4 Crucial Words for a World of Chaos
An Interview With Nedra Glover Tawwab
S&H editor at large, Stephen Kiesling, interviews Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist who quietly helps empower clients to speak up for themselves, set boundaries, and find peace.
Nedra Glover Tawwab is a therapist who quietly helps empower 15 to 20 clients each week to speak up for themselves. “What’s ironic,” she says, “is that therapists don’t get to talk much. Instead, we listen.” But Nedra does have passionate words to share—“some information that’s just really amazing!”—and she now reaches over 600,000 people on Instagram.
Her own journey to speak up for herself led her to what may be the four most important words in our increasingly chaotic world. Those four words are the title of her new book: Set Boundaries, Find Peace.
Setting even a small boundary gives you courage. And you need courage to get to those bigger boundaries. —NEDRA GLOVER TAWWAB
At one point in your life, you felt something was seriously wrong, but you thought the problem was you.
That’s right. Before I understood boundaries, people were taking advantage of me. When I tried to speak up for myself, to give people an operating procedure about how to be in relationship with me, I got a lot of pushback. I thought something was wrong with me, but the real problem is that the people in my circle didn’t know about boundaries either. They didn’t realize that boundaries can be good for a relationship—that it is actually healthy to say to a person, “I can only help you in this way” or “I need you to give me a heads-up before you come over.”
Back then, people in my circle thought it was normal to show up at your house whenever they wanted or that you should always answer your phone. It drove me crazy because I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I woke up: Oh, wow. It’s not me!
I was in college, getting my master’s degree in social work, and one of my professors recommended that if you’re going to be a therapist you should try going to therapy. That made sense to me, and there were free sessions at the college, so I went to see the campus therapist. I told her about someone who borrowed my car and brought it back with the gas empty—and all the pushback I experienced for getting angry.
My friends said I was wrong to be angry because the person didn’t have money for gas. I was really confused, and I thought the therapist was going to confirm that I needed to not be angry, to stop putting these things out there. But she said, “That sounds healthy.” I was so surprised.
The therapist said, “You don’t have gas to give. And it sounds like you’re really upset and these interactions are making you really uncomfortable.” Then she shared with me a book called Boundaries: Where You End And I Begin. The book is about boundaries and trauma: sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries. What the book taught me is that boundaries are normal—and that ignorance is what keeps us un-boundaried.
I had been so confused. After reading the book, Oh my gosh! I had a word for this thing. It was now okay to tell people when I can’t or when I didn’t want to do something. I had felt so guilty. I had felt so bad. Just having the word “boundaries” as part of my life made me feel better.
You write about six different types of boundaries— physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, material, and time. It seems clear that they’re all connected.
They are connected. That’s especially true when you think of major things like trauma and sexual molestation, where multiple boundaries are crossed at once. There’s a violation of trust; there’s a violation of your physical space and your emotional space; and there may be a violation of your intellect because you’re told things that you can and cannot do and say.
By the same token, if you strengthen one boundary, that can give strength to another?
Yes. Setting even a small boundary gives you courage. And you need courage to get to those bigger boundaries. On the other hand, sometimes when I teach people to stand up for themselves and to be assertive, they’ll want to run out and tell everyone everything all at once: “Hey, I’ve been having this issue for seven years and I just learned this word called boundaries. Now let me tell you all my boundaries!”
Does that work?
That’s typically not the best. It’s better to start small—when a violation occurs. I mostly tell people, the next time that a violation occurs, use your voice to say two things: One, “I don’t like that.” And two: “Here is what I would like.”
Just get it out?
Yes. Whatever the response is—whether they listen to it, whether they get upset—it shows you, “Wow, I can say really tough things and people can hear them. Whether they like what I say or not, I can say it and they can hear it. And I can do it again.”
So how do you know if you have a boundary problem?
Our feelings tell us that we have boundary problems. We feel upset with others, frustrated, or angry. Resentment is also a big indicator of boundary problems. But often we ignore those feelings. We say we don’t know why we’re feeling this way. But if you really think about it, the feeling is trying to connect you to a situation. And hopefully, if you dig deep, you’ll figure out some sort of shift to make you feel a little bit better in that situation.
Burnout is a really big problem now. And when I think about burnout, I can’t help but think about boundaries because burnout is essentially doing too much and not being appreciated. You’re going to feel very upset, resentful, frustrated—all of those things. And those feelings are indicators to set some boundaries.
What holds people back from setting boundaries?
Fear. People fear how others will react. They fear how they will feel, or they fear the awkwardness of what could occur after they’ve set a boundary. Oftentimes, that fear keeps people from setting any boundaries at all, particularly in relationships with family. You may not want to tell your mom or your brother something, and then have to see this person the next day or the next week. We fear that exchange so much that we won’t set the boundary.
What’s the point when you should ask for help?
When you become frustrated with your level of functioning, when you feel powerless about your roles in your relationships, when you notice that you are unable to take care of yourself, but you are over-caring for other people—those are all signs that you may need some help with your boundaries.
Do you have a personal spiritual practice of checking in with your boundaries? Assessing them regularly?
Yes. It is a spiritual practice to tune into yourself and consider the why of your feelings. What’s trying to come up that I may be trying to push down? What’s trying to be released that I need to let go of? Often, when we’re having uncomfortable feelings, there is a boundary that needs to be addressed. Of course, we can’t live a life without uncomfortable feelings. But what are they trying to tell us? What things do we need to practice to deal with that feeling better, or even reconfigure the trigger for those feelings. The real breakthrough is not, “Oh my gosh, I have an issue with anger.” The real breakthrough is realizing that when I put myself in situations where there are no boundaries, I have an issue with anger.
You solve the boundary problem and the anger goes away?
Yes. I was joking with a friend the other day about starting new jobs. I like to be really organized, and there have been new jobs when I noticed feelings like, ‘I don’t know where to go; I don’t know what to do; I can’t train myself!’ So I quit on the first day. That was back in college when it was easy to get another job doing the cashier thing. But that feeling is very telling. Sometimes, the feeling is asking for more, saying, “Hey, who is supposed to help me here?” And sometimes the feeling is saying, “This is chaotic. I can’t control it. Perhaps I need to leave it.”
So clear boundaries help you figure out whether or not you fit in?
Yes. The biggest misconception is that boundaries are always about saying no. That boundaries are always about cutting people off. That boundaries are always about quitting something. That’s not true. Sometimes the boundary is learning how to exist in an environment with a new set of skills, maybe a new set of spiritual practices, maybe a new set of affirmations—something that can hold you in that environment, because we can’t always leave.
A lot of therapy work is around allowing people to have individual relationships with their family. And we have to focus on the things that we have the power to shift. I remember talking to a woman who said her mother-in-law constantly comes over uninvited. So, I asked, “How does she get in?”
She said, “Well, I let her in.” So I told her that her mother-in-law will continue to come over uninvited—and she will continue to be frustrated about it—until she stops letting her in uninvited. That is the power that we have. We start by very gently saying, “Hey, before you come over, I would love for you to give me a heads-up because I’m not always prepared to receive guests.” If they come over, you say, “Hey, so happy you’re here. But this is not a good time. Let’s schedule some time for you to visit.”
But instead of doing that, what we typically do is wish this person would figure out that they shouldn’t show up unannounced. We may complain about it to a lot of other people—our friends, our family, our therapist—and wonder why these people keep doing this to us. We wonder about the other person when the problem is really internal. What are you allowing to occur? What do you need to shift? What is your power in this situation?
Of course, there are some relationships that make our lives worse. Sometimes those relationships are with family members and people stay in them because they have this belief that they have to. But for any relationship, you always have a choice. Some choices are really tough, but you do have a choice.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about boundaries?
Early on, I thought a lot about our availability—our perceived availability—as a result of the pandemic and being at home. Home is now everything: an office, a workout space, a daycare center. We’re having to compartmentalize so many parts of our day in the same place, and that means boundaries are more important than ever. We need clear limitations around our availability and what we’re able to do with certain pockets of time. And we need to creatively communicate those boundaries to the other people in the house.
Now kids will violate those boundaries. You’ve seen tons of videos where kids are walking into Zoom calls, and sometimes the boundary is locking your office door—if you have one. When I’m working, I remind my kids 5,000 times that I’m going to be on a call. One day, my six-year-old wrote out a sign: Can I have some cookies? And I did a little thumbs-up to the side. The point is, she didn’t come into the room, and that was a result of saying over and over that there is something happening that she cannot disturb. On that particular day, she listened.
The point is, we can express our boundaries and get more out of our days, even while being at home.
How do you deal with guilt?
Good question. People look for guilt-free boundaries. They’re constantly asking how to set boundaries without having any guilt. And at the beginning of our conversation, I talked about my own process with guilt—that I felt really bad for setting boundaries that turned out to be really helpful to me. I felt like crap doing it, but I still did it. I persisted and I kept pushing the boundary. The more I did it, and the more affirmation I got through therapy and talking to people who had healthy boundaries, the more I knew this is a good thing. I no longer feel bad for saying to
people, “Hey, this is what I need.” I may feel bad about their reaction to it, but learning boundaries is allowing people to have their reaction. One of the things that I was engaging in—that I had no clue about at the time—is codependency. I thought I was responsible for everybody’s feelings. So, if you were upset, I had to fix it. I had to learn that people are allowed to be upset at me and I’m allowed to be upset at people. I’m not bad and they’re not either.
You learned that through practicing.
That’s the way to learn. As you practice setting boundaries, one thing you’ll notice are the boundaries that other people set with you.
You may notice that people who have a hard time receiving your boundaries have boundaries with you. The person who says, “I can’t believe you would ask me that” may
have asked a lot of you. I remember ... realizing that this person had all sorts of boundaries—stuff that I was respecting—and then wondering why I was so afraid to ask for what I needed. Seeing it that way really gave me courage.
When someone says, “Hey, when you come inside my house, take your shoes off.” They’re setting a boundary with you. And if you honor that request, you are honoring their boundary, which sets up a relationship for boundaries. Having people speak to you about the things that they need, or they would like to see differently in the relationship is actually very loving.
REASONS PEOPLE DON’T RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES
You don’t take yourself seriously.
You don’t hold people accountable.
You apologize for setting boundaries.
You allow too much flexibility.
You speak in uncertain terms.
You haven’t verbalized your boundaries (they’re all in your head).
You assume that stating your boundaries once is enough.
You assume that people will figure out what you want and need based on how you act when they violate a boundary.
—NEDRA GLOVER TAWWAB
Excerpted from Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Published by TargerPerigee Books, an imprint of Random House.