Boundaries: Why They Matter

“Boundaries is simply what’s OK and not OK.” - Brené Brown

Imagine your internal world - your emotions, thoughts, desires, needs - is a village.

In order for your village to thrive, it needs to feel safe. And it can only do that when it has a clear protection around it, one that defines who and what is OK and not OK to enter your village. 

Healthy boundaries are elastic and flexible, shifting each moment according to our needs and preferences. 

Knowing what is OK and not OK to enter our village - how it is OK and not OK for people to treat us and being able to communicate this respectfully and assertively can build more respectful and trusting relationships built on authenticity instead of Fear, Obligation or Guilt (FOG). 

A boundary is a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.

Boundaries that are neither too flimsy nor too solid - but strong enough - have been linked to:

  • More assertiveness / confidence
  • Less likely to burn out / less stress
  • Less anger / resentment
  • More self-awareness / self-care / self trust
  • Authenticity

Without a clear boundary we are not protected. The world and other people can feel unsafe. 

Our boundary style is not something we actively chose, but a way of being in relation to ourselves and others we learned growing up. If our parents modelled good boundaries and respected ours by allowing us to have our own needs, desires, emotions, we probably have good boundaries.

This is not always the case unfortunately, and many of us learned to sacrifice our own needs to be in connection with others, making our own boundaries too weak. Alternatively, we may have learned to cut ourselves off from connection to protect ourselves, leading to boundaries that are too solid. 

As adults, we can now bring awareness to this behavior and change it if it is no longer working for us but it is important to go about this gently and with compassion. There is always a good reason why we do what we do - it made sense at some point in our life. Even if a behavior is no longer working for us, it is not ‘wrong’ - it is an adaptation we learned at a time when it made sense, like a survival strategy helping us make the best of the relationships we had in the past.

I wanted to share the information below in a visual way because understanding and awareness are often the first steps in making change. 

The village concept and diagrams are my own ideas and my approach on boundaries is inspired by the work of Pat Ogden, Brené Brown, Karla McLaren and Harriet Lerner. 

A lot of my personal work in the last few years has been around boundaries - and learning to have a clear boundary around my village in my (on-going) work around self-care, self-trust and authenticity. It is also often where I start with people in individual sessions.

When boundaries are not solid enough

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Without solid boundaries, we have a hard time knowing where we start and others end. We let others into our village or go into their village, creating enmeshed relationships. 

When we allow others to invade our village...

  • We end up doing things we don’t want to do.
  • We feel taken advantage of. 
  • We can end up feeling resentful, bitter or needy - like a victim. 
  • We do not take responsibility for our village. 
  • We get overrun by other people’s ‘stuff’ and lose a sense of who we are, feel overwhelmed, unclear about who we are or what we want.  

When we spend our time in other people’s villages... 

  • We feel overly responsible for others.
  • We feel taken advantage of.
  • We feel depleted and can burn out.
  • Our life can revolve around others: Trying to please them and putting their needs first.
  • We are constantly looking for external validation or according to what we think others expect from us.

When boundaries are not solid enough, we often oscillate between both going into other people's village and letting them run ours. 

In both cases, we don’t really know who we are - in the first scenario because our village is overrun by others, and in the second because we spend so much time in other people's villages that our own village becomes a neglected ghost town. 

This can lead to...

  • Being unable to clearly say yes, no or maybe.
  • Our needs feeling unimportant or non-existent - difficult to even understand or identify.
  • Feeling misunderstood.
  • Taking on others’ emotions / stress easily.
  • Being constantly angry, bitter, resentful, snarky, sarcastic.
  • Being unable to properly take care of ourselves or even know who we are. We cannot prioritize ME over WE when we are too busy taking care of other people’s villages or dealing with those who are in ours.
  • All this can lead to feeling so overrun we end up hating and even avoiding people. 

We let people get away with things that are not okay. Then we just become more resentful and hateful. - Brené Brown:

When boundaries are too rigid

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When boundaries are too rigid - more like a stone wall than a fence - this was often an adaptation from a time when relationships did not feel safe and protecting ourselves in this way was what was needed to survive. 

In this scenario, we are safe, but cut off from others. Nothing gets in or out. 

This can mean...

  • WE is sacrificed for ME - but the sense of ME is rigid and not fluid enough to adapt to the environment. 
  • We can’t connect with others or express ourselves in a healthy way - nothing comes in or gets out. 
  • It can feel difficult to be vulnerable or share personal information.
  • It can feel safer to be alone, be self-reliant, guarded, independent. 

When boundaries are avoidance

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Physically avoiding people, situations, conflicts or life choices is a form of boundary setting that we can resort to when avoidance was one the best option available to us when we were younger. 

This can look like avoiding situation that takes us out of our comfort zone because we don't feel safe enough without strong-enough boundaries. 

These may be solutions to protect us in the short-term, yet in the long-term they can lead to disconnection and a life that feels small. 

This said, sometimes this form of boundaries - avoidance or completely cutting certain people out of our lives - can be the kindest choice for us. If however, this is our pattern in every relationship, there might be some work to do in building a more flexible boundary that allows more of a give and take in relationships. 

Strong enough boundaries

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Healthy boundaries that are strong enough to protect our internal village, while still being fluid and flexible enough to adapt to the context are often ideal. This looks like two whole villages interacting with each other in an authentic, respectful way.

This is about being assertive and able to own and clearly communicate our needs, what is OK and not OK for us, to have our own backs. It allow us to have relationships in which we can be ourselves most of the time.

The challenge of building strong enough boundaries is that this can bring up guilt, because many of us were taught to put WE before ME. 

In this scenario, ME and WE are balanced. ME is not sacrificed for WE nor is it only about ME.

It can often feel like a delicate dance and yet ME and WE are balanced in adult relationships built on mutuality. 

Whose village are you in?

We put our energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior and hand over responsibility for our own. - Harriet Lerner

In order to understand boundaries, we need to understand what we are and are not responsible for. I wrote more about this here - and below is a more visual summary. 

Healthy boundaries mean taking responsibility for our own actions, needs and emotions and realising that while we may be able to influence how others feel or think or behave - we can never fully change this. 

In adult relationships, we can care about other people - but it is not our job to take care of them. 

We actually cannot change or ever guarantee how someone else reacts or how they feel, so we cannot be responsible for their actions or reactions or emotions in a healthy adult relationship.

When people try to manipulate us in some way, by getting us to feel or do something, we do not need to take this on - this is where a strong boundary enables us to ask questions, and make a conscious choice about how we are going to react - for example by saying no, standing up for ourselves or walking away. 

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How boundaries work

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No matter how solid our boundaries are, others will always try to cross them.

This is a given in life. And it’s OK when we trust ourselves to be able to repair our boundary when they are crossed. 

As Jonice Webb writes in Running on Empty:

"A primary rule of assertiveness is that anyone has the right to ask you for anything; and you have the equal right to say no, without giving a reason."


Repairing a boundary

When we repair our boundary this can look like:

  • Saying a clear yes, no or maybe based on our needs in the moment. 
  • Communicating what’s OK or not OK.
  • Owning our own needs and asking for them.
  • Standing up for ourselves WITHOUT invading the other person’s village. This is what we often call assertiveness. 

It is only by repairing our boundary that we build self-trust - that we know that we have our own back. 


Boundaries crossed repeatedly without repair leaves us as more of a blob than a whole village. 

This often leads to:

  • resentment
  • bitterness
  • apathy
  • annoyance
  • regret 
  • sarcasm 
  • cynicism 
  • passive-agressive behavior

Where to start

This is a big topic, and there are tools for how to set boundaries or open up more to connection depending on what feels more relevant to you in a situation. 

Perhaps a good place to start is to simply notice - with kindness and curiosity - where you are at and what works and no longer works for you. 

How do you react in relationships? What is the balance between ME / WE? Is this working for you? Are you living with a lot of resentment, apathy or passive-aggressive behavior in your relationships? Do you feel you can trust yourself to understand and communicate your needs?

As Pat Ogden writes, "You can transform your relational boundary style into a choice rather than an automatic habit."

Said another way, you can change the signpost at the entrance of your village to one that is more aligned with the life you want to create today - perhaps one grounded in authenticity, assertiveness and connection. 

Would you like to find out more about how to work with boundaries? 

Join Yoga Teacher and Psychologist Karine Barbeau and I at a retreat taking place this upcoming Ascension Weekend. 

We will combine psychological skills around boundaries with a powerful physical practise including body posture, yoga, breath work. No experience in yoga needed.

We will spend 3 days in the beautiful surroundings of St Tropez and really take time to gently explore this topic, so you can learn practical ways to assert your needs, be centered in who you are and live more authentically. We are keeping the group small, so please sign-up if you are interested to make sure there is still space. 

If you are in the Geneva / Lausanne area, we can put you in contact with other participants to car pool or share the costs of a transfer from Nice or Marseilles airport or train station (both about 1.5 hours away). 

Find out more + benefit from the Early Bird price until March 31! 

Intimacy & Men: Guest Post by Aernout Zevenbergen

In recent months I have come to realise that one of the most important questions to ask a male client could also be one of the riskiest: How many male friends do you have? Not drinking buddies, or sports mates but real friends? Friends with whom you speak about the joys and sadnesses of life, the successes and the failures?

I find the question so important because it can lead to an exploration of connections, of support networks, of possible loneliness (which is of course different from being alone). It also allows for a charting of openness, vulnerability, and authenticity: what sustains you, what challenges you in a constructive way? And: what are the hindrances in a man’s life to connect to a fellow male? The responses provide a lot of insight into how a man relates not just to other men, but also how he relates to himself, and to significant others in his life. 

The question about friendships among men is important, I believe, because it leads the way to better understanding how individual men interpret the world around them, and how they see their own place in it. It leads to a better understanding of difficulties men might have with romantic love, with intimacy (sexual and otherwise), with conflicts at work, and even how they engage with their own depression or anxiety, sadness, and their own joy and contentment.

The key, for me, is intimacy

Intimacy is sometimes confused with sexuality because the word is often used as a euphemism. Relationship experts, however, distinguish between physical intimacy and two other types: self-intimacy and conflict intimacy. Conflict intimacy describes our ability to interact without aggression or defensiveness.

In the setting of this blog I’m most interested in self-intimacy.

How content am I in my own skin? How capable am I to explore and experience the whole gamut of my emotions and thoughts, without needing to run away and hide? How well do I really know myself, and the stories I tell myself about myself? 

There’s a beautiful piece on men and intimacy on the blog of the Good Men Project where the author writes: Intimacy is based on being able to show ourselves to another person, warts and all. Men are very reluctant to do this because they fear that they might be judged or put down.  

Relationships of any type are bound to confront us with aspects of ourselves we don’t particularly like. A good relationship (be it a sibling, a colleague, a friend or a romantic partner) will hold up mirrors, and we will see things we don’t appreciate. 

Contemporary demands on romance require a broadening of how many of us still see masculinity. In an interview with GOOP, Terry Real said this about the modern-day demands of and on men: The things you were taught as a boy—be strong, don’t feel, be independent - will ensure that by today’s standards you’ll be seen as a lousy husband.

Self-intimacy is the way to seeing what’s in the mirror, confronting what isn’t particularly helpful in the lives we want to live, and finding the courage to accept what needs accepting. Self-intimacy also means exploring who it is I am as a man, from deep within. What is my mission and my vision, what are my values and how do I want to engage with the world around me? What are my truths, and how do I speak them? 

Therapist Terry Real calls this fierce intimacy: radical truth-telling. The ability to talk your walk, and walk your talk. But to be able to tell a radical truth, one needs to know 'I' first. This is where refined, new perceptions of strength are needed: the courage to be ruthlessly and compassionately honest with self, to explore the shadows within; the courage and strength to touch the pain within and heal.  

Being intimate with others requires being intimate with ourselves first. The ideals of olden days – to be stoic, to be aggressive, to be “a rock” – are no longer sufficient. Strength and courage in our day and age are being redefined to mean different things. 

Good, deep and lasting connections of men among men are ideal testing grounds for this openness, this vulnerability; testing grounds for this courageous entry into authenticity and integrity. 

A pathway towards fierce intimacy

Aernout Zevenbergen


Aernout has worked with the theme of modern day masculinity since 2001, originally as a writer / journalist. He published the book Spots of a Leopard in 2009 based on his encounters with men in Africa about what it means to be a man today.

Subsequently trained as a counsellor / psychologist, Aernout works one-on-one with men in his private practise near Nyon. 

Aernout was born in Zambia, raised in the Netherlands and has lived in numerous African countries between 1997 and 2016. In July 2016 he moved to Geneva with his wife, Käbi. 

Buy his book, Spots of a Leopard, in paperback and kindle

Join us for our upcoming workshop - click on the image below to find out more! 

2017: A Year of Endings + Beginnings

I will remember 2017 as a year of destruction and rebuilding, of endings and beginnings. 

It has been an intense, alive year, filled with the sadness and grief of letting go and the anxiety and excitement that often comes with newness. 

As T.S. Eliot wrote: To make an end is to make a beginning.

And while sometimes we ‘make an end’ gently, softly, gradually - other times it feels more like setting something on fire.

There is no right or wrong way to do things. This is simply what I experienced in my life this past year and I want to share my experience, a little of what happened behind the scenes in 2017 and what I am looking forward to in 2018. 

A Year of Endings

This past year felt like I needed to completely let go of many things in my life and start over.  

At the beginning of the year, I let go of my past branding / website and focus on health coaching with Healthwise, and shifted fully into the work I am doing now in therapy and coaching through Wiser Humans

I painstakingly unravelled the married life I had built over 12 years. In addition to the emotional difficulty, I also discovered the administrative, financial, legal and logistical challenges that go along with this life transition.

Destruction. It felt like I was setting my old life on fire and watching the flames burn, knowing it was no longer working for me, yet not really knowing what I was heading towards.

And of course, there were moments of doubt, of what am I doing? Am I crazy? Would I be able to build a new life from the ashes that felt more in line with the person I wanted to be? There is never any guarantee of anything in life, and yet making room for this uncertainty is not easy. 

In nature, destruction is necessary for growth, for newness. Forests need the naturally occurring fires in order to renew the ecosystem and help it thrive. 

And nothing is ever lost. The ashes of what was nourishes the soil of what is to become.

I wrote one of my favorite pieces about this transitional phase which was published on Elephant Journal earlier this year.

A Year of Beginnings

This was also a year of beginnings.

I took one of my first solo trips to Portugal in the Spring, with absolutely nothing planned for six days. I hung out on my own in Lisbon and by the majestic ocean at Cascais. I spent a lot of time walking, reading, writing, biking and trying to simply be with the loneliness that was often there. As an extravert, being alone does not come naturally for me - it is something I am consciously cultivating. 


The Beginnings of Love 

Now that I was single again after 15 years, everything felt new and unfamiliar in the dating world. I was curious to try online dating for the first time - but I wanted to do it in a way that felt self-compassionate. 

I committed to having my own back, to not putting up with unacceptable behavior, and to viewing it all as learning - learning about myself, about men, about dating. 

I gave myself permission to be fully myself and to approach each encounter with an open-minded curiosity - while still being able to put boundaries, to say no, to walk away at any point. 

I vowed not to take anything anyone wrote personally - they were entitled to their reactions in the same way I was entitled to mine. Their reaction would not have the power to define my worth. Being clear on what I could and could not change / control made me write this piece on personal power which was my most read blog post in 2017.  

Within a few weeks, I met an amazing man. We have been together now for nine months and this relationship is enabling me to grow and laugh more than I ever thought possible - even if that growth sometimes feels uncomfortable! I wrote about finding a 'whole-ish' love here


Work-wise this has been a pretty busy year, particularly with individual sessions.  

I changed therapy rooms in Geneva to have an additional day for sessions and I opened a new space in the city I now live in, Lausanne, with three English-speaking psychologists called Lausanne Therapy Space. Our vision it to create a safe space for personal growth for the English-speaking community in the area. Below is a photo of the smaller room. 


I also created a few online events in the beginning of 2017: I hosted my first webinar on self-sabotage in January and held live online classes on emotions and boundaries.

Below is a behind the scenes look at my very sophisticated set-up! 


Being on my own on Valentine’s Day, I hosted a discussion group around the topic Connection Beyond Romance which was a little different from my usual workshop format and a lot of fun! I also held a workshop called Once Upon a Dark Time: Skills for Coping With a Difficult Time which also felt very close to my heart.

I did quite a few corporate workshops / events which I also very much enjoyed as a way of reaching a different audience. The photo below is a Wellness Day event at one of the United Nations agencies. 

I once again attended the annual Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) conference in June to continue my training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The highlight of this conference was discovering a more body-based approach to therapy which helped me see things in a different light. 

Following this discovery, I attended an introduction to two body-based approaches to learn more about how to integrate the body in therapy: Somatic Experiencing and the Hakomi Method. 

In November, I went on my first retreat ever to Thailand on mindful compassion with Dr Chris Irons. This was a Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) retreat/training for therapists and it was wonderful. 


Despite my past obsession with healthy eating, my eating has been anything but stellar this year. 

With everything else going on in my life, I felt it was kinder towards myself to relax things, to do what I felt I could without this being an additional stress. 

This more relaxed attitude has allowed me to let go of the rigidity I still had around food and to simply eat what felt best in the moment - sometimes this was pizza and sometimes broccoli! I have also been moving in ways that feel kind to my body: Lots of yoga, hikes and walks by the lake.

I was sick more than I have ever been this year. Nothing major - sore throats, swollen tonsils, colds, coughs, fever - that kind of thing. I also bruised my tailbone at the beginning of the year and couldn’t do much  physical activity for over a month. 

Interestingly, what I learned through this is to be OK with not always feeling OK physically. I can do my best to take care of myself, but there is only so much that is in my control. Similarly to emotional pain, when we let go of beating ourselves up over how we are feeling, we can drop some of the pain - or at least not add on to what is already there. 

Hello, 2018

Here are some themes I would like to explore further in 2018.

Workshops / events for men

I have been avidly exploring men’s issues over the past two years and have been working with more and more men individually, and I would love to hold workshops for men in collaboration with a male counsellor. I am excited about this as I feel there isn't a lot of group work available to men in the region yet!

Relationship as a path to growth

I really enjoy working with people around relationships and building healthier, deeper, more intimate relationships and I would love to continue to develop this, individually or through a group dynamic.

Body awareness

I hope to continue exploring how the body can be integrated into the work of healing and growth as this is something I believe very strongly in. 


I would also like to develop more of the online part of my work, perhaps through online programs.

Thank you for being part of my 2017

I have been quite open about what I was going through this year in the hope that sharing this might also be relevant to some of you - and many of you have expressed your support in various ways which always touches me deeply. 

Thank you for being part of my 2017, for sharing this journey of growth with me. Your presence makes all the difference. 

May 2018 be filled with love and growth and connection!