creating yourself: the art of healthy boundaries



I move
and live on the edges

(what edges)

I live
on all the edges there are.

— Margaret Atwood

You would not have wanted to mess with Mother Teresa.

Her will was powerful, and she got shit done.

She knew what served her purpose, and she could reject or let go of everything else.


Because Mother Teresa knew where her edges were, she could push herself without burning out.

She knew when to draw back.

She gave her love, her time, and her energy without giving away herself.

She knew that you can’t give what you don’t have, so it was important to keep the reserves of her self filled up.

(Healthy boundaries.)

We inherit our boundaries from our parents. If they had walls, we are likely to have walls; if they had holes, we are likely to have holes.

You can tell what kind of boundaries you have by how often you use the word should.

Should is an external voice, imposed from without and internalized within; should cuts you off from the deep and quiet knowing of your soul.

When you slap a should on someone else, you’re falling through a boundary hole. You try to take responsibility for someone else’s reality. You attempt to define it for them.

Should makes you a perfectionist. It makes you grandiose (“I am capable of achieving these impossible standards!”) even as it undercuts your self-esteem (“I did not achieve these impossible standards, thus I am a loser”). We beat ourselves up with our shoulds and because the way we treat ourselves is the way we treat others, we beat our loved ones with those shoulds as well.

What would happen if you:

1. banished should from your vocabulary?

2. paid thoughtful and curious attention to feelings of resentment — before you downplay or dismiss them? or that first glimmer of anger — before you disconnect from it, shove it into that shadow-space holding all the things that, as a nice person, as an unselfish person, you’re not supposed to feel?

Like all emotions, resentment and anger are messengers. They carry important information. They let us know when our boundaries are being violated and compel us to rectify the situation.

When we are afraid to assert ourselves — because we want to avoid conflict, because we don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings – we end up betraying ourselves, which doesn’t serve us or them.

You can’t give what you don’t have.

You can’t protect what you love when you can’t protect yourself.

One of the paradoxical things about creativity is that it thrives when it has edges to chafe against. You can’t break the rules when you don’t have rules to break. You can’t explore the breadth and depth of your territory when you don’t know where it begins and ends. You can’t invent out of necessity when there is no necessity.

If the most creative work of your life is the act of inventing, or reinventing, yourself — and it is — give yourself the freedom of knowing where your edges are.

Listen to your feelings, your instincts, your soul. They will outline those edges for you.

When you’re safe inside them, you can develop a self that is bold and rich and overflowing with talent, love and purpose. Then, no matter how much of it you give away, you can always make more. Much more.

Jun 13, 2014

13 comments · Add Yours

I just wish it didn’t take so long to learn this lesson. Then even more time to have the courage to put it into action. Beautiful writing as always. :)


WOW – such inherited holes that I myself now attempt to sew up with my own will as I try to reshape who I am – to enable me to be able to love and protect my family. I also wish that it had not taken me 40+ years to learn and recognize such “expected” behaviors while I was only betraying myself! But most importantly the sense of freedom and strength has arrived. Thank you for this Justine!


I love this. For me healthy boundaries is about ownership, of what is ours not others, especially those innermost feelings that are personal signposts. When we live only to please others, we give self away & we can become so accustomed to doing this, that we lose touch with our own feelings & desires. Placing & maintaining boundaries allows us to define or redefine self, regain ownership of our feelings & then – attend to our ‘deep yes’ & assert the ‘no’.


Will I ever find my edge? I guess I’ll have to start with banishing ‘should’ from my vocabulary. Thanks Justine.


You start the article with Christopher Hitchens’s shocking portrayal of Mother Teresa, “… She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?” This article leaves one to think that Mother Teresa was not a person to look up to especially not in consideration of women…and yet you sight that she knew her “…Deep Yes and when to say NO to protect it…” perhaps an off day for you Justine Musk…but I did like the part about, “banishing should…” AS a mother or four adult children…I “should” all over them…hoping that they stabilize and find contentment, but more importantly security in life…and I think they will find that security in structure…the type of structure with boundaries where you write, “When you’re safe inside them, you can develop a self that is bold and rich and overflowing with talent, love and purpose. Then, no matter how much of it you give away, you can always make more. Much more.”


I said that she had a powerful will and she got shit done. Those are admirable qualities, regardless. Trust me, when I said she was a “productive narcissist”, I meant exactly that. I wasn’t calling her a hero. If you look at historical female figures, you’ll find them problematic in many ways, and I think it is because of the kind of narcissism that seemed to be required for a woman to cut against the grain of a culture so determined to keep them modest and obedient — and found ways to censor or punish them when they rebelled. But there are lessons we can still learn from them — and apply towards a different kind of agenda.


There seems to be a weird need in society to slot people into either/or categories of noble or evil.* People are complicated. You can acknowledge that some of the things that they do are admirable and some not.

Whenever a high ranking person in society gets caught doing something inexcusable people don’t need to rush in to say “BUT!” nor do they have to dismiss their achievements. How about we say AND? Polanski was a rapist AND a great filmmaker. Mother Teresa was an existentially depressed, egotistical type AND mega-effective world server. Dichotomous thinking is the enemy of intelligence. And progress.

*Historical figures get this the most; they either embody the highest of human ideals or they are evil incarnate.


Personally, I think Mother Teresa is getting the short end of the stick because she’s a woman. Men have gotten away with unspeakable things, professional reputation intact, due to their contributions to the arts/sciences/society. It seems like the sum total of this woman’s life in public memory is being reduced to its worst parts.

I saw an interview with a man in the spiritual community practically snickering at the juicy gossip revolving around Mother Teresa. So much for the spiritual virtues of humility and non judgement!


” Dichotomous thinking is the enemy of intelligence. And progress.”
I need to clarify. Carly Compass, this was NOT directed at you. At all. It just occurred to me that this could be misinterpreted. I was making a general point about a general thing.


I am your fan Justine, but when I think of women who, “get shit done,” Gloria Steninem, Suze Orman, Nancy Scheper Hughs, Joyce Carol Oates, Hillary Rodem Clinton, Orprah Winfrey, Ellen Degenerous, Barbra Walters, Maya Angelou, Rigoberta Menchi just to name a few…Like you Justine Musk…they “get shit done” within and despite the societal norms and boundaries….and of course they know their “deep yes”…which you introduced me to…and why I am your fan…;)


True. Those are truly awesome women. I also think Mother Teresa was an exceptional woman in many ways. Winning the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize is no small thing. :)


Yes…but I wonder if she was following her deep yes…or the patriarchal views of the Catholic Church?


I meet mother Teresa in the 80’s in one of her homes for ilegal imigrants, she did not wear shoes her feet were deformed but her energy was amazing she worked so hard
I also knew her cardiologist fron San Diego . People dont understand that Mother T was loved by so many people , she did not pay for her doctors or hospitals it was an honor to take care of here, my sister was a nun with the missionaries of charity ( this is Mother Teresa Order) in Bronx and in Mexico city, they were feeding the homeless every day
In the home in Mexico city they took care (living food medicines,doctors,) of children ill ,teenagers and the eldery that no one wants anymore . This is only a small example of her work , I reaaly agree that she gave so much to others but she always keept herself Love you blog


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