. Yet it’s also one of the most difficult concepts for distressed couples to grasp, especially if being right is all they’ve got, as the only alternative is being wrong.

The problem with debating right or wrong is that it involves a cognitive process using the front part of the brain that completely negates the lived experience stored in the relational part of the brain. Relational living means connecting with how our significant other is experiencing a situation, and recognizing that while our own experience may be different, that’s okay. In fact, it simply means we’re human. Learning how to hear and empathize with our partner’s experience – and then letting them know that we had a different experience – is not only crucial for conflict resolution, it’s crucial for intimacy.

The story I tell my couples to illustrate this concept starts with a rite of passage from my teen years, where it was typical to go to a pub and buy a round of drinks before your 18th birthday (the legal age for buying alcohol in England). Being asked to show ID (or “getting carded” as they say in the US) was rare, but if it happened, it was the ultimate humiliation. Here you were, thinking you were so cool and sophisticated and grown up, and some bar-tender got to tell the world (or at least the punters down the pub) that actually, you were just an acned teenager acting way out of your league.


Fast forward to the grand old age of 32. It was my first full day in the States, my house had been trashed by the renters, and I was being denied a much-needed gin & tonic at TGI Friday’s (of all places) because I didn’t yet have a US driving license and it hadn’t occurred to me to take my passport to the bar.

“Oh it’s a compliment!” cooed my 50-year-old female co-workers, somehow missing the fact that, a) I was only thirty-two, and b) it’s hardly flattering to be denied a cocktail.

“Well, the server could lose their job if they served alcohol to under-age minors”, the male co-workers mansplained, somehow also missing the fact that I was thirty-two, and, frankly, the point.

While both of these responses may have been “right”, neither of them were especially helpful, and neither allowed me to feel seen, felt or understood. Both were aimed at correcting my interpretation of the situation – perhaps with the intention of helping me feel less upset about it – but it didn’t work, because the relational piece was missing. A more relational response (aside from being served a measly gin & tonic in the first place) would have been someone saying, “Oh honey, what a bad day! I’m so sorry,” or even, “Ooof, those carding rules can seem so arbitrary sometimes.” Yet nobody did – and still doesn’t – perhaps because my experience is literally foreign in a land where nobody bats an eye about being asked to show ID.

The point of this story is that although our significant others might not literally be from a foreign country, they are from a foreign land. Their land – of family rules, norms, expectations and experiences, past hurts and humiliations – is different from ours. And those foreign lands inform how we experience interactions in the present day. Debating whether each other’s lived experience is right or wrong is not only unnecessary but actually quite ridiculous; our lived experience just is what it is. Instead of working to correct our significant other’s perception, we need to first empathize, and then get curious. “Oh I’m so sorry you felt so sad/hurt/misunderstood.” “Tell me about that.” “What did it mean to you?” “What did it remind you of?” “Oh, that’s really interesting, because it landed very differently for me.”

As for me, I’ll be honest that it still ticks me off a bit when I get carded, but these days I’m a lot more relational about it. I no longer cry (as I did that day in TGI Friday’s), roll my eyes in contempt or make a big production of pulling my driving license out of my purse and slamming it down on the counter. I now understand that the servers don’t make the carding policy, it’s not worth losing their job over, and if they can’t tell I’m nearing 50, it’s probably a good thing.

I do, however, still glance at my husband, who – because he knows a bit about my lived experience – gives me a sympathetic look, rubs his hand on my back and says, “Sorry, hon. I know that bugs you.”

Which is all it takes to be relational.


Jane McCampbell-Stuart is a licensed therapist, a certified EMDR therapist and a relational coach. She works with individuals and couples, helping all of us become the very best version of ourselves.

*Terry Real is the founder of The Relational Life institute. His website is



The Don’t Ask Conundrum

“Those who ask don’t get, and those who don’t ask, don’t want!”

This was one of my grandfather’s favorite sayings; albeit delivered with a twinkle in his eye, but delivered nonetheless – mostly when he caught my siblings and I looking hopefully at the sweetie-tin on the mantlepiece, the ice-cream van in the park, or the last chocolate biscuit on the tea-trolley.

It would be many years before I learned about double-binds as a therapeutic concept, but even at six years old, the conundrum was not lost on me. 

Ask and you’d appear ungrateful for what you’d already been given. Even worse, you’d put a kindly elder in the heartbreaking position of giving up something they were saving for themselves because they didn’t want to say no to a child. 

Don’t ask, and nobody would realize you were even interested. “Well, since no-one else wants it,” my father would say, helping himself to the last of my grandmother’s perfectly crispy roast potatoes, right in front of our forlorn, puppy-dog eyes.

Because when you can’t ask, puppy-dog eyes are your only recourse. You gaze longingly at what you desire, and then beseechingly at the person with the power to grant it, in the hope that they might notice, take pity on you, and offer it up. The trick is to be obvious enough to get your grandfather’s attention but subtle enough not to arouse your dad’s, because he’s been playing the game for longer, and is better at it than you are. He’s also acutely attuned to how your behavior around his parents might reflect badly on him.

“Say please!” “Say thank you!” “Don’t be greedy!” “I think you’ve had enough!”

With upbringings like that, it’s no wonder we all have such a hard time asking for what we want; why we drop hints and send indirect signals that can be quietly ignored by the receiver or briskly denied by the sender should they inadvertently make anyone upset. But it only takes a few years of marriage for the puppy-dog eyes to slowly degenerate into glares towards the overflowing trash-can interspersed with some stomping about, banging of cupboard doors and a sarcastic “nothing!” when asked what’s wrong.

Our biggest difficulty – and women, I’m mostly talking to you – is that despite what fairy tales and Disney would have us believe, significant others don’t typically swoop in to heal all the wounds of childhood and indulge us benevolently like our grandparents did (or should have). They don’t yet have the wisdom, the life-perspective – or frankly, the time – to anticipate and meet our needs as much as we might want, expect, or feel entitled to. And – if they’re anything like most of the men who come to me for couples therapy – they’re probably just expecting us to meet our own needs, which is what they’ve learned to do for themselves.

Incidentally, meeting our own needs is a reasonable – if not entirely relational – solution to the don’t ask conundrum. A more relational solution, honestly, is to just use our words. Which means that next time we want our significant other to unload the dishwasher, take the kids to a dental appointment or share the last profiterole, we should try just asking – preferably in the same tone of voice we would use to ask a co-worker to help us move a table. Our significant other gets to respond with a yes, a no or a counteroffer. They don’t get to ignore the request, judge the request as ridiculous or say yes and not follow through – because all those would be anti-relational. And why would anyone be anti-relational when we’ve asked them so nicely? 

Unless we forgot to say please.

Jane McCampbell-Stuart is a licensed marriage & family therapist and relational coach. She works with individuals and couples, encouraging relationality and helping all of us become the very best version of ourselves. Find her at

A Covid Thanksgiving

It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2020.

In previous years I’d have been delivering after-dinner speeches on “Surviving the Holidays”, quipping that Thanksgiving keeps therapists in business. I’d be adding client hours to my calendar to accommodate all those in a state of panic at the prospect of spending extensive time with extended family. I’d be teaching a lot about boundaries. Role-playing “sorry that won’t work for us” conversations. And my old stalwart: bingo cards with customizable squares for grandad’s inappropriate remarks, sister’s drama-bombs, hooded nephews consuming two-thirds of the food without so much as a grunt of conversation, vegan nieces eschewing the nut-roast in favor of turkey, and martyr mothers insisting on doing EVERYTHING by themselves before collapsing in a pool of tears because they’re exhausted and nobody helped.

Yet the reason I could have fun with it was because despite the frenzy, the travel chaos, the over-buying, the over-eating, the food-comas, the green-bean casserole (yuck!) and all of the family drama, Thanksgiving has always been a celebration of gratitude. It’s been a time of coming together as family – biological, legal or chosen – to remember who we are, where we’ve came from, and the belongingness that bonds us as we muddle through this thing called life.

Since I didn’t grow up here, I’ve always had the luxury of being a curious observer, peering through the lenses of my clients and two sets of in-laws. And I’ve found that without the nostalgia for Thanksgivings past, I’ve never had to brace myself for the disappointment of Thanksgivings present.

Paradoxically, I’m grateful for that. This year more than ever.

Because this year, as we hurtle into the Thanksgiving season, we do so – not so much with gratitude – but rather with a hollow awareness of what and whom we’ve lost. What and whom is most important. What and whom we’d unknowingly been taking for granted.

And from that space of awareness, I invite us all to notice – perhaps for the first time – exactly what and whom is precious.

And then to hold it closely, and with both hands.

The Difference Between Therapy and Coaching

As a licensed therapist who recently became a certified coach, I am frequently asked to explain the difference between therapy and coaching. Sometimes I can’t tell if the enquirer is genuinely interested or merely being polite, so I have a few nutshell responses to offer before seeing where the conversation takes us.

“Therapy is about healing; coaching is about growth.”

“Therapy is how the past impacts the present; coaching is how the present impacts the future.”

“People come to therapy because they want something fixed. They come to coaching because they want something changed.”

and then the zinger, which is a blog topic in itself,

“People are willing to pay a lot more for coaching than they are for therapy.”

Of course the reality is much more nuanced than a nutshell response can provide, and the more I try to define it, the more slippery it becomes. But what I’ve mostly found is that where you’re from, what you grew up with and what you trained in has a lot to do with how you see it. 

If you’re from England or Canada where therapy was historically the preserve of the rich, the American and those with debilitating mental illnesses (I dare you to draw a Venn diagram), there’s not so much of a distinction. Coaches and counselors stepped into the vacuum to offer therapeutic-type interventions to the general public, while therapists got wind of motivational interviewing and reframe that had typically been the purview of the coaches. Diagnosing was – and still is – only offered only by psychiatrists (the ones with medical degrees) or psychologists trained in standardized assessments. And with the exception of a few sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offered at the doctors’ office, everyone else offers some combination of private-pay interventions to get you moving in a better direction, no matter what they call themselves.

In the US, however, it’s a different story. Here, therapy is considered part of the already-convoluted healthcare system, which means that national and state boards step in to protect the public from anyone who might seek to offer services without the right credentials. The result is a tangled bureaucratic web of licensure and state-line turf-wars. Insurance companies then join the fray and argue about who, what and how many sessions they won’t cover, providing a catch-22 for therapists who are bound by state guidelines not to allow third parties to influence their treatment. The result is a mess of unnecessary diagnoses, paperwork and way too much fear-based practice, which is then seized on by lawyers who need therapy records for their divorce cases and personal injury claims. At which point you can bet your bikini that those clients who minimized their symptoms to avoid a big diagnosis are disappointed that they didn’t get the big-ass diagnosis after-all, because they’re suing someone for something bad.

If it sounds exhausting, I can assure you, it is. For several months I’ve had a recurring dream where I’m at a conference and someone invites me to participate in a great opportunity, and I go to grab my bag so I can join them. But I have so many purses and backpacks and plastic bags and – in one dream, even a hat and a cat carrier – that no matter how hard I try, I can’t consolidate them all fast enough. By the time I find a temporary solution – like throwing everything in a shopping cart – everybody’s left without me, and I can’t get the shopping cart down the stairs anyway. 

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to interpret what’s going on in my head, and you may be wondering why I still hang on to therapy licensure when it represents so much baggage for me. In truth, I do think about letting it go from time to time, but the reason I haven’t is the same reason that I stay in fancy hotels when I travel. If I’m going to go to a strange, challenging and possibly scary place, I want to know that I’m going to be safe and well taken-care of. And that’s how most of my clients feel too, especially when I’m digging into their past issues of trauma and deep-seated shame.

For all of my griping, the truth is that therapy licensure brings with it some meaningful assurances. Although some coach training programs are pretty rigorous (and CTI, the program that certified me, is one of them), a person doesn’t have to complete – or even start – a training program to call themselves a coach. A therapist licensed in any state however, has been through an accredited graduate school program, post-degree supervision, national and state exams and must complete continuing education hours to ensure they stay up-to-date. While therapists may choose not to treat certain diagnoses in their practice, they’re still very adept at spotting them, which can help a prospective client find the help they need. And, despite the shortcomings of health insurance, it does (occasionally) enable access to therapy for more people than would be able to afford it privately.

Of course state licensure isn’t entirely foolproof – there are some terrible therapists out there just as there are some truly incredible coaches. But as a general rule, it’s a bonus and a privilege to work with someone whose state is willing to vouch for their level of education and standard of care, as Minnesota is for mine.

Therapist or coach?

I’m neither, and I’m both.

Whatever you call me, it’s the relationship between us that brings the healing, the magic and the growth. 


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