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A Brief Guide to Boundary Setting

By Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC

Imagine a hula hoop around you. This is your boundary with the world. Inside the hula hoop is everything that you have absolute control over: your thoughts, your words, your actions, and even your emotions! What about outside your hula hoop? That represents everything you cannot control. Some things we have no influence over whatsoever, such as the weather, events in the world, whether the White Sox will go all the way this year, etc. Other things we may not be able to control, but we can potentially influence them, most especially through our interactions with others, though this influence depends entirely on how you choose to act.

What is the Hula Hoop Tool? A Brief Guide to Boundary Setting 

Say I am acting cordially and politely towards you. I can hope for and even anticipate that you will respond favorably to me. Instead, let’s say I am acting like a jerk towards you, behaving rudely, communicating aggressively, and being disrespectful. Although you are inside your hula hoop and can decide how you want to respond to my poor behavior, chances are that you will respond poorly, perhaps defensively, or even responding to my aggression with your own. This is how we can influence others outside of our hula hoop by exercising control of ourselves inside the hula hoop. But what happens if I choose to act politely towards you, and you still respond with hostility? In that case, I can examine what I did or did not do inside my hula hoop, and assess my own behavior. If I am reasonably confident that I acted politely towards you, I may not like that you responded poorly to me, but I can accept that I cannot control your responses even if I would have preferred you respond favorably towards me.

The hula hoop is a metaphor for our Locus of Emotional Control. An internal locus of emotional control means that I believe I am responsible for my thoughts and feelings, understanding that I create my emotions through my interpretation of events rather than the events themselves, i.e “I made myself feel…”. An external locus of emotional control means that outside factors make me feel and act the way that I do, that the events themselves cause my emotional responses, i.e. “He made me feel…”.  This is not meant to place blame for our emotional responses, but to empower us to manage our emotions and behaviors by understanding how to catch, dispute, and reframe our irrational beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.

Which would you prefer, that you can learn to manage your emotions through cognitive restructuring, or that your emotions are entirely controlled by outside forces? While I am certain some prefer to blame their problems on external factors, I have seen through my work with clients in individual and group psychotherapy that if given the chance, most of us strongly prefer to learn to manage our thoughts and control our emotional and behavioral responses. 

I would prefer to focus my time and energy on controlling the things in my hula hoop, namely myself, rather than making myself miserable fixating on things I have no control over, namely pretty much everything outside of my hula hoop. Think of it this way: what utility is there in trying to control things that are outside my control at the expense of ignoring or neglecting the one thing in this life that I actually have control over, my own thoughts? Rationally, there is no utility in approaching life this way, and yet so many of us spend so much time trying to get into other people’s hula hoops while ignoring what is happening in our own hula hoop. When I grab my own hula hoop and hold tightly with both hands, I know that I am taking control of myself, including my ability to gracefully and courageously accept everything outside of my hula, that which I cannot control.

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