Other than my salvation, developing healthy boundaries was my most life-changing transformation. Nearly twenty years ago, I was unable to set appropriate limits. I took responsibility for things that were other’s to shoulder, and relinquished control when I never should have. This resulted in chronic pain and unhealthy relationships. That all changed when I learned how to set boundaries. In this post we will explore the concept of boundaries and help you determine if boundary problems are causing trouble in your life.
Let’s start by going to the Word for guidance. The apostle Paul had much to teach about this topic—both in word and example. His letter to the Galatians is packed with both. Here is a key section of his teaching which we will unpack in just a moment.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. —Galatians 6:2-5, NIV
What Are Boundaries?
In a nutshell: A boundary is a clear delineation that differentiates me and what I’m responsible for from another person and what they are responsible for. Now let’s unpack how we put that simple concept into practice in our real lives.
I’ve made a little cheat sheet for you to help you remember the key concepts. Just click on the image or the button and I’ll email it to you instantly!
Now, let’s dig into the meat within that nutshell and explore boundaries and the four common types of boundary problems we are likely to experience.
Healthy boundaries are an aspect of God’s holy nature.
God differentiates himself as a separate being and exercises responsibility for himself. He does this by:
- clearly revealing what he thinks and feels
- determining who and what he will allow into his presence and who and what he will not
- articulating what he likes and values; and what he doesn’t
And God and his limits have integrity because he allows consequences to be experienced by those who choose to transgress them.
Even though God is unlimited in his power, knowledge, and abilities, he is the consummate respecter of boundaries. He never coerces others into relationship or into doing things his way. We are free to enter his kingdom via the gate he has lovingly thrown open for us (John 10:9) or, we may reject him. He provides clear guidance about how he designed us to live and relate to others. Whether we choose his way or ours (and the natural consequences of either), he leaves up to us.
What’s Mine and What’s Yours?
Boundaries help us determine what is mine to carry and what is yours. God calls us to exercise good stewardship for the things he has entrusted to us. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 6:5, we each must carry our own load.
Boundaries do not, however, preclude compassionate response to genuine needs. In Galatians 6:2 the apostle Paul instructs believers to carry each other’s burdens. Obviously, this burden is different from the load in verse 5. The original Greek also uses two different words: phortion and baros. In verse 5, phortion refers to a load we are designed to ferry (for example, a cargo ship is designed to carry its phortion/load). Baros, in verse 2, is an excessively heavy burden which weighs one down with affliction, oppression, or calamity. We were not designed to lug those ship-sinking types of burdens on our own.
God designed us to be responsible FOR ourselves and our load and TO others, helping them carry what they are unable to carry on their own. Please notice, I said unable not unwilling. That’s a key distinction! When we exercise good stewardship over these responsibilities we are in a position to help shoulder the burden of others without capsizing our own ship.
What Comprises Our Load?
Mentally, we are responsible for our thoughts, attitudes, and desires. I’m also going to include our talents in this area though our talents could relate to the other aspects as well.
Emotionally, we are responsible for our feelings and the giving and receiving of love.
Physically, we are responsible for our bodies and what we do with them and to set limits on who is allowed access to our bodies. Another physical responsibility would be the material things that belong to us or have been entrusted to our stewardship.
Spiritually, we are responsible for what we value and believe and how we relate to God. All of this comprises the load God designed us to carry. These are ours and we are free to make choices and set limits in all of these areas of responsibility. Of course, integral to our freedom to choose is our responsibility to accept the associated consequences of our choices.
Consequences are an integral part of living as God designed and they are essential in setting and maintaining healthy limits with other people in our lives. Establishing, communicating, and following through with appropriate consequences is in the best interest of both the transgressor and the transgressed. Consistent use of consequences protects us from the impact of the choices and behavior of the boundary violator. At the same time, experiencing the results of their choices teaches the other person to exercise responsibility for their load appropriately.
Four Types of Boundary Problems and How to Recognize If You Have Them
Unfortunately, many of us are not clear on the “me/mine versus you/yours” concept. We mistake loads for burdens and are hazy about who is supposed to carry what when. These cloudy boundaries lead to boundary problems.
There are essentially four types of boundary problems that wreak havoc in our lives.
1. People-Pleasing Compliance Problem
This type of problem happens when someone is afraid to say no when appropriate. They may fear:
- hurting people’s feelings,
- being abandoned, shamed, or punished,
- or they may fear being labeled selfish, bad, or unchristian.
Problems will result if you don’t say no when someone seeks to control what is yours or when someone tries to shirk their load onto your back. Check your motivation for saying yes. If it is fear, you likely have a compliance problem.
2. Bulldozing Control Problem
The flip-side of a compliance problem is a control problem. The bulldozing controller pushes her load off on others or tries to control what other people do with their own loads. Whereas the compliant person has a problem with saying no, the controlling person has a problem hearing no.
Controllers are experienced by others as either aggressive bullies or sly manipulators. The controller’s relationships are built on fear not love. At some level, she knows that and so she feels isolated and unloved. And that’s why this behavior is a problem for the controller as well as the people she tries to control.
3. Wall Building Avoidance Problem
With this type of problem the person has difficulty requesting help with her burdens. Boundaries are supposed to be like the yellow lines that define which lane of a roadway is mine and which is yours. They adapt according to the situation. When necessary to move into the other lane (and when it is safe to do so), the lines are dotted. When it could be dangerous to do so, they are solid, double yellow stripes, right? And if we have big problems, we can even move off onto the shoulder to get help.
Well, the person who has a wall-building avoidance problem, erects concrete barriers on both sides of her lane. The walls keep her trapped in her lane bogged down behind overwhelming needs and unable to move out of the jam to get help. Bottom – line, people with an avoidance problem insist upon carrying their burden as if it were a normal load.
4. Callous Non-responsive Wall Builder
The final type of boundary problem occurs when someone is callously non-responsive to the legitimate needs of others. While the person with a wall-building avoidance problem builds walls that prevent her from asking for help with valid needs, the non-responsive person builds walls so they can’t hear the requests of others.
Callous disregard can manifest as either:
- harsh criticism of others who express normal needs
- self-absorption to point of not hearing or being aware of the needs of others.
This callous unwillingness to respond is different from not being able to respond. There will be times when someone has a legitimate need, but we lack the capacity to help without capsizing our own ship. Lovingly acknowledging the legitimacy of their need and communicating our inability to help is very different from slamming a door in their face.
If you have a boundary problem, stay tuned for part two of this post in which I provide a Seven Step Process to Set and Maintain Good Boundaries. That post will be published on Monday, June 8, 2015. And to help you remember the key ideas of this post, I’ve created a FREE two-page cheat sheet for you. Just click the yellow button to download it!
Also, I highly recommend you get a copy of Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This is the gold standard in teaching on this subject!
Question: What aspect of setting and maintaining boundaries gives you the most difficulty? You can leave a comment by clicking here.