Learning to Adult | Building Internal Psychological Boundaries

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creating boundaries marriage

We are sitting at the breakfast table on an otherwise blustery Saturday.  It's a bustle of activity, Travis has made French Toast, and it's on the table with the plates, forks, butter knives, and syrup.  I'm getting coffee and watching the cream swirl into the dark liquid. And then, like a roaring lion, mid-stir, I hear Middle demand...

"GIVE ME THE FRENCH TOAST!" she yells her order to everyone now seated.

"Excuse me? I say, "What? Let's try that again with respect."

"No!" she says.

"We don't talk like that here, Middle. If you would like the french toast, ask your brother to please pass it to you."

"No!" No! I'm not going to say it the way you want me to say it!"

And we're off.  Galloping full speed toward an 'episode.'  Episodes are my cute way of saying, "a progressive disagreement about who is in charge."

Middle Child is smart. She is very smart. Middle also has triggers that frequently arise out of losses she's experienced through her parents' divorce. Not only does she need to manage these losses, but there are also vastly different communication and parenting styles at each home. As a result, Travis and I frequently find ourselves spending a lot of time soothing her need to exert control and helping her to build emotional regulation.

"I'll say it, but, I'm not going to say it EXACTLY as YOU want me to!" says Middle.

Travis: "Let's try this again. Why are we having a concern this morning?"

We all fall silent and the rest of the family eats looking pensive.

Middle: "Because YOU wouldn't let me have carrot cake. You said you would but you didn't."

Travis: "No, we're here because when you wanted more french toast this morning from across the table, and you looked at your brother and yelled, 'GIVE ME THE FRENCH TOAST'. The correct way to ask for french toast from across the table is to ask for it politely."

"I'm not going to do it," Middle half-yells.

I get up from the table and excuse everyone else, still in recovery from the control concerns we spent 3 hours addressing with Middle last night. Frankly, I want to smash her head into the table and tell her, that she WILL do exactly as I say. And that I'm sick and tired of dealing with her attempts to control everything. I want to tell her that she needs to grow up and if she doesn't simply do what we say, there's going to be a lot of trouble.

But, I don't. I choose to adult. Travis and I look at each other, take a deep breath and sit down with Middle to teach.

Psychological boundaries are the boundaries that keep you separate from others.  Physical boundaries define your rights as to your physical space; when, where, how, and by whom you will be touched by another person, how close someone stands to you, who is allowed to look at your letters, in your drawers, and know the password to your cell phone.  In the same way, psychological boundaries define your emotional space.

Psychological boundaries also have two parts. We will talk about external boundaries in another post.



Like skin is to your physical body, psychological boundaries are the skin to your internal emotional world. Psychological boundaries function like an eggshell.  The internal side of the eggshell protects others from you. This side of your psychological boundary acts as a container for YOU. It keeps YOU from overflowing onto others and creating a mess.  It keeps you reigned in.  In the example above, it was my psychological internal boundary that stopped me from acting out how I was feeling toward Middle. Our internal psychological boundaries keep us from leaking our stuff out onto others; our anxiety, our need to control, our rage, and/or our sexuality. They keep us from being difficult and obnoxious parts of the world.

Learning to identify, strengthen and manage internal boundaries requires adulting. Building strong internal psychological takes looking at who you truly are, what you really want, how you truly feel, and accepting those feelings without acting on them.

"Middle, you will ask for the french toast politely or you will not continue with the day until you do."

"Stop it!" she yells.

"No, this is the way it is going to be. Our job is to teach you how to interact as a functioning person in the world. Being rude and demanding is not how to get what you want.  Now, you can either say, 'Please pass me the french toast,' or 'Can I please have the french toast.' But you will practice by saying it or you will not leave the table until you do."

"This is YOUR fault," Middle glances at me. "I don't want to talk to you, I want to talk to my Dad by myself."

Now, my feelings are hurt. Often, that's the way it can be in blended families if you're doing it correctly.  Even though she is a 10-year-old child, my psychological buttons are being pushed and my boundaries are being tested.

Blended families are difficult.  There is a lot of adulting that the parents need to do. They need to adult with each other, they need to adult with the step-children, they need to adult with their own children, they need to adult with themselves.

Learning to adult is difficult but it can be done.  Part of learning to adult is examining and strengthening internal psychological boundaries. It sucks. It hurts, it's hard but building these strong internal boundaries is part of what is required to build real intimacy. If you want healthy relationships, internal boundaries are required. If you want to make a difference in the world, learning to contain yourself is a must.

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Avatar für Daun Hall

Daun Hall

Relationships have always fascinated me. As an avid learner and current MA Psychology - Marriage & Family Therapy student, my days are spent delving into knowledge, research, and skills of building positive, lasting marriage relationships as well as caring for the needs of each member of the blended family.

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