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Boundaries: A concept commonly misunderstood by many, but imperative for healthly relationships

  • December 28, 2012
  • Caleb

Insights from Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
Summarized by Molly Pierce, MA, LPC, NCC

What are boundaries?
What does a boundary look like?

Boundaries help us to define what is NOT on our property and what we are NOT responsible for. We are not, for example, responsible for other people. Nowhere are we commanded to have “other-control,” although we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it!

People with poor boundaries struggle with saying no to the control, pressure, demands, and sometimes the real needs of others. They feel that if they say no to someone, they will endanger their relationship with that person, so they passively comply but inwardly resent. Sometimes a person is pressuring you to do something; other times the pressure comes from your own sense of what you ‘should’ do. If you cannot say no to this external or internal pressure, you have lost control of your property and are not enjoying the fruit of ‘self-control.’

Boundaries can take on many different shapes and forms for different people. However, some of the common factors of boundaries include geological distance, time, emotional distance, other people, consequences, feelings, attitudes & beliefs, behaviors, choices, limits, talents, thoughts, desires, and love.

Geographical Distance:
Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help maintain boundaries. You can do this to replenish yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually after you have given to your limit, as Jesus often did.

Time:
Taking time off from a person, or a project, can be a way of regaining ownership over some out-of-control aspect of your life where boundaries need to be set. Adult children who have never spiritually or emotionally separated from their parents often need time away…They need to spend some time building boundaries against the old ways and creating new ways of relating that for a while may feel alienating to their parents. This time apart usually improves their relationship with their parents.

Emotional Distance:
Emotional distance is a temporary boundary to give your heart the space it needs to be safe…People who have been in abusive relationships need to find a safe place to begin to ‘thaw out’ emotionally. You should not continue to set yourself up for hurt and disappointment. To continue to open yourself up emotionally to an abusive or addicted person without seeing true change is foolish. Forgive, but guard your heart until you see sustained change.

Other People:
Fear of being alone keeps many in hurtful patterns for years. They are afraid that if they set boundaries they will not have love in their life…Many people have been taught by their church or their family that boundaries are unbiblical, mean, or selfish.

Consequences:
Just as the Bible sets consequences for certain behaviors, we need to back up our boundaries with consequences. God does not enable irresponsible behavior. Consequences give some good ‘barbs’ to fences. They let people know the seriousness of the trespass and the seriousness of our respect for ourselves. This teaches them that our commitment to living accordingly to helpful values is something we hold dear and will fight to protect and guard.

What’s Within My Boundaries:
We may be moved with compassion to give to someone in need. But sometimes a person may manipulate us into giving more than we want to give. We end up resentful and angry.

Feelings:
The Bible says to ‘own’ your feelings and be aware of them. They can often motivate you to do much good. Feelings come from your heart and can tell you the state of your relationships. They can tell you if things are going well, or if there is a problem. If you feel close and loving, things are probably going well. If you feel angry, you have a problem that needs to be addressed. But the point is, your feelings are your responsibility and you must own them and see them as your problem so you can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing to.

Attitudes & Beliefs:
People who have never questioned their attitudes can fall prey to the dynamic that Jesus referred to when he described people holding on to the ‘traditions of men,’ instead of the commands of God (Mark 7:8; Matt. 15:3). People with boundary problems usually have distorted attitudes about responsibility. They feel that to hold people responsible for their feelings, choices, and behaviors is mean. However, Proverbs repeatedly says that setting limits and accepting responsibility will save lives (Prov. 13:18, 24).

Behaviors:
Behaviors have consequences. As Paul says, ‘A man reaps what he sows’ (Gal. 6:7-8). To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless. Parenting with love and limits, with warmth and consequences, produces confident children who have a sense of control over their lives.

Choices:
We need to take responsibility for our choices. This leads to the fruit of ‘self-control’ (Gal. 5:23). We need to realize that we are in control of our choices, no matter how we feel. This keeps us from making choices to give ‘reluctantly or under compulsion,’ as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says. We have been so trained by others on what we “should” do that we think we are being loving when do we things out of compulsion {or reluctance}. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with.

Limits:
What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right. We are not being unloving. Separating ourselves protects love, because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love. We need to be able to say no to ourselves. This includes both our destructive desires and some good ones that are not wise to pursue at a given time.

Talents:
We should not be chastised for being afraid; we are all afraid when trying something new and difficult. However, we should confront our fears and do the best we can. Not confronting our fear denies the grace of God and insults both his giving of the gift and his grace to sustain us as we are learning.

Thoughts:

1. We must own our thoughts.
Many people have not taken ownership of their own thinking processes. They are mechanically thinking the thoughts of others without ever examining them.

2. We must grow in knowledge and expand our minds.

3. We must clarify distorted thinking.
Taking ownership of our thinking in relationships requires being active in checking out where we may be wrong. Also, we need to make sure that we are communicating our thoughts to others. Many people think that others should be able to read their minds and know what they want. This leads to frustration.

Desires:
We need to own our desires and pursue them to find fulfillment in life.

Love:
Many people have difficulty giving and receiving love because of hurt and fear. Having closed their hearts to others, they feel empty and meaningless.

We need to take responsibility for all of the above areas of our lives. These areas all lie within our boundaries. Taking care of what lies within our boundaries isn’t always easy; neither is allowing other people to take care of what lies within their boundaries. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is hard work, but is well worth it for a healthy you and for your relationships.