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September 22, 2003

Acceptance and Boundaries

Acceptance is central to any healthy relationship. Acceptance allows freedom from attack and judgment. When we are free from attack and judgment, we will feel safe to be who we are.

When we can be who we are, we are real and true to our natures. When two or more people feel free to share their realness with each other, they have a real relationship.

But what if people are so wounded that their actions are dysfunctional and abusive? Can we accept that?


When a person acts out abusively, it is real. There is a reason for it. What is is. I accept that. Such acceptance is an existential response that says, "This pain and abuse exists."

Does accepting this existential reality mean that I also accept (take in) pain and abuse against my person?


The word "accept" has various meanings, and to accept people for who they are (believe in them) does not mean to accept (take in) anything they may do. To love my granddaughter for who she is does not mean that I have to let her smack me on the head. When Tayler occasionally takes a swing at me, she may be testing her own strength, but the truth - for me - is that it hurts. If I accept being hit, I would be false to her and myself. By not allowing her to hit me, I communicate who I really am and also my wish to be accepted - to be free from attack and judgment. This is the setting of healthy boundaries.

To set boundaries, do we need to judge, alienate, or attack others?


The setting of healthy boundaries is never a statement about others, it is a statement about ourselves. It is a statement of what is, and is not, healthy for me. If I block the swipe of Tayler's hand, it does not deny her reality. To define my boundaries with her I need not judge her as bad, shame her, or punish her. To define my boundaries I only need to take care of myself - as much as I take care of her. This is a state of equality - mutually accepting the reality and needs of everyone concerned.

Unfortunately, the concept of existential acceptance is often misunderstood. Acceptance has at times mistakenly come to mean an altruistic, open submission to the actions of others. In such a view, those who act out their pain on others are allowed "to be themselves" and continue to do what they do. In such a view, to do otherwise would be non-accepting and uncompassionate.

I disagree. This type of submissive "acceptance" is nothing other than enabling hurtful, dysfunctional behaviour to continue. It is co-dependence masquerading as compassion. It is the tyranny of abuse hiding under a false flag of "freedom."

When children test limits, they want to discover their boundaries and the boundaries of others. When healthy boundaries exist, children feel safely contained, and they come into balance. A similar dynamic occurs in our own healing process. The boundaries and walls that we encounter with people and situations make us aware of our dysfunctions. If we were surrounded by "yes men" who simply enabled our act-outs, we might remain forever lost in our neurotic maze. Healthy boundaries allow us to heal.

If we wish to be accepting, we have to accept others - and ourselves. If we wish to be compassionate, we have to be compassionate toward others and ourselves.

When I accept you, I say "You are you." When I accept myself, I say "I am I." If I set a boundary and do not take something you present, I am still saying "You are you" and "I am I."

Acceptance and boundaries are two sides of the same coin.

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