Boundaries and Bridges




Crossing the relationship threshold

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships.” 

Esther Perel

What is a relationship?

In relationships, relating to another person is like walking through a door. We cross a threshold. We go from one world to the next. It doesn’t matter if we’re relating to a spouse, a friend, a store clerk, or ourselves.

To be with someone else is to be in a new space. What will we find there? Will the place be hospitable and remind us of home? Will it be exciting and new and full of adventure? Will it be frightening and awful? Will it meet us with contempt?

When we cross through that door, we are no longer on familiar turf. We venture into the unknown. We risk much because anything can happen. We can be awed with beauty. We can be hurt. We can experience loss.

“Each person is always on the threshold between their inner world and their outer world, between light and darkness, between known and unknown, between question and quest, between fact and possibility.  This threshold runs through every experience that we have, and our only real guide to this world is imagination.  One of the lovely things a person can do for another person is to awaken the power and sacrament of their imagination, because when you awaken someone’s imagination, you are giving them a new kingdom, a new world.”

John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder

Sometimes crossing through a gateway is as easy as donning a new pair of clothes.  Sometimes it is harder, like traversing a river or sailing an ocean.  We travel far from home to get there. We find ourselves unprepared for the journey.

In relationships, the person we relate to enters that new space with us. They, too, are crossing through a door to join us. They are also venturing into the unknown.

We are all travelers.  We may not notice the journey when things are going well–when connection is easy. When things feel like home, the doorway may be almost invisible as if it wasn’t there.

Sometimes relationships are rocky. Sometimes we encounter someone quite unfamiliar. The environment on the other side of the door seems hospitable. When things don’t go well or when they break down, we start to question. We wonder if we made the right choice going through that door? Does this new place want us? Will it cause us injury? Will it chase us away? Or worse, will it trap us?

How do we break down a relationship?

Relationships are complex. Each journey into the unknown has 3 parts:

  • Purpose / intention
  • Competence
  • Worth

These three parts make up the three legs of a journey: the beginning, the middle and the end. Let’s look at a relationship between a man, Greg, and his spouse, Linda, to see how the parts fit together.

We start here with the major aspects of Greg’s life. Greg has five major identities. We will separate his relationship to Linda so that we can understand it better. We see a circle made up of two arrows connected Greg’s Self to his Spouse, Linda.

Next, we remember that relating to someone is like crossing a doorway. Before Greg gets to Linda, he must cross through. Once we add a doorway, we now see three arrows. There is the first arrow, the journey before crossing the door. There is the second arrow, which makes up the journey on the other side of the door. In this middle leg, Greg interacts with a new environment containing Linda. Finally, there is the return home. Greg is on his own again, returning to his familiar self.

To break down a relationship in distress, we need to understand each leg of the journey. Before we cross through the door, we are in familiar surroundings. We are home. We are well-protected. Nothing can surprise or scare us. We call this the familiar self. We know exactly what, where, and who we are.

As we cross through the door, we go into the land of the unfamiliar. Here is where we expect to encounter our spouse. It is here where we use our values to do something.

Finally, we return back to the familiar self. We return to safety. We know exactly where we are going.

Each of these three legs is quite different. Each of them is filled with different sets of feelings. Understanding the types of feelings that we might encounter is key to knowing what may be going wrong or right along the journey. Remember, feelings are information with purpose. We also use different sets of values in each step. Values are the tools that can be used to make something happen.

To see what went wrong, we must examine each part individually.

No human being is ever actually there. Each of us is emerging in every moment.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Step 1: The journey away from the familiar self

Step 1 is the identity / purpose step. Here, we make a choice. We will engage with one of our identities (spouse, family, job, hobby, etc.) for some particular purpose. We cannot engage with all of our identities at once. We must choose one. And we have a motive for doing so.

This is the most difficult step. It sets everything else in motion.

Just like any traveler, we bring things with us along the journey. Most people don’t realize this part. We bring along our abilities and past experiences.

We also bring along our thoughts and feelings:

  • Do we feel good about the person with whom we are about to engage?
  • Do we feel connected or disconnected?
  • Do we hold the person up on a pedestal?
  • Do we trust them or are we already skeptical?
  • Do they seem familiar or unfamiliar?
  • What do we think about their motives? Are we cynical?
  • How flexible do we intend to be in the coming negotiation?
  • How do we feel about ourselves?

These thoughts and feelings help to make up our biases. They are preconceived notions that will alter how we interact in the next stage. Often, we are completely unaware of this “baggage.”

Our feelings towards the other person may be positive or negative. Some of them are aligned with our purpose and make things easier in the next step. Others may be contrary to our purpose and will likely hamper us. The more we are aware of all of these feelings, the easier the next step will be.

Step 2: Competence

Step 2 is the values step. We will use values to accomplish a task. Here we will be judged based upon our competence in performing the task.

We start step 2 by crossing the door. We have our feelings and preconceived thoughts with us. Our feelings will energize us. They get us moving. They are essential. Our thoughts may aid us or be a burdensome weight on our backs.

Thoughts and feelings that are contrary to our purpose will inevitably slow us down. It will take extra energy not to be derailed by them.

We can still use the feelings that at first seem contrary to our purpose. These feelings are energy, after all. All energy can be converted into useful energy with the right tools (values). Imagine a sailor that faces an unfavorable wind. Rather than plow ahead in the direction he wants to go, he is instead forced to zig-zag. The net direction will still be the same. However, it will take more time (and effort) to get there. He will cover more ground.

Likewise, we can take any type of energy and channel it. Negative, positive, aligned or misaligned–it doesn’t matter what type of energy. We only need the right type of tool. Values are our tools. Find the right value, use it correctly, at the right time, and we will succeed. Doing so is considered competence.

Here in step 2, we meet and negotiate with an unfamiliar person. Likely we won’t get to do everything we want to as quickly as we would want it. Neither will they. We must pick-and-choose. We must be flexible.

Just like we came into the negotiation with our feelings and preconceived thoughts, so did the other person. They are likely to catch us off guard with their energy and other “baggage.” Their intent and purpose may be aligned or contrary to ours.

There are two primary types of values: bridges and boundaries. There are many subtypes and mixed types. Understanding how these values work is key to channeling the types of energy we are given. We must use those energies to navigate any hurdles in the way.

It is also unlikely the other person will use the same value we have chosen. We must find a way to make our value complement theirs. If they intend to set sails, we can row.

More than likely, they will set their sails towards a particular direction that is not the way we want to go. Again, we can use our own tools to complement their action so that the final outcome is that both parties are partly satisfied.

There is a rhythmic dance to the process. If the other person pushes too hard, we must reinforce our own boundaries. If they are too soft, we can extend our bridges to meet them.

Sometimes we encounter a seemingly impossible situation. There is a magic there when we convert a misaligned energy to overcome a seemingly impossible hurdle. Especially when the person we are negotiating with a difficult partner whose intentions at-first seem contrary ours. There is a magic to picking the correct value and navigating these challenges.

We won’t know if we’ve chosen correctly until the final step–the return home.

Step 3: The return home

Step 3 is the reflection step. We reevaluate our intentions in step 1. We reflect upon our competency in step 2. Finally, we examine our worth.

Of this, worth is probably the biggest piece. Worth is the way our partner and society at-large think about us. How do they value our contributions? Would they engage with us again? What do we think about our own performance? Worth will inform our self-esteem. Do we feel valued and appreciated? Do we value and appreciate ourselves?

In the return home, we always bring something back with us. We bring memories of new experiences. We learned something about our interaction with our partner in step 2. We form new thoughts and judgments. Did we grow as a result? Is it possible that our personal growth contracted?

There will be knee-jerk reactions to what happened in step 2. How close was the outcome to what we had desired? How close did we come to meeting our original expectations? What new feelings arose as a result? Are we angry, sad, satisfied, fearful, etc?

These feelings naturally will give rise to new thoughts, conclusions, and judgments. We will have observed our partner’s actions and the impact that had on us. This impact will give rise to new feeling. From those feelings, we will conclude many things. We will assume we know what our partner values. We will naturally assume we know their intentions in the previous stage. We will then judge our partner’s actions and intent.

It will take energy not to allow our knee-jerk thoughts to run away with themselves. We have to remember that these thoughts and judgments are subject to cognitive biases. They are unlikely to be fully correct. In fact, they are highly likely to be wrong. They need to remain hypotheses and not be considered facts. We will have opportunities to correct our cognitive errors later.

Out of these feelings and thoughts will come a sense of connection (or disconnection). How has this changed? Are we more trusting of our partner? Or do we trust them less?

Now that we are back in the land of the familiar self, we can prepare to undertake another journey. We go back to step 1. We can choose which identity we will engage with. Our changing trust and sense of connection will inform this choice. Our intentions and expectations will change as a result of our previous journey.

Examining relationships

Now that we’ve seen all three parts, we can begin to diagnose issues with relationships. Relationship problems will come from one of these three stages. Often, for longstanding relationship issues, the partners struggle at all three stages. Here are some common problems at each stage:

Step 1 (Purpose / intention) aka “the Identity step”

  • Have we chosen the right identity for ourselves in this relationship? What is the role we and our partner are each playing?
  • What is our intention (purpose) in this relationship?
  • What is our value hierarchy? Where do we value this relationship in relation to other aspects of our lives?
  • What preconceived feelings, thoughts, sense of connection, sense of trust, and other baggage are we bringing into the relationship? How does the past inform the way we are going to interact?

Step 2 (Values / Competence) aka “the Values step”

  • What values did we use drive our actions?
  • What values did the other person use to drive their actions?
  • What was the resulting impact?

Step 3 (return home, evaluate worth), aka “the Reflection step”

  • What knee-jerk thoughts and conclusions did we come to? What did we infer about the other person’s intent?
  • (Deep dive into impact) – What was the impact on each of us? Who bore which costs of our collective action? Who received which benefits?
  • How has impact affected our sense of trust and connection? What other feelings arose?
  • If we had this to do over again, would we take the same action (use the same value) or try something different next time?

As we examine relationships in this way, we use a three-step process. We first prepare for the journey (Identity step). We undertake the journey (Values step). Then we return home (Reflection step).

Human beings do this intuitively without realizing it. When things go well in our lives, we proceed through the steps effortlessly. One step flows into the next.

When things go wrong, we typically get caught at one of these stages. Breaking them down can help diagnose the problem. Doing this is the basis of IVR therapy (Identity-Values-Reflection therapy). Teaching people how to do this on their own is the purpose of this website.


There are many take-aways from viewing problems as a three-step cycle. A few of the key ones are listed here:

  • The cycle is typically repeated. And so, we are allowed to make mistakes, especially at first. In fact, making mistakes is part of the process.
  • There is no right or wrong way of doing things. Everyone values things differently. Such differences are assets, not liabilities.
  • We can become stuck in a cycle of doing the same thing over and over again. Judgment, lack of listening, and inflexibility are three common ways that people become stuck. IVR therapy can help people become unstuck from these situations.
  • Feelings provide the energy for the cycle to move.
  • Values (especially listening) help to channel our energy in a positive direction. Most complex problems require a host of values to solve. Values are like tools. Solving difficult problems is similar to a carpenter using a bunch of tools to build something. You can’t just use the hammer.
  • Cynicism (believing the other person has ill intent) is toxic to the cycle. Cynicism is an easy way of skipping through the cycle without doing the work of actual listening. Giving in to cynical impulses is an easy way out. It is a theft of the other person’s dignity. We also rob ourselves of perspective and connection. Repeating this mistake over and over is called negative cycling. Negative cycling eliminates possibilities, shrinks imagination, and diminishes understanding. As human beings, we contract over time.
  • The end goal of IVR therapy is understanding. We strive to understand the complex interplay between past experiences, preexisting feelings, connection, trust, identity, values, thoughts, contributions and impact. Seeing how these pieces influence each other moves us towards understanding.
  • The process of moving towards understanding, called positive cycling, opens up our imaginations to solutions of mutual benefit that previously seemed impossible.

The sea manifests freedom: she is the primal dance… the wild divinity of the ocean infuses the shore with ancient sound… Who can tell what secrets she searches from the shoreline?  What news she whispers to the shore in the gossip of urgent wavelets?  This is a primal conversation.  The place where absolute change rushes against still permanence, where the urgency of Becoming confronts the stillness of Being, where restless desire meets the silence and serenity of stone.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Healing from injury

Healing from injury is a journey of crossing.  We cross from our familiar surroundings to someplace new, someplace unfamiliar. This takes courage and openness.

Anytime we make this journey, we should expect to encounter both beauty and loss. There is beauty in finding new places and discovering new connections. We need only be ready to receive it.

There is also loss. We must, at least temporarily, choose an identity in the crossing. To remain authentic to the moment, our other identities must be put on hold. They still exist. They are in the background, observing.

We should also expect that when we return home, we will have changed. We are never the same person who started the journey. We have acquired new memories and feelings. There is a loss of the person who was. We must let go of that person to complete the journey. If we refuse to let go, we become stuck. Our wounds cannot heal.

Letting go of the familiar takes a leap of faith that we will one day return home. We venture out to come back again. We push forward, knowing that we cannot go back. We accept what must be. Forward is the only way. By letting go of the familiar, we too relinquish old feelings. We let go of our regrets, our anger, our guilt, and our grievances. We ride the wave of bitter feelings towards the unfamiliar. In that way, we are transformed.

Healing from a deep injury requires many repetitions of this cycle. We don’t do the same thing each time–that is likely to get us stuck somewhere along the way. Instead, we must navigate complex challenges, maneuvering, learning at each step, feeling the winds and responding to them.

Healing requires connection to the unfamiliar. That is–connection to unfamiliar people, to unfamiliar environments, and connection to our unfamiliar selves.

We cannot escape our entanglement to these unfamiliar beings. Embracing that entanglement will lead to healing. If we run from it, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be whole. We prolong the wound and let it fester.

Imagination is like oxygen for the journey. We breathe in that oxygen by listening. We listen to the unfamiliar. We must be open. When we inhale, we grow.

As we grow in this manner, we learn to trust along the way. We trust ourselves first. We trust the new boundaries that we’ve built. They will keep us safe from repeating our mistakes. We trust the bridges that cross to new places. We are open now. Open to receiving that which was previously unfamiliar.

We clarify our purpose, we grind out competence, and we cultivate self-worth. We find ourselves awash in awe and wonder. We know we’re on the right path.

Next: What is Identity-Values-Reflection therapy?

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What is my Identity?
February 5, 2023

What is my Identity?

When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

Identity defines who we are, how we think about ourselves, and how the world views us. Identity involves our values, philosophy on life, abilities, beliefs and purpose.

At the core of each aspect of identity is a relationship. I am a mother, child, teacher, runner, friend… Seeing how our Identity works is really seeing how those relationships interact and coexist. It should be confusing.

Identity and Healing

All enduring injuries and trauma involve problems with identity. A person cannot heal from such injuries without addressing issues of identity.

Likewise, most significant conflicts between people involve disagreements and issues of identity. Look at the language that people use to attack each other. The harshest attacks are always attacks on identity. “You aren’t a good parent!” “He’s a lazy worker.” “He’s an addict!”

Identity issues destroy workplace cultures, social fabrics, relationships, and human beings. Consider that most cases (or probably all) of mental illness are probably better characterized as crises of identity. Imagine a person who is chronically depressed as someone struggling with their desire to change careers. Or someone suffering from paralyzing anxiety rather as someone struggling to be a good father. By reimagining these individuals, not as someone suffering from illness, but instead as working through a crisis, we empower them to take back control of their situation.

Understanding identity

Identity is made up of our memories, experiences, relationships and values. At first, these things may seem like a giant, messy knot. How do we begin to separate them out?

Let’s start first with our value hierarchy. Create three circles. Then fill in the circles with what is Most Important, Moderately Important, and Least Important.

Next, imagine that each person and thing that you put in the circles is a separate aspect of identity. Each one forms an important relationship to you. Start with what’s most important to you. Begin to sketch out these separate identities:

  • Mother
  • Spouse
  • Friend
  • Daughter
  • Sister
  • Engineer
  • Runner
  • Artist
  • Co-worker

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Feel free to draw lines connecting people and activities. Let it be messy at first.

We can use photos. We can draw pictures or just write names on a list.

Next, we will tease out a single aspect. Separate it from the others.

Draw two arrows connecting that aspect to yourself. You’ve now sketched out a single relationship. This relationship is one important identity that makes up you.

Notice that I’ve added the “unfamiliar Self” as an element here. There are parts of each of us that we have yet to understand that we do not have complete control over. We each have our own worlds to explore.

Elements of Identity: Relationships, Values, Roles, and Feelings


We see now that our identity is really a group of relationships. Each identity involves us, our Self, connecting to an outside person, group, or thing. When we put all the relationships together, this forms our capital-I Identity.

Each of these relationships has a history to it. There are past memories and shared experiences. We have developed feelings and thoughts about that past. We radiate those feelings outward through the arrows, just as the other person’s feelings radiate back towards us. Feelings are energy with purpose. Feelings form the basis of connection much like the energy that bonds electrons and protons inside an atom.

Feelings drive us, with inertia, through the present. They drive how we act towards the other person.

There is also future potential to all relationships. Where do we expect things to go? What are our hopes, fears and anxieties about that future?


Inside each relationship are values. Values are moral tools that we use to interact. Common values include: caring, listening, advocating, creating space, accepting, courage. There are many more.

Values fall within two general types. We can build bridges of connection to the other person. And we can set appropriate boundaries between two people. Building bridges and setting boundaries are the two basic tools of connection. Our feelings animate and flow through these tools to give them life. For instance, we may feel a great deal of caring towards someone who is in pain. We use that caring to listen to their story.


Within each relationship, we assume roles. Examples include being a parent, a lover, a teacher, an ally, a protector, a healer, a saboteur, a victim, etc. These roles help to define which values we will use and which values the other person will be expected to use. As a healer, we may use listening and empathy as our two primary tools.


There are three types of feelings that we experience when looking at our relationships in terms of identity: competence, goodness, and worth.

Goodness is our intent within the relationship. How do we feel about our intentions towards the other person? What is our purpose here?

Competence is our ability to interact with the other person. Do we have the tools that we need? When we interact, do they generally respond in the manner that we expect? When we listen to the other person, do they feel listened to? When we show empathy, do they feel cared for? When we put up boundaries, do they respect those boundaries?

Worth is the type of energy that we receive back from the other person. Is that energy positive, negative, or a mixed bag? Do they appreciate the relationship? Are we deserving of their time and attention?

Common issues with identity

Why don’t I understand myself?

This is a common problem that takes some work. Chances are there is an identity issue at the heart of it. Here are a few common identity conflicts:

  • One of your core relationships may be at-odds with another. One set of values may be colliding with another.
  • One of your identities may be changing. This can unsettle the balance of your value hierarchy leading to questions of fit.
  • You may be having an issue with a single core identity. You may be questioning your purpose, your competence, or your worth. These things come into question often in marriage or during the long arc of someone’s career. Do my friends like me? Am I a good husband? Am I doing the job I was meant to do? I don’t like where things are going in this relationship. These are common identity questions.
  • Past injuries and trauma can resurface. For instance, someone who had a difficult upbringing may feel like their inner 7-year-old just wants to come out and play again. These past identities will require attention and their own place on the value hierarchy.

What is an identity transition?

Change is one of the only constants in life. As we change, so too does our Identity. Relationships shift within our value hierarchy. Some connections deepen, while others grow weaker. The way we value people and things also changes.

Everyone experiences periods of rapid identity transition at some point in their lives. Puberty and high school is one such period of rapid identity transition. This can be unsettling for everyone involved until they understand what’s really going on. The teenager is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. This is a scary change that will upset the balance of their value hierarchy. Rapid change also occurs for the parents. Parents often project their own issues onto the teenager, when really it is their job to look inward. They need to evaluate how are they going to change from being the parent of a child to being the parent of an adult. This is an unsettling and frightening change for many.

There are other major transitions that come natural for many adults. Becoming a parent or getting a divorce are common changes. The “midlife crisis” is really a common identity transition. A person questions if they are on the right path with their career and/or other major relationships. Changing careers and retirement represent other transitions. Needing to care for aging parents with disabilities and/or dementia is another big change as we can watch our loved ones go from independence to dependency.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis occurs anytime we battle internally over an aspect of our identity. We may fight against an identity transition or question if one needs to occur. We may feel lost, alone, confused, anxious, depressed, or afraid. You may feel inauthentic. Your self-esteem may take a hit. Remember, these are all feelings. Unsettling that they are, they exist to guide a person along the way.

How is identity formed?

Identity formation is complex. It includes all of our past accomplishments, abilities, values, growth, conflicts, and injuries. Each of these aspects may represent its own distinct identity. For instance, a person may be a little league baseball player. This identity from childhood never quite goes away. It can give rise to wanting to coach little league later in life.

Trauma victims may form distinct identities before, during, and after the traumatic event(s). These identities can become so distinct that it is like a tearing apart of the soul. The trauma victim may seem like separate people at times as different aspects of their Self surface.

In the present, we use our tools to exercise our purpose. Always, we look to the future. We question if we are working towards our potential. We question if our abilities and tools are still serving us. We wonder if a change of direction is needed.

Diving into relationships: Crossing a Threshold

We have looked at Identity from a 30-thousand foot view. We asked the question: how do all of our many identities work together to form our capital-I Identity?

Next, we will go down to the surface. We will dive into individual relationships that make up a single identity. What are relationships made up of? How do they form? How do we better understand what’s going wrong when something isn’t working?

We will see that to relate to another person is to cross a threshold. We are walking through a door. We are venturing into unknown territory. We do not know if we have what it takes to succeed on the other side. We don’t know how the other person will react.

Next: crossing a threshold

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Crossing the relationship threshold
February 7, 2023