Psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend published a classic book in 1992 entitled “Boundaries: When to Say YES — When to Say NO — To Take Control of Your Life”(1). This book has been a guide for many to define where their responsibilities lay and where other people need to step up to their own responsibilities. The message of their book is still relevant today and is the foundation this article draws upon.
Often, when we think of taking ownership of our life, we think about the need to step up, be responsible,
and avoid leaning on other people to meet our needs. Throw a little Christian moral ethic in the mix and many feel they should be responsible for other people as well as themselves. However, it is equally important to have an accurate sense of what is our job and what is not. We risk emotional, physical, even intellectual burnout if we continually take on responsibilities others should carry for themselves. We also create obstacles to the growth of others that could be gained by carrying their own responsibilities.
Some take on responsibilities of others to avoid conflict. But these are “problems that God never intended”
for them to address: a co-worker’s ineptness or laziness; a spouse’s immaturity; a friend’s unending crises; an addicted spouse’s behavioral choices. Christians may be more susceptible to this due to their sincere desire to serve others as Christ modeled. This can lead to confusion about when it is Biblically appropriate to help others versus when it is more appropriate to set limits.
In defining a boundary, Cloud and Townsend state, “A boundary is a personal property line that marks
those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not.”(1)
I own a car. That is a freedom I enjoy. With that freedom comes responsibility. I am responsible for how I use it, for its maintenance, filling it with gasoline, insurance, and who I allow to use it. I am not responsible for anyone else’s car nor is anyone else responsible for my car. Simply stated, “A boundary is a property line. It defines where you begin and end.”(1)
The essence of boundaries is freedom. Freedom and ownership belong together. Freedom is the choices we
all have in managing our own soul. Ownership is responsibility for all that lies in our soul: feelings, attitudes, behaviors, choices, limits, talents, thoughts, desires, loves, and values, as listed by Cloud and Townsend.(1) These are among the things God has entrusted to us. Life works best when we take responsibility for what lies in our own soul and leave what lies in the souls of others to their own management.
From the Essential Life Skills website, we can learn that “Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional
and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others. It would not be possible to enjoy healthy relationships without the existence of personal boundaries, or without our willingness to communicate them directly and honestly with others. We must recognize that each of us is a unique individual with distinct emotions, needs and preferences. …To set personal boundaries means to preserve your integrity, take responsibility for who you are, and to take
control of your life.”(2)
To start the process of changing your life and setting boundaries, consider the modified use of a Living Will. The Mayo Clinic defines a Living Will as “legal instructions regarding your preferences for medical care if you are unable to make decisions for yourself.”(3) The idea applied to the setting of appropriate boundaries is an extension of the idea. It involves using a Living Will-type thinking, a conviction or stance. It could represent what will be the new reality for you and others as if you were no longer available to meet everyone else’s needs. Perhaps you will begin with your number one “boundary buster” first. You are not dead to them; you will still help where it is healthy to do so. You will continue fulfill your responsibilities but you will no longer be responsible for the poor choices of others. You will make your own needs known and cease being the enabler. For each person you identify as someone you help too much, you document what their new reality will be. You will no longer take on the responsibilities of others. You allow others to share in taking mother to the doctor or identify other transportation options. You share responsibilities like appointments with school teachers or principals or nurses. You explain to friends your need to be heard at times as well. You say no to some of the request for volunteering. You son pays for his own car insurance. You say you are not always available for babysitting your grandchildren, like when you already had plans. You delegate responsibilities during family crises like a death in the family. You discover the things that you can do for yourself that are relaxing, fulfilling, and renewing. You say no so others can be responsible for their own lives and mature into their own identity. You allow others to do for you, even if it is not done perfectly.
Next, you communicate the new directive to all concerned and help them to understand why you have developed this new reality. Then, you help them in developing a reasonable timeline for the changes to be implemented. And, you let them know you can love one another but you will no longer continue to be one
another. You will no longer live their life for them or live your life through them. You will, by staying on your side on your fence, help them — love them — to a mature, fulfilling life. It will be as though you are
empathetically responding to others who have just lost someone they depended upon. You will be helping them to find new ways of living responsibly in the freedom that is offered to them. You, too, will experience freedom.
The key to boundaries is holding to them. You will need to hold firm to your directive by saying “no.” This can be a kind-hearted “not right now”, or “I would really treasure seeing you take care of this yourself.” You
might complete a cost-benefit analysis of what it is costing you living without appropriate boundaries and what you would benefit from holding to your boundaries. If you begin to feel a sense of self-condemnation or critical self-judgment, take heart. It is a good sign that you are becoming a healthy, boundaried person. It is a sign of spiritual growth.
You are a responsible person. You need to be responsible to others but not for others. And you need to be
responsible to yourself. Boundaries help others to live the same way, as a responsible person taking ownership of their own stuff. Living a life with boundaries will free you to explore the person God created you to be. Live without guilt, without condemnation, without shame, and at the same time, lead others to live the life God created them to live. Read the Boundaries book and/or consult a competent counselor to further explore this life-changing decision.
1 Boundaries: When to Say YES — When to Say NO — To Take Control of Your Life