Steve Ater, Psy.D. – The Boundary Doc

Dr. Ater is Now at Life Change Associates

October 5th, 2013

October 10 will be my last day working with the fine folks at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, Idaho. I’ve decided to make a change and will be joining with my friend, Deric Ravsten, psychiatrist and owner of Life Change Associates in Pocatello.

I’ve known Dr. Ravsten since I first came to Pocatello four years ago. He was working at that time for Portneuf Medical Center and we were colleagues there until he decided to step out on his own. I was sad to see him go then, but I’m happy to have the chance to work with him again.

To all my colleagues at Portneuf Medical Center, thanks for four great years together. We helped a lot of people change their lives for the better. It’s been a privilege sharing that mission with you.

And I want to add a special thank you to all the amazing students from Idaho State University’s doctoral program in clinical psychology whom I had the privilege of supervising. You enriched my time at Portneuf Medical Center immensely. Hopefully I will soon be able to invite students to join me at Life Change Associates as well. Thanks for all you’ve done.

Life Change Associates is located at:
1777 E. Clark, Suite 330
Pocatello, ID 83201

For appointments and more information call 208.233.LIFE (5433)

“Good Enough”

July 1st, 2013

Psychologist, VSP (Very Smart Person), former classmate and friend of mine, Dr. Kim Gaines, wrote a recent post on her blog talking about “The Good Enough Disney Trip.” She writes about setting reasonable and realistic expectations.

My husband, Jeff, and I are trying to keep our goals reasonable. Last night he told me, “I’m just hoping for less than one meltdown per ride.” I don’t need the perfect vacation. Instead, I am hoping for the good enough Disney World experience.

Sensible goals for sure. Kim helps us apply this to our own lives.

If we always have a nagging feeling that we are not good enough, then we may be driven to make ourselves feel better by doing more. We try to convince ourselves we are good enough by our accomplishments or success or productivity. Or if people like us and are impressed with us, then maybe that will make us feel good enough.

She focuses on sharing this as advice for women, but I can think of some men who might benefit as well (I mean me, of course).

Being a man, I like to take things apart and being “The Boundary Doc,” I like to examine borders, differentiations and meanings in things. So let’s take that little phrase apart and look at the borders, differentiations and meanings, shall we?

It’s a funny little phrase, “good enough.” Two perfectly excellent English words, “good” and “enough” that, taken individually, mean very positive things. Who wouldn’t like to have a life that was both “good” and “enough?”

Why is it that when we put them together into the phrase “good enough” it suddenly feels like the opposite of what they both mean?

(good) + (enough) = “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”

I don’t know about anyone else, but at the sight of that phrase my inner perfectionist/self-critic jumps out and says, “good enough! I don’t think so!’ Get back to work and do more and do it better!”

So my lesson from Kim Eckert’s post is to remember that “good enough” means BOTH “good” and “enough,” not the opposite. Healthy boundaries around the concept of “good enough” means setting realistic expectations for your Disney trip, your day at work, that tough project you’ve been working on, your daily workout, whatever you’re facing today. Healthy boundaries means drawing a line around that decision and protecting it where necessary. Sometimes that might be protecting it from other’s expectations for you. More often, I think, we need to protect that “good enough” thing, whatever it is, from ourselves. The ravenous internal criticizer we carry around in our heads who is never, ever satisfied and for whom it can never, ever be good enough.

Read Dr. Eckert’s Post here…

Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc


Viktor Frankl on Success

June 28th, 2013

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


Rubble and Blood: How the Walls of Manhood Fell

June 27th, 2013

I’m a lot older than I used to be. I’ve spent most of that time trying to learn how to be a man. Still not sure I know, but I suppose I know more than I used to.

Recently I’ve learned the problem of becoming a man goes much broader and deeper than just the story of my own life. There is a crisis in manhood – a culture-wide collapse of identity in masculinity.

Fellow psychologist, Helen Smith, has taken on the challenge of defending men in her new book “Men On Strike.” If “only Nixon could go to China” then I suppose there is some symmetry to the idea that only someone with a name like “Helen” could stand up for men and manhood.

But is this where we’ve come to? What will we stand up for, men, if not our own sense of who we are?

This raises the question, who are we then?

Who did we used to be?

What have we become?

Are we anything at all?

I’m not asking these questions to figure out who we are to the culture at large. I’m not focused here on how the culture sees men and treats men. Dr. Smith has done that much better at that than I can. I do think that there is need for brave women, like Dr. Smith, to take on the mantle of fighting for men from the culture side of the issue because our culture has become quite feminized, for all the good and all the bad that goes with that shift.

I’m asking if we are anything at all in our own hearts, through our own eyes turned inward. Men, are you anything to you?

The culture war I’m truly interested in is the one raging in the hearts of men. How to be fully a man within a culture that’s changed as much as ours has. I know there’s lots of evidence that our culture has become quite anti-male. But that is not, I believe, why the walls of manhood fell. They weren’t destroyed from the outside, but have fallen because men stopped caring. It was only then that the walls that defined and preserved our identity, the walls that held together who we were as men, fell. They fell first into disrepair, and then to rubble.

And the blood that smears that rubble is our own. We have dashed our selves against those rocks.

This is a crisis of identity and no one can rebuild these boundary walls but us. No one can tell us of our own worth as men if we can’t find the will and the means to do this to and for ourselves.

We have been raised in a fatherless generation. Previous generations had greater opportunities to learn from their fathers what being a man meant. They had good examples to follow and bad ones to turn away from. Most, I suppose, saw plenty of both in their fathers. But so many of us today were raised without examples of any kind. In the place of those good and bad examples there came an emptiness. A meaningless nothingness.

And nature abhors a vacuum.

It is one thing to develop an identity based on a positive model and to have that be a young man’s touchstone through his development. It is a harder thing to have an identity based on a negative model and to spend one’s development relearning. At least then there is an identity to start with, a sense of something that “is.”

It is another thing altogether to be forced to build an identity from scratch. To ask every day “who am I?” “what should I live for?” “what is worth fighting for?” “what is a man worth?” “what is a man at all?”

We “shouldn’t” have to be building from scratch the meaning of manhood. We “shouldn’t” have to have been raised in a fatherless culture. “Shouldn’t” have to be told by that culture that manhood is the buffoon we see on “The Simpsons,” “King of Queens,” or “Home Improvement.”

Yep, that’s too bad and completely unfair. Can we get over the unfairness of it all now and be a man about it? Whatever that means.

I think I’ve learned at least one thing that it means to be a man. Enough maybe to get started on manning up and moving on from all these things that “shouldn’t” be the way they are in our culture, but are anyway.

It’s this…

Screw the culture.

The culture is broken and pathetic. The culture doesn’t define who YOU ARE in your own heart. Not unless you let it. Of course, at least to some degree, we’ve all “let it.” No one can spend their life marinating in a culture and not have it affect them. But, what are you going to do now that you know? Are you going to keep “letting it?” Or are you going to raise the walls of manhood once again?

If there’s one thing I’m sure of that manhood IS…

Manhood is COUNTER-culture.

If, as men, we’re going to stand against a culture that tells us we are weak, worthless, buffoons, imbeciles, unnecessary, psychopaths or abusers, we are going to need those walls. Walls that serve as boundaries around our very identity to defend who we are from assaults against that identity. Whatever that is.


Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc


Static, Dynamic and Strategic Boundaries

February 8th, 2013

We can differentiate between three broad categories of boundaries: Static, Dynamic and Strategic. These boundary types differ in their degree of adaptiveness to changing circumstances in the environment. Let’s look at each in turn.


  • Static boundaries don’t change in response the environment in such a way as to improve the protective function of the boundary. Consider the way an island’s wildlife might be protected from predators on the mainland by being surrounded by water and may therefore thrive on that island environment. At least until one of those predators finds its way onto the island somehow, then, quite suddenly, the boundary serves the predator and prevents escape of the island’s tasty residents.
  • Dynamic boundaries change in response to environmental stimuli in a way that serves to improve their protective function. This change generally occurs in response to genetic or other automatized programming. The boundary adapts to a specific stimulus, but in a programmed way. A while ago my family adopted a dog from the shelter. He was a handsome young fella named Buck, mostly Yellow Lab, but apparently at least partly Golden Retriever based on having a longer, softer coat than most labs. Then we got him home and he started spending most of his time inside. All that long, soft hair that I thought meant he was part Golden Retriever came off the dog and attached itself to our carpet, which then looked like IT was part Golden Retriever. We knew that this dog had been picked up by animal control as a stray over the winter, so I realized that he had just grown a more protective, shaggier coat during a period of having to adapt to a colder environment. This was a Dynamic Boundary in action, he was adapted to the cold outdoors environment, but when he became an inside dog his protective boundary, fur, dynamically adjusted to the new situation. But Buck didn’t choose this change, it was a natural and programmed response to the environment.
A picture of Buck, enhanced by one of my daughters.

A picture of Buck, enhanced by one of my daughters.

On this blog, when I talk about people just unthinkingly repeating boundary patterns that they learned during their developmental years or reacting against those boundary patterns out of anger and rebelliousness, I’m talking about people employing Static and Dynamic Boundaries.

Repeating old, learned boundary patterns tends to be an engagement in a Static Boundary pattern – they are what they are and they do what they do that’s pretty much that. There tends to be a great deal of rigidity in the expression of their boundary patterns such that they don’t change much at all and there is also a very limited range of expression in these boundary patterns.

Not infrequently, this can progress to the level of expressing Dynamic Boundaries such that they change reflexively based on external cues. For example, the way someone who has been harshly punished or abused as a child may cower and withdraw as an adult when someone raises their voice.

Boundaries that exist as an emotionally driven reaction against previously learned boundary patterns also tend to be Dynamic Boundaries in that they may change or be expressed differently in different circumstances, but this is usually automated and pre-programmed behavior that occurs when an external event triggers certain emotions. In this way it is similar to the example in the last paragraph, but opposite in expression. So that same person who was harshly punished or abused as a child may, as an adult have the initial instinct to cower and withdraw when someone raises their voice, but reacts instead with angry lashing out.

In both of these examples, one of the tools to escape their often maladaptive and unhelpful response (cowering or lashing out) is development of the skills of Strategic Boundaries…

Football Linemen

  • Strategic Boundaries change as circumstances in the environment change, as do Dynamic Boundaries, but unlike Dynamic Boundaries, Strategic Boundaries are consciously adapted and altered to improve the protective function of the boundary in various situations of unpredictable complexity. On a football team the offensive line serves as a boundary to protect the quarterback. The members of the offensive line can adapt their positions and movements to maximize their protective effectiveness (keep the defense away from the quarterback). These adaptations are made in response to what the defensive players are doing now, have done in the past, or appear to be about to do. Strategic boundaries are very powerful and are the most functional of these three types because they can be effective in a variety of circumstances, including circumstances that have never been seen before. Strategic boundaries require a level of conscious intelligence that static and dynamic boundaries do not. Imagine if, when we brought Buck home from the animal shelter he looked around and said, “phew, it’s warm in here!” peeled off his fuzzy, yellow coat like a London Fog trench and hung it on a hanger in the closet. That would be some impressive Strategic Boundary management and also would have really freaked us out because Buck was quite the slob and he would never have hung his coat up without being told to, he would have just thrown it on the floor.

In this video a bear surprises the crew of a commercial shoot and demonstrates an impressive Strategic Boundary.

The Human Boundaries Model is about developing the knowledge, skills and tools of Strategic Boundaries. That is why the three steps of boundary placement; “Know, Set, Defend” are so important. These steps are what it takes to understand what boundary is appropriate for this situation, how to get that boundary in place so that it serves it’s protective function well, and how to keep it there in the face of resistance as long as it seems the most appropriate way to maintain it’s protective function.

Strategic Boundary skills allow more positive, more effective and more adaptive coping while maintaining the essential protective function. For example, take those two adults in the previous illustrations. Both of them were harshly punished or abused as children, one of them, when someone else raises their voice, tends to react with a cowering fearful kind of self-protection, and the other with an angry lashing out kind of self-protection. Both can use Strategic Boundary skills and knowledge to maintain the necessary self-protection while adapting their boundary behavior to the demands of the actual circumstance in the present moment. Accomplishing this improves relational functioning, increases self-efficacy and self-confidence and provides the tools these individuals need to continue adapting their boundary responses in other circumstances and situations. All the while increasing their confidence that personal safety, autonomy and development of their individual identity can be maintained in these varying circumstances.

Strategic Boundaries are intelligently and consciously chosen and are placed dynamically, adaptively and confidently. They are the most effective and functional of the three types of boundaries described here – Static, Dynamic and Strategic – and humans have a high capacity for making use of these Strategic Boundaries. The Human Boundaries Model discussed in this blog is intended to provide the knowledge and skills to maximize Strategic Boundary use in all the varied circumstances of our lives.

Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc



Boundary Strength: Is It a Sixth Essential Boundary Variable?

February 2nd, 2013

I think I may have worked a theoretical issue regarding the 5 Essential Boundary Variables that has been nagging at me for a while. (The 5 are, for review, Area, Width, Clarity, Elasticity and Permeability). I’ll share it with you and you can then tell me what you think. (This is theoretical talk and won’t be interesting to all of you).

The issue involves whether there should be 6 Essential Boundary Variables instead of 5. The extra possible variable I’ve been trying to decide about including is Strength. Now strength is certainly an important variable in a boundary, I was struggling with whether strength should be included with the 5 or whether it belongs in another descriptive category, most likely among variables of boundary management.

Here’s why I wasn’t sure if strength belonged with the original 5 Essential Boundary Variables…

…In physical boundaries, strength is a function of the material out of which the boundary is constructed (chain link versus brick, for example) and structure (the way the material is assembled together – brick simply stacked being much less strong than brick mortared together). So once I started thinking about boundary strength in those terms I began to ask myself, ‘okay, so what are the elements out of which human boundaries derive their strength? And, more specifically, what are the correlates to the material and structure of a physical boundary?’

I came to a solution/conclusion on this issue, quite suddenly, at 2:30 am last night (I couldn’t sleep). It just sort of popped into my brain, I wasn’t even thinking about boundary theory at the time. I grabbed my smart phone and wrote it in a note to myself and then promptly fell asleep. While this seemed like a good idea at the time, I must admit I was a little surprised when I went over it again in the cold light of day and it actually made sense.

Here is my late-night epiphany…

In physical boundaries strength is a function of material and structure, but in human boundaries I realized that strength is a function of the will and of action coming out of that will. This means that the will is the construction material of human boundaries – like the brick. The desire of the will is expressed in action as persistent boundary creation and boundary maintenance over time in the face of resistance – like the stacking or mortaring of the brick.

Therefore human boundary strength is indeed a function of boundary management and is not one of the 5 essential descriptive boundary variables (and this is true for both internal and external boundaries).

As evidence consider a boundary unsupported by force of will and ensuing action. It crumbles at the slightest pressure. Therefore, the will = the material of boundary strength and action = the structural characteristics of the boundary.

Frankly, when I look at this now it seems frightfully obvious. ‘Of course the will is the construction material of human boundaries! Duh! And of course action forms the structure and shape of how the will is assembled together into a human boundary! Double duh!’ In truth, a lot of the aspects of the Human Boundaries Model have seemed like that after struggling with a concept and seeing its implications – frightfully obvious in retrospect, but painful in development.

Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc

Note: It could be argued that action is the material of the boundary and the will is the structure. However, since you have to have a construction material before you can assemble it in a structure, and since the will to act has to come before the action I chose to formulate it this way; the will = the material and the action = the structure.


Boundaries: The Good, the Bad and the “Are”

December 5th, 2012


A patient told me this week that he ran across a comment on another blog that “boundaries are bad.” He said he argued that he thought boundaries were good.

I take a slightly different position.

Boundaries Are.

They are neither good nor bad in themselves. Everyone has boundaries. Boundaries are just containers. It is how we use them that makes them good or bad, beneficial or harmful, helpful or unhelpful.


Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc



Courteous to All – Intimate With Few

October 26th, 2012

Here’s a quote attributed to George Washington. What does this quote tell us about his boundaries with regard to relationships?

“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”

George Washington (1732 – 1799)


The Five Essential Boundary Variables: Part 5 – Permeability

September 29th, 2012


The fifth of the Five Boundary Variables is…



Boundary permeability allows shifting from a previous boundary level to a new boundary level. For example, Permeability in boundaries is what allows one person to come into a closer relationship with someone else than they were previously. Usually this change is based on development of trust.

Of course, it works both ways, if you once were friends with someone, but had to make the decision that this friendship was incompatible with you having a strong sense of self and moving forward in your life consistent with your goals and personal values, you may have had to move the relationship back to a safer distance, or even have left it all together. Your boundary Permeability is what allowed you to make that change.

Permeability, then, allows for relationships to change from one boundary level to a new one, essentially changing the nature of the relationship itself.

Here’s a nice visualization of Permeability. In this short clip (less than two minutes) from Peter Jackson’s third film of his Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Return of the King, we see Gandalf riding into and through the city of Minas Tirith.

You can see that Gandalf has to enter through an outer gate and then work his way up level after level to get to the heart of the city. Each level is clearly visible with separate entrances and high walls dividing it from the level below and above.

Because he is allowed free passage, Gandalf is able to move freely from one level to a deeper level relatively easily. An enemy, as you can see, would have a much harder time. To conquer Minas Tirith enemy forces would face barrier after barrier, boundary after boundary. The different levels are “Permeable” by Gandalf because he is trusted. Enemies, however, are not trusted and would be forced to stop at each new boundary level.

In relationships, Permeability allows a trusted person closer and closer access to the “heart” of the person setting the boundaries. However, the reverse is also a function of Permeability – in these cases Permeability allows a person to revoke deeper access someone previously was given and moves them to a more distant relational boundary level.

I call it Inward Permeability when increased access is permitted and Outward Permeability when less access is permitted.

These changes in access have both benefits and risks. It is good to consider these benefits and risks in each case and both actively and consciously choose what we will do. This act of consciously choosing our boundaries is a part of the development of Boundary Consciousness that is essential to effectively applying the Human Boundaries model. It is something you will hear me talk about often.

Under what circumstances might we revoke access to the deeper levels in our lives that someone once was permitted to access? Breaches of trust; repeated, persistent Boundary Trespasses; Boundary Violations – when these things occur it is sometimes necessary to use the boundary quality of Permeability to move their access back to a safer level. Call it “assured clear distance.”

There are many people who find themselves repeatedly getting into relationships in which relational access to the “deeper levels” is given freely, but other persons repeatedly take advantage or cause avoidable harm. However, they may feel unable to alter or revoke that deeper access. Others struggle because trust is very difficult for them to give, they have been hurt too deeply or too often, and fear prevents them from allowing deeper access, even in cases where they desperately want to allow that access. In both of these types of cases it is the quality of boundary Permeability and the tools to make effective use of it that these individuals need to develop. Once they have those skills and can apply them, they will experience more mutually fulfilling relationships and an increased sense of personal safety in all relationships.

In this video some people are driving by the aftermath of a chain reaction accident and making video of what they see.

Towards the end of the video the driver points to the car at the front of the line of cars involved in the accident and says “and it’s all this guys fault, this guy that slammed on the brakes. You, you sir should be ashamed of yourself.”

Is it his fault? Should he be ashamed of himself?

Almost certainly the driver slammed on his brakes, but why? Did he have a seizure? Did a child run out in front of his car? What if he just saw a red, rubber ball roll across the road in front of him?

Or does each driver have a responsibility to maintain assured clear distance from the car in front?

Do we have a responsibility to maintain some degree of assured clear distance in our relationships?

On the other hand, look at these guys…

That’s scary tight. There’s no assured clear distance here. One mistake and they’re all toast. What makes these crazy pilots do such a thing?


Trust that took a lot of time and a lot of effort by all involved to develop. The healthiest relationships have that kind of trust.


Without Outward Boundary Permeability we’ll find ourselves crunched like the cars in the accident video.

Without Inward Boundary Permeability and a willingness to take some relational risk, the level of trust seen in the jet formation video can never develop.


Which change would make your life and your relationships more stable and satisfying? Would you benefit more from increasing your Inward Permeability or your Outward Permeability?


Steve Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc


The Five Essential Boundary Variables: Part 4 – Elasticity

September 24th, 2012

I know, I know, I said I was going to post all five of these last week, one each day. Reality intervened. I have received literally thousands* of emails complaining about this lapse, begging me to get back in the game. Message received America, here is the fourth post in “The Five Essential Boundary Variables” series.


The fourth of the Five Boundary Variables is…



Elasticity refers to the degree of flexibility in a boundary where the flexibility represents an exception to a boundary rule. This can be visualized as a “bend” in the boundary, which returns to the original shape after the need for the exception is passed (e.g. “I don’t usually kiss on a first date, buuuut…”).

Elasticity is the quality that allows a boundary to temporarily change its shape. But that change requires a force to be accomplished and continuous ongoing force to be maintained. In other words, making an exception to a boundary creates stress, a kind of cognitive dissonance in which internal guidelines are not matching behavior in the moment.

This change in the boundary’s elasticity may be the right thing to do or it may not, but either way it creates stress. Boundaries that have too much elasticity may be so flexible they cease to have meaning, but boundaries with too little elasticity may be brittle and shatter under pressure. For example, a person with Autism may have many boundaries that cannot bend without breaking, resulting in a strong emotional outburst. This makes routine very important for these persons.

In the picture below, Elasticity is illustrated in the behavior of a tennis racket striking a tennis ball.

In this picture you can see where both the ball and the racket are bending under the force. This bend both prevents the racket from breaking under the pressure and allows the tennis player to apply control to the ball. When the ball leaves the racket, both ball and racket return to their original shape.

Finding the right balance between the high and low extremes of Elasticity is key. Too little Elasticity (i.e. too rigid) and you cannot adapt to changing circumstances. Too much Elasticity (i.e. endlessly flexible) and you become exhausted and taken advantage of.

In the video below, two young men test the elasticity of a large rubber balloon filled with water to hilarious results (Watch it in HD).



Since Elasticity represents a sort of temporary exception to a boundary rule and requires ongoing effort and stress-tolerance to maintain, it is not suitable as a permanent situation. It is instead best used situationally, as a prelude to a more permanent type of change.

To accomplish this permanent change we make use of the next Boundary Variable, Permeability. In general, Elasticity precedes Permeability

This process of Elasticity (temporary boundary change) preceding Permeability (permanent boundary change) in interpersonal relationships describes a sort of relational “try-out” in which the making of an exception to a boundary (Elasticity) could be employed as a test designed to determine if the other person can be trusted in a more permanent situation with deeper access (Permeability).

If the exception is judged to have gone well the quality of Permeability allows the relationship itself to change and a new boundary or set of boundaries will apply.

We’ll discuss Permeability in more detail next time…


Steven Ater, Psy.D.
The Boundary Doc


* The word “thousands” is used here in its Postmodern form and therefore should be understood to mean “zero.”