Boundaries. The word itself seems to carry a negative connotation. Whenever we bring up the issue of boundaries it is because someone has crossed them. Rarely do you hang out with some friends, sip coffee, and have a lighthearted, enjoyable conversation about boundaries. Over the last several years, though, I’ve learned that boundaries are really good, healthy, and keep relationships and priorities in order. A life without boundaries promises to be a life of misery and chaos.
There are lots of people who, for various reasons, struggle to establish and maintain boundaries. Boundaries have always been a difficult for me. I remember being in a youth group in high school and sharing things about myself that no one else would have dared to mention. What everyone else viewed as so incredibly personal was, to me, no big deal. As a child I remember telling random adults whom I’d just met, “I’m Kristin. My parents got divorced when I was 5,” as if that’s some kind of really great small talk, conversation starter. (For the record, I think I was actually 6 when it was finalized…). It was more like an introduction at a support group than with a stranger.
As I grew up I felt out of control of my life, frustrated, and guilty. I felt like I was always working to make everyone else happy or at least not hurt anyone else’s feelings. It felt pretty miserable, to tell you the truth. What I really wanted, but didn’t know, was a clear set of boundaries.
I’ve been reading through the book, Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. I have, admittedly, only gotten through certain sections so far, but plan to really go in-depth once I get enough free time. I have to say, though, that what I’ve read in the last couple of months is information I could have used a long time ago! A LONG time ago!
The book starts off with a look into the life of a woman who doesn’t have boundaries. I can see myself so clearly in this fictional story. This woman is so afraid of the consequences of saying, “no,” that she just says, “yes,” to everyone…and she is miserable. Now, I don’t usually struggle to say, “no,” in the same way she does. Not these days, anyway, but I sure did as a teenager and college student. If someone needed help I was always saying, “I’ll help,” or “I’ll work for you,” or, “sure, I’ll join your club.” It made my life incredibly busy and burning out was just a matter of time. But not learning to establish boundaries at the beginning set me up for a lack of boundaries as an adult.
When I went off to college, for example, I looked forward to the separation from my family. Not because I didn’t love them, but because I looked forward to becoming an adult and was excited to become my own person. I attempted to establish boundaries by explaining a future limit of communication. I wasn’t going to answer every phone call or email. I needed time to make friends and be independent. I definitely got quite a bit of push back and spent a lot of time trying to repair damages and explain myself. When I became pregnant with Emery I was asked by many friends and family members, “how did that happen? Weren’t you using protection? Why weren’t you on birth control? What are you going to do?” I could have anticipated those questions, but it didn’t make them any less awkward or uncomfortable. I chose to answer the questions, even though they made me feel uncomfortable, because I was worried about how saying, “That’s none of your business” would make someone else feel. When I attempted to establish boundaries before Emery was born, it was met with an incredible amount of resistance…resistance I wasn’t prepared for and I spent a lot more time trying to negotiate and explain myself than I probably should have.
The tales could go on and on and on of times when boundaries were crossed and I walked away feeling out of control of my life and like I needed to attempt to cater to the needs of other people by allowing them access into my life even when I didn’t want it, or by answering questions even when I didn’t think I should.
So, enter the suggestion of reading this incredible book. Wow. I can already see that these suggestions are going to be life-altering. There’s an entire chapter in the book entitled “Resistance to Boundaries.” Resistance can take the form of anger, guilt, and even physical resistance.
“The most common resistance one gets from the outside is anger. People who get angry at others for setting boundaries have a character problem. Self-centered, they think the world exists for them and their comfort. They see others as extensions of themselves.
When they hear no, they have the same reaction as a two-year-old has when deprived of something: ‘Bad Mommy!’ They feel as though the one who deprives them of their wishes is ‘bad,’ and they become angry. They are not righteously angry at a real offense. Nothing has been done ‘to them’ at all. Someone will not do something ‘for them.’ Their wish is being frustrated, and they get angry because they have not learned to delay gratification or respect others’ freedom (Prov. 19:19).” (Boundaries, pg. 241)
So why am I sharing all if this is? Isn’t it almost crossing my own boundaries to reveal these personal struggles? Yes and no. This is certainly not like one of my normal blog posts. I am, however, hoping to encourage anyone else who is struggling with boundaries. I have found that, for me, the most difficult boundaries to establish are with parents. Why? Because I love them and they love me. It’s easy to think, “they’re just trying to help.” That may be true! But there is still a point when adult children are not required to “obey” their parents or share private information. “How can you call yourself a Christian? Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Honor your parents?'” (Boundaries pg. 244). It may be ok for parents to give advice to adult children or to even offer to help financially or with babysitting grandchildren, etc., but when offering advice, financial assistance, or help with babysitting turns into an expectation of obedience, then it isn’t help but manipulation. And I believe that it is, often, unintentional. (This can go the opposite way too, folks. Kids can try to push parents into doing things for them by pulling out the, “but I’m your kid. Don’t you love me?” card.)
A friend shared a story with me about her wedding and how a close family member had offered to pay for the cake. It became clear, though, that with the offer of paying for the cake came some strings that had not been negotiated into the deal. My friend, because she’s amazing, strong, and clear with her boundaries, had to ask directly, “ok. Is this a gift or not?”
So maybe mom and dad have offered to watch your kids for free so you can get a job. Now mom and dad are giving you parenting advice, taking over school projects, field trips, and giving you diet suggestions. You’re not thrilled with all the new advice. You’re still the parent, right? But you’re afraid that if you ask them to stop that they’ll stop watching the kids. Maybe they will. Establishing boundaries often has consequences.
It reminds me of the 13 colonies before the American Revolution. The colonial years are like birth through high school. War sets in during college years when you’re fighting for your independence. The war ends when boundaries are set and the sovereignty of your own person is recognized and respected. The consequences may be hurt feelings, financial withdrawal, lots of resistance, and a bit of uncertainty, but is necessary for a healthy relationship between parents and children.
Certainly boundaries with parents aren’t the only difficult boundaries to establish, but I do think they’re the most difficult because the most is at stake. You may have a difficult boss who expects you to come early and stay late at the last minute, friends who push their beliefs about food or medicine on you, or a church leader who tries to make you feel guilty when you can’t volunteer to lead the children’s choir. What have learned from this book is that my boundaries are my responsibility. No one can make you feel guilty.
“…you must view anger realistically. Anger is only a feeling inside the other person. It cannot jump across the room and hurt you. It cannot ‘get inside’ you unless you allow it…do not let anger be a cue for you to do something. People without boundaries respond automatically to the anger of others. They rescue, seek approval, or get angry themselves. There is great power in inactivity…Keep a loving stance while ‘speaking the truth in love.'” (Boundaries pg. 242)
“If guilt works on you, recognize that this is your problem and not theirs. Realize where the real problem is: inside. Then you will be able to deal with the outside correctly, with love and limits. If you continue to blame other people for ‘making’ you feel guilty, they still have power over you, and you are saying that you will only feel good when they stop doing that. You are giving them control over your life. Stop blaming other people.” (Boundaries pg. 245)
Isn’t that incredibly empowering?! Are you willing to accept the consequences of establishing healthy boundaries? To say, “I don’t have to answer that question,” or, “thank you for sharing what has worked for your family, but my husband and I have a different way we want to handle this situation,” or, “that activity sounds like something you’ll really enjoy. I hope you have fun, but it’s just not something that interests me,” and not allow yourself to feel unnecessary guilt or pressure? I know I am! Because I finally can see and know that my boundary issues are my own.
Disclaime:r I have great parents and wholeheartedly believe that every parent-child relationship has its struggles and seasons of establishing new boundaries. I don’t look forward to the day when I realize that I have crossed the line with my adult children and need to step back. I don’t look forward to the day when they move out and no longer need me in the way they do now. This post is in no way to guilt or shame my parents or any other parent. It is purely to encourage others, my parents included, to establish healthy boundaries with friends, family, co-workers…etc. and to read the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend.