The sexual boundary

This is the third in a three part series. Here is a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me from, among other things, unwanted closeness or touch from others, the sexual boundary takes this one step further.

My sexual boundary protects me by allowing me to control where, how, when, and with whom I will be sexual.

I have the right to protect myself this way, and I show self respect and self compassion for standing up for this right.

And I contain myself by giving you the same respect.

This boundary implies asking whenever in doubt of what another wants sexually. Even with a partner that you’ve been sexual with for years, having a conversation like this can be refreshing.

The words, “be sexual”, are pretty vague, and everyone will have a different definition. My wife and I have had conversations about this and I have learned a lot about what is sexual for her. And it’s different from what I find to be sexual. I remember after having those conversations how respected I felt that she would be willing to honor my boundaries. And after years of violating hers, she now feels much more respected by me that I’ll ask when I’m not sure.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you really get your head around these ideas.

The internal boundary

This is part 2 of a three part post. Here’s a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me externally, I also need a boundary that delineates my thoughts and feelings from yours. This is the internal boundary.

Inside the internal boundary is a peaceful, safe space. Mine is the deck of a ship on a glassy ocean, with my wife Mari next to me. I smell the ocean. I see the peaceful water and an occasional seagull floating by. I hear the flapping of sails and the creaking of wood. I can feel the support and warmth of the lounge in which I’m reclining. I feel the warmth of Mari’s hand in mine. Here I am safe. Nothing can get to me. With practice, I’ve been able to get to this place remarkably quickly.

My boundary is a force field. I imagine that it creates waves in the atmosphere around me, and I can reach out a finger and touch it, “Zzzzzttt”. Yours will be different – you just have to imagine something that feels right. Mari has a set of hula hoops that spin up around her. Just make sure there’s room for something to get through so you don’t end up with a wall.

When someone speaks to me, my internal boundary keeps me safe from their words. It’s like an inspection station – as I hear those words I’m constantly asking, “is this true for me?” Pia proposes that there are three answers: yes, no, and “I’m not sure.” If the answer is yes, I take the words in and have feelings about them. I let the words touch me. I may even change my mind about something as a result. This is part of my continuing development as a human.

If the answer is no, I don’t take them in. I don’t have feelings about them. I imagine them going “plink, plink” off my boundary and just sliding off. There’s something about that visualization that really helps me – I suppose I’m so focused on “plink, plink” that I don’t have time to have feelings about the words.

If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” I say something like, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you in a few days.” And that’s a promise that I must honor if I am to remain trustworthy.

Can you see the difference between this and a wall? A healthy internal boundary is strong, and at the same time, it’s porous. Using a wall only makes sense when you’re trapped in a situation with an abusive person and you have no way to flee.

One downside of “plink, plink” is that, like all of us, I have blind spots. I find it helpful to imagine grabbing those “plinked” words before they completely disappear and queuing them up for awhile. That way I can look for patterns, “Wait, I’ve heard this from several people. Maybe I have a blind spot. I should talk to a trusted friend about this instead of just ignoring it.”

Boundaries are a daily practice, and I sometimes get caught with my guard down. Recently Terry Real gave me some advice for this situation. I now visualize a way of getting something OUT of my boundary if it got in by accident. I imagine a vacuum cleaner sucking the ick out of my safe space. Like “plink, plink”, this helps let those feelings go when they are from words that I’ve realized aren’t true for me. And on my worst days, I don’t do any of this stuff and I’m just damned hard to be around. As time goes on I’m having less of those days 🙂

Okay, so that’s the protection bit. Now let’s talk about containment, which is just as important.

Containment is all about being thoughtful. It’s an inspection station for my outgoing words. As I’ve become more mindful, I find myself slowing down a little. In my head, I’ll play the words I’d like to say and imagine how the recipient will experience them, given what I know of her reality. And if I think it’ll be hurtful, I’ll back up and play some different words. With difficult topics, I find myself doing this many times before I find the right words to convey my meaning. Once I think the words won’t be hurtful, I’ll share them. This thoughtfulness has increased the harmony in my relationships.

Even on my best days, others may still feel hurt when they hear my words. I can never know the entirety of another’s reality. Even with a healthy containment boundary, there will be situations where my words are interpreted by the other as hurtful. And there are plenty of times when, in the heat of the moment, I forget entirely to follow this process (I’m “boundaryless” in those moments). The delightful thing is, relationships cycle in and out of harmony all the time, and I have learned an effective repair process. I’ll write about that in a future article.

And finally, part 3, the sexual boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.

A potent recipe

This blog post is a work in progress. I’d love comments as I work this out in my head.

  1. Recognize your gift.
  2. Lean into it.
  3. Protect others from the sharp edges that come along with it.
  4. Recognize it in others.

Some thoughts…

(1) may remain in your shadow until you figure out how to feel worthy. Is it possible to introspect honestly when you don’t feel worthy?

People around you will give you clues to (1) if you will pay attention to how they react to you.

If you tend toward grandiosity, you’ll probably do (2) regardless, because it’s fun. If you tend toward shame, you may avoid (2) because it’s too scary. I think this has a lot to do with what Joseph Campbell calls “following your bliss”.

(3) has to do with boundaries and self regulation. Each gift has a dark side – it can also be considered a defect.

(4) was contributed by Michael – thanks! I’d love to hear more about what he thinks about that…


“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box

A boundary is a model for a healthy relationship between two people. It allows you and I to be in relation with each other, and at the same time to be individuals with our own thoughts and feelings, needs and wants. It prevents us from becoming enmeshed with each other (not knowing what’s yours and what’s mine), without putting a wall between us. Boundaries are all about balancing between these extremes.

Lots has been written on this subject, but the model created by Pia Mellody is the one that I prefer because of its clarity and simplicity. This is the sort of thing that should be taught to kids. Like many of us, I didn’t get the benefit of that instruction (and neither did my parents nor theirs). I learned this lesson much later in life.

A boundary allows us to really know one another. It separates my stuff from yours, where stuff is not only physical (body and possessions) but also intellectual and emotional (thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs).

In Pia’s model there are three boundaries: physical, internal, and sexual. And each has an inside and an outside – one side protects me, and the other contains me (it protects you from me).

This is the first in a series of three articles on boundaries. In this first article I’ll be talking about the physical boundary.

The Physical Boundary

For my physical boundary, I imagine an invisible shell about 18 inches from my skin. The distance depends on how much space I need between me and any given person in order to be comfortable. I imagine it expanding and contracting as as I interact with different people. It’ll be closer to my skin with a loved one and further away with a stranger.

The outside of my shell protects me from physical touch by others.

If you approach me closely, as you cross my physical boundary, my body alerts me with a feeling of discomfort. When I notice this I step back. If you don’t get the hint and keep approaching me, I’ll say, firmly and respectfully, “I am not comfortable being that close to you. Please give me some space.” This demonstrates self compassion and self respect.

The inside of my shell contains me so that you can be comfortable as well. I slow down as I approach you, watching for signs of discomfort from you – often I’ll feel it in my body before I have the thought, “She is getting uncomfortable.” If I notice that you are uncomfortable, I step back from you until I feel your comfort return. This shows respect for others.

When I feel like giving someone a hug, I ask permission first. “I’d like to give you a hug. Would you be comfortable with that?” Even then, I realize that by spreading my arms apart and approaching another, I loom larger than I already am, and that can be frightening. The vast majority of women (and also many men) have been assaulted at some point in their lives, and I might be triggering past trauma in them. Nowadays I prefer simply asking for a handshake, or offering a warm smile. If she wants a hug I figure she’ll ask. In more intimate relationships (e.g., family), this is less of an issue, and an arms-wide approach triggers love, not fear.

The physical boundary also extends to personal and intellectual property. Don’t touch my stuff, look at my email, etc. without asking my permission. I will give you the same courtesy.

As a man, as is typical in our culture, I was socialized to be “tough” and was disconnected from my body at a very early age. I’ve found mindfulness meditation very helpful in getting back in touch with signals from my body. I still can’t name many of the feelings that I have, but I can at least point at where it is, for example, “pressure in my gut”, then look that up in a reference to see some possible names. When I first started doing this I felt like a caveman pointing at my body and grunting, but I’m getting better at identifying my own feelings. What’s weird (but common) is that I am much better at identifying feelings in others, because as a kid that was an important indicator that helped keep me safe in an abusive household.

It takes energy and thoughtfulness to do this work, especially when you’ve not done it in the past. I’m learning that this is just part of being a healthy adult.

Next up, the internal boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.

My quest for understanding


I’ve been on a quest over the last few years. A quest to understand why the work that I started at a company that I cofounded didn’t quite, well, stick. As many of my readers know, I’m a big fan of the W. Edwards Deming theory of management, and for a time we were giving it a go. Even in the short time we were focused on it, we saw some amazing results: sales people working together for the good of the company, management focusing on systems rather than finger pointing, and people busting down our doors to work for us. And while much of that still exists there in one form or another, the company is moving back to more traditional ways. Why didn’t it stick?

Deming is all about cooperation. A system must have an aim, and if everyone is cooperating toward achieving an aim where everyone wins, staff all pulling in the same direction, nobody could possibly compete with that. It seems utopian to imagine everyone at a company working toward an aim larger than themselves (and larger than just making a profit). But I’ve personally seen the beginnings of such a system, and it’s exciting to behold.

Selfishness destroys this. Departments can be selfish, and so can individuals. And for a time I was convinced that selfishness was the thing. Indeed in the US and around the world, the way we raise our kids using carrots and sticks to gain compliance does make them more selfish. So I relentlessly studied both parenting and education to see what I could do to encourage a generation of less selfish people. And I learned a great deal that helped me become a better parent, and a better human. And along the way I discovered some ideas that made visible for me a much deeper schism in our culture. One that we don’t like to talk about. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first of all I want to motivate why you’d even care.

Relationships trump individual contribution

One thing Deming always harped on was how wasteful it is to try to measure individual performance. He pointed out that a company is a complicated system of parts that all depend on one another in complicated ways, and that the performance of any individual in that system is given by an equation, Performance = I + SI. Note there are two factors: individual contribution and the contribution of the individual’s interaction with the system (SI). This is a single equation with two unknowns – it cannot solved. Deming had the courage to ask us to simply stop trying to do that.

Let’s examine one of the most critical parts of this system interaction factor – how people in a company interact with each other. Imagine a staff of only two people, Alice and Bob. If Alice and Bob get along well, treat each other kindly, and act as shock absorbers for one another when one of them is having a bad day, their interaction (let’s call it AB) will be positive – it will contribute to the performance of the system. But if Alice and Bob clash regularly, dismiss each others ideas, and act as amplifiers for each others’ bad days, AB is negative – it degrades the performance of the system. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. There’s no shortage of dysfunctional companies out there!

Now consider this. The number of relationships grows as N squared (look at the picture of the small telephone network above to get an idea of how many relationships exist in even the smallest company). Relationships dwarf individuals. No wonder Deming wasn’t interested in measuring individual performance – he was much more interested in the interactions between individuals. Watch Yves Morieux’s TED talk about cooperation in an Olympic relay race. It’s only a 16 minute video – I’ll wait for you 🙂

Why are we so bad at sustaining relationships as a culture?

Over the course of a couple of years, as I learned more and more about what it takes to create healthy, cooperative, corporate cultures, it finally dawned on me why so many of the practices required to do this feel so odd. So out of place. So foreign. Ready?

Most of the skills necessary for sustaining great relationships are considered feminine.

Compassion, empathy, and yes, vulnerability. The so-called “soft” skills. And Western cultures (as well as many Eastern cultures) devalue the feminine (certainly in practice, if not entirely in principle). Growing up, young boys quickly learn that to be a man, the most important thing is not to be a woman. It’s a sad state of affairs that we quite literally halve ourselves as humans, very early in life. Men are raised to be competitors, not cooperators. Women also lose something important – their ability to be assertive, their voice, and that amplifies the problem. Women have a lot to teach us, but their words aren’t given much value. This explained a lot.

It explained my own personal unease when first introduced to Deming’s ideas. Soon after having this epiphany, I read The Chalice and the Blade, by Rianne Eisler, which introduced the idea of dominator hierarchies. And this helped me better understand the culture of competition in which I was raised. It gave me much hope to see Eisler share evidence that’s being unearthed of early partnership societies. These were more cooperative and equalitarian societies. But our kids don’t learn about cooperative societies in school; rather they learn about early dominator civilizations, readying them to take their place in our dominator culture. If you’ve not read Eisler’s book, I challenge you to pick it up. It’s important work.

Most of us as youngsters were not taught how to have sustainable relationships. Our parents weren’t the best role models because they themselves didn’t have good role models, and the legacy continues. At the same time, our culture bombards us with lousy examples.

Relationships are critical to a company’s success, but the raw material that most of us start with leaves much to be desired.

The answers are out there

Deming was fond of saying, “There is no substitute for knowledge,” and I’ve been fortunate to find an author who, at least for me, teased apart relational life in a way that I could easily understand, with knowledge that I was able to use in my own life. His name is Terrence Real, and he’s been acting as a “front line medic” for relationships for over 30 years, teaching theory about relationships as well as practical skills for sustaining healthy ones. Terry’s focus is on marital relationships, but the concepts and skills that he teaches are applicable anywhere, including in companies. The vast majority of us need some help learning how to cultivate healthy relationships, not just at home, but also at work. And I’m going to be sharing much of what I’ve learned from Terry in a way that you can apply in any relationship, from home to work, here on this blog.

If you want to get a taste of Terry’s work, and his take on this schism in our culture, check out his audio book, How Can I Get Through to You? In under five hours, it explores our dominator culture from the battlefield of marriage, which I believe is the ultimate test of relationship skills.


Recommended aim, with examples

Of all of Deming‘s work, I think the bit with the most potential impact is also the bit that Deming kept close to his vest because it doesn’t advocate company growth as an aim, and his clients would not have understood.

Over the last couple of years it’s become clear to me that this paragraph from his book is a critical key to a truly sustainable economy and health for the people working in it (physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual).

From page 51 of The New Economics,

Recommended aim.

The aim proposed here for any organization is for everybody to gain—stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, the environment—over the long term. For example, with respect to employees, the aim might be to provide for them good management, opportunities for training and education for further growth, plus other contributors to joy in work and quality of life.

Note that Deming does advocate personal growth, which I think of as development.

Deming named his book The New Economics for a reason. He must have imagined a world where the aim was to provide meaningful, long term work for people, giving them the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Think about what this new economy might look like. It’s purpose driven, not money/growth driven, so as long as we can afford to pay people well enough so they aren’t worried about money, we can provide a high quality service at a much lower price. Capital sources that follow this model wouldn’t expect crazy growth, simply a modest return on their investment, similar to a credit union. Jimmy Stewart makes the case for them in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Daniel Quinn, in the Ishmael trilogy, hinted that it’s entirely possible to create subcultures with an aim like Deming’s recommendation. Quinn calls them tribes, and they are essentially groups of people who form purpose-based organizations. These people have chosen to step off the corporate treadmill and focus on doing meaningful, fulfilling work instead of chasing the big paycheck.

I recently discovered a film that documents a handful of purpose-based organizations as they figure out the details, interspersed with wisdom from experts. Anyone who has studied Deming will appreciate the themes, from the musical quartet that the camera constantly returns to (Deming used an orchestra to explain cooperation), scientific experimentation as a means of learning, focus on processes, and freedom of ideas. It’s exciting to see people experimenting in this space.

The film is called A New Economy. UPDATE: While this film is no longer available on Netflix, you can, for under 5 bucks, watch it on Vimeo.

I wish Dr. Deming were alive to see it. I think it would have made him smile.