Discomfort – The Secret To Keeping Your Boundaries

By Marshall Burtcher.

Do you struggle to know what a boundary is, how it works, and how to keep your boundaries when you do have them?

I definitely have.

This struggle is a result of boundaries not being a simple, beginner-level step.  Boundaries and keeping them is actually an advanced result of knowing, trusting, and prioritizing yourself.

Treating boundaries as something you should be easily able to do sets you up for frustration, failure, and building unnecessary distrust in yourself.

Boundaries and keeping them became much simpler to me when I started accepting that, for me, boundaries were a risk.  They risked attack, criticism, put-downs, withdraws of connection, and possibly accusations and harm – all the things I feared.

Stating and following through on a boundary requires that we have capacity for navigating the outcomes we fear as well as the outcomes we are not familiar with – such as someone respecting that boundary and maintaining a warm closeness with us.  

This kind of foreign response can activate more intense sensations of fear and uncertainty because we don’t know how to navigate that kind of open space.  We’re not sure if it is going to be consistent, reliable, and thus, safe.

All of this emotional activation is a primary reason we simply bypass our emotions and tolerate things that hurt or are uncomfortable for us.  It’s “easier” emotionally, at least in the short term.  Long term, we pay for it with deep hurts, resentments, and massive ruptures that disrupt our lives.

Shifting this pattern into an assertive, even comforting or enjoyable experience requires you to build capacity, or space, for the discomfort that boundary keeping brings with it.

What is capacity?  It is the amount of space you have available to receive of something and how much of something you have to contribute (such as energy, time, attention, affection, etc).  

It is basically a bucket that has only so much space to receive or pour out of something.  This bucket’s capacity varies from day to day, situation to situation, and person to person.  

Sufficient capacity enables our natural advocate to speak up and maintain our commitment to them and ourselves because we’re not being overwhelmed by the sensations and triggered into a fawning (aka people-pleasing) response to the situation.

Basically, you have enough space and energy to tolerate the discomforts and pain that comes with boundary making and follow through.

A side-note: Boundaries are not about what others should and shouldn’t do.  It is about what you’ll do and/or not do when a person does a thing.  Boundaries direct YOUR behavior and informs them of what you’ll do.  They do not direct their behavior.

So, how does one build capacity for discomfort?

It happens through practicing several steps in a slow, gentle fashion over several weeks to months.  This is something I do regularly as I have a goal to consistently, gently increase my emotional availability in my life, and building capacity for discomfort is central to that outcome.

Step One: Recognize your limits

Recognizing your limits means you’re sensitive to when you’re feeling overwhelmed, maxed out, or flooded.  This means your bucket is full and needs time to desaturate or empty.  

Step Two: Regulate the overwhelm

This is where you soothe the body’s overwhelm using somatic, body-based tools.

Soothing the overwhelm helps your body learn that it isn’t stuck or powerless in those sensations and can find relief and space quickly and gently.

Step Three: Titrate the Discomfort

This step is about building tolerance for the discomfort by feeling the discomfort for a short burst of time (like 30 seconds), then pivoting to a soothing sensation or focus for a short burst of time (30 seconds or so) and then repeating this 3 – 4 times over a short period of time (like 10 minutes).

Step Four: Deliberate Experience

After practicing the above steps for about 4 weeks, it can be very powerful to put into practice saying and following through your boundary.  Experience like this helps the body make real what it is learning and helps shift the internalized experience the body holds to a new orientation – resulting in lasting change for you.

I offer free tools that help you achieve capacity for discomfort at my website.

Go very gently with this work.  You’re doing daring, bold work.

Till next month,


Marshall Burtcher is a Codependency Transformation Expert. He specializes in helping codependents, people-pleasers, and perfectionists get aligned with their real worth, purpose, and satisfaction so they create a life they enjoy. Break through the gaps that keep you stuck in his free workshop here: https://workshop.freetheself.com

1 Response

  1. Stephanie R Gould says:

    Thank you for a clear, helpful, step by step breakdown article. I find Step 3 titrating the discomfort extremely difficult. Often overwhelmed by unbearable pain and dread that the pattern of what I now see as one way relationships and mistreatment will repeat. I close down and go into deep depression that no amount of affirmations seems to help. EFT tapping sometimes has some effect. I have even had counselling for 10 years from a Buddhist that I feel has encouraged spiritual bypassing rather than facing painful reality.She won’t even address boundaries. I am trying to define and maintain my own values.I have learned the hard way that compassion often means people take advantage and walking all over you, so trust is now an issue. too. It is a lot to navigate and I often think denial was easier. Appreciated thanks, Stephanie.

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