The Basics of Life-Serving Boundaries: Relationship Competency 8

Setting boundaries is about being firmly grounded in self-respect and clear about what works for you. From the framework of Mindful Compassionate Dialogue, a life-serving boundary means making a conscious decision about how you will relate to another or behave in a particular situation.  These decisions depend on clarity about what meets needs and what doesn’t relative to what others do and share and what you do and share. Such clarity allows you to put your attention and energy where you want it to go by consciously adjusting what and how much you share with others.

As with all of the relationship competencies, becoming competent and confident with life-serving boundaries requires some combination of knowledge, skills practice, and awareness/healing; which are, in turn, are supported by mindfulness and compassion. 


Perhaps the easiest part of learning to set life-serving boundaries is building vocabulary and understanding the relevant concepts. There are at least four pieces to learn and study.

  1. Universal Needs Vocabulary: Setting life-serving boundaries depends on your ability to identify needs in yourself and others. Memorizing the needs list so that needs vocabulary is a regular part of your daily vernacular is, therefore, essential.

  2. Types of Boundaries: Being able to recognize and describe at least seven different types of boundaries not only helps you get more clear about what your choices, it also helps you see instances of boundaries that don’t meet needs.

  3. Evaluating Boundaries: The more explicitly you can evaluate a particular situation and the boundaries you and others are operating from or would like to operate from, the more you can access agency and wisdom. There are five basic areas of investigation with regard to evaluating life-serving boundaries: type of relationship, context, intentions/expectations, body language, and sharing.

  4. Power Dynamics:  While you can often sense when power dynamics are at play, without a clear understanding of the concepts of “power under,” “power over,”, and “power with,” it is difficult to intervene when it matters most.

Skills Practice

Skills practice means creating new habits that meet needs. Without an opportunity to practice new skills in a safe environment, old habits can take over. You can find yourself engaging in a behavior even as you are aware that it is not skillful. Skills practice includes three major elements:

  1. Trying out new phrases, words, and ways of communicating: Often times this means giving yourself permission to say something out loud, when old habits would keep you silent. It also means hearing how others might say something. Being exposed to a variety of approaches allows you to find a way through that resonates for you.

  2. Support and cheerleading from others: With the relationship competency of life-serving boundaries, you might be learning to relate and speak in a way that you were punished for in childhood. This makes practicing new skills edgy. You can find the courage to stay on that learning edge when others are helping to create a safe and supportive space.

  3. Structure: Structured experiential learning sets you up for success by breaking skills down into simple, specific, and doable bits. As you experience success in structured exercises, you gain confidence to take those skills into the complex situations of everyday life.

Awareness & Healing

As you become aware of beliefs, habits, and past pain, related to boundaries, it’s essential to meet this awareness with compassion and empathy. This includes self-empathy as well as empathy from others. It includes compassion for yourself as well as compassion for others. Self-awareness that is met with empathy and compassion creates healing.

With awareness and healing, you are able to access grief and mourning for past pain and unmet needs that were the result of boundary violations. You also become able find caring and compassion for others needs without taking responsibility for them or feeling guilty when you say “no” to their requests.

Lastly, awareness and healing shifts the lens through which you perceive and evaluate relationships with others. You find the power to walk away from relationships that don’t support you. You recognize moments of getting hooked in habitual ways and have enough confidence to unhook and relate in new ways.


Take a moment to reflect on the three areas of knowledge, skills practice, and awareness/healing relative to your own practice with life-serving boundaries. In which do you have a sense of confidence? In which would you like to devote more care and attention?