A friend sent me a note today. She begged for some quick help on how she can set boundaries. She said she and her husband were completely overwhelmed by the demands on their lives. “We’re so exhausted, we’re zombies. The stress is killing us. The more we try to simplify, the worse it gets.” She said she needed a list to handle her emergency SOS cry for help.
I told her I would write a blog post with some basic ideas. So below I offer some information about boundaries that may help you rethink them. Much of this I learned from Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. At the bottom of the page I offer three succinct but powerful steps you can take today in order to take some stress off yourself right this minute. These are three life rafts using the SOS metaphor.
What is a Boundary?
The word boundary in the American Heritage Dictionary is defined as “an indicated border or limit.” In relationships, boundaries are often defined as the line that indicates where one person ends and the other begins.
People with healthy boundaries have developed an identity separate and distinct from others. Their lives have a nice balance; they are connected with people, not enmeshed with people. If you imagine a picket fence with a gate: You get to decide who you want to come into your life, and how far they come in.
For instance, you may want to crack open the gate by limiting someone to a ten-minute phone call rather than inviting her over to your house. There may be family members you want to honor but their behaviors may be so toxic you must limit the relationship to a birthday card.
Boundaries are flexible, so they can change. The most important thing to understand is that YOU are the gatekeeper of your life and space.
You can say no or yes, and you are ok when others say no to you.
You have a strong sense of identity.
You respect yourself.
You expect reciprocity in a relationship—you share responsibility and power.
You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
You know your own wants, needs and feelings.
You communicate them clearly in your relationships.
You are committed to and responsible for exploring and nurturing your full potential.
You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment.
You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
You are able to ask for help when you need it.
You don’t compromise your values or integrity to avoid rejection.
You can’t say no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
You have no balance of power or responsibility in your relationships. You tend to be either overly responsible & controlling/ or passive & dependent.
You take on other’s problems as your own.
You share personal information too soon, before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
You have a high tolerance for abuse or being treated with disrespect.
Your wants needs and feelings are secondary to others’ and are sometimes determined by others.
You ignore your inner voice and allow others expectations to define your potential.
You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
You rely on others opinions, feelings and ideas more than you do your own.
You allow others to define your limits or try to define limits for others.
You compromise your values and beliefs in order to please others or to avoid conflict.
Inability to Set Boundaries
Many children are raised in an environment where they learn to do boundaries backwards: They keep things inside that they shouldn’t (e.g. negative feelings and emotions or toxic people) and they assume they have to accept what is not theirs (e.g. the to-do lists and opinions of others). They don’t give themselves permission to set limits with people; nor do they know how.
Boundaries keep a person from being controlled, manipulated, and abused. They are the physical, emotional, and sexual limits we set in relationships. They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others, and to take responsibility for our behaviors. They make it possible for us to say “no,” as well as to accept limits from others.
- A person with healthy boundaries is able to identify what he thinks and feels about something but those with unhealthy boundaries often allow others to tell them what they think or feel.
- A person with healthy boundaries is able to control how he reacts and he is able to distinguish between his own emotions, opinions and behaviors and those of others.
- A person with healthy boundaries does not blame others for how she thinks, feels or behaves. He or she is very clear where he ends and another person begins, and maintains that line. She is able to stand up for himself calmly and intelligently without desperation, intimidation, or manipulation.
- Each person in a relationship needs a clear sense of who they are in order to clearly communicate their needs to their partner without manipulation. You can’t do this if you are carrying someone else’s emotions, blaming others for your behavior, or practicing someone else’s beliefs.
- It may take years to develop an assertive healthy self. Some people go to their grave never having a sense of who they are. If this hits close to home you might want to invest in yourself by seeing a good counselor.
- God made us to be relational, so it is inevitable that our families, co-workers, and friends will affect us. But a person with healthy boundaries will not allow herself to be devastated for long periods of time, based on the opinions or behaviors of others.
Boundaries Make Others Feel Safe
I used to think people who had clear boundaries were mean and nasty, and people who accommodated everybody else’s whim were “Christian.” But I’ve come to admire people with clear-cut boundaries because there are no mixed messages, no mind games, no guessing involved.
When my kids were small, I telephoned Gina to see if she could watch them while I went to an appointment. She sighed deeply and mumbled, “Well…I guess…” I took my children to her house but worried about them the entire time I was gone. I could tell she hadn’t really wanted extra children that day, but like me, Gina was a people pleaser who couldn’t say no. Her inability to set strong, clear boundaries had the effect of making me feel oddly unsafe.
Juxtapose that situation with another: Whenever I asked a favorite professor if I could stop by for a visit, he clearly stated a yes or a no, with little explanation. I always felt safe asking because I knew he wouldn’t see me just because I wanted to visit. He knew how to protect his time. His ability to set concise, clear boundaries made me feel safe to ask things of him. Of course, it helps to state boundaries with a kind tone of voice, there’s rarely a need to be harsh or rude
Emotionally Healthy People
- A healthy person will state her needs and if those needs aren’t respected, she will have consequences (such as distance), until the relationship gets repaired. A healthy person does not manipulate, guilt, bully or blame. She does not play the victim or the martyr, and she does not tolerate abuse.
- A healthy person recognizes her needs and take responsibility for them. She doesn’t manipulate others, guilt them or make people guess what she really wants. There are no bully tactics or mind games.
- I love what Dr. Phil says: “We teach people how to treat us.” If you are getting treated badly that’s not your fault, but if you continue to let people manipulate you then it is your fault.
- A healthy person is able to hear the word “No” from others without having her self-esteem shattered. Even if your needs are real, if someone says no, it must be respected. It’s not okay to throw a fit or talk badly about them to others. Your needs are real, but maybe your method or expectations are wrong. Keep asking others until you get what you need, or learn how to self-soothe or meet your own needs if people can’t or won’t respond to your requests.
There are three basic ways that people put forth their needs in the world: Passively, Assertively, and Aggressively.
A passive person doesn’t state clearly what her needs and desires are. Instead she tends go along with the wishes of others. In the long run, she ends up not getting her needs met and becomes resentful.
An assertive person clearly states her wants and desires. It doesn’t mean she gets her way, but others know where she stands. If two friends are going out to dinner and one says suggests a restaurant you don’t like you could say, “You know I’m not crazy about Mexican food. Is there some other spot we both like?”
An aggressive person asserts her will to get what she wants. For example, “Next year we’re having the family reunion at the park by my house!” rather than asking what others options people have considered.
*Some people are openly aggressive (my way or the highway) and some are passive-aggressive. In other words they get back at the person in an underhanded way. Consider the wife who tells her husband, “No honey, I’m not mad” but then burns his toast on purpose.
Now, consider all the possible combinations within a relationship. Maybe one partner is passive and one is assertive. Or both are aggressive. I have observed that until both people learn to be assertive in healthy ways, without being passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive, there can be no real intimacy or solid emotional connection.
Are Boundaries Biblical?
Maybe you think boundaries are unbiblical, confusing, and contradictory. The Bible tells us to carry each other’s burdens?” (Galatians 6:2). A few verses later it says, each is responsible for his own load (Galatians 6:5). I love the fact that Drs. Cloud and Townsend make a distinction between the biblical words “load” and “burden.”
There is a big difference between the two. It is true, sometimes people are given a burden that they cannot carry, and of course we will want to step in and help, probably along with a supportive “village” of other caring people. An example of this would be a job loss or major health issue.
But the Bible tells each person to carry his own load. An example of someone who won’t carry his own load might be the person who freeloads off her friends but won’t get a job. Boundary problems come when someone tries to pass off his load as a burden for others to carry.
Let’s say you have a friend who comes to borrow money, but continues to be irresponsible with his life. He is trying to make you carry his load. Now, let’s say another friend’s house burns down and you offer her a temporary place to live and regroup. That is carrying another’s burden.
Christians, especially, struggle over the idea of setting boundaries because they feel it would be un-Christ-like to say no. But learning to set limits is a big part of self-care. Unless we can say no, we may be saying yes to everything except the people and projects where God really wants our energy.
Let me give an example. Judy and Joe felt pressure from the pastor to let two missionary kids live in their home since they who would be working for the church all summer. Judy and Joe did not feel comfortable saying no. All summer long they resented having to prepare meals for the kids. They couldn’t take any of the motorcycle trips they had planned which would have given them much needed time to focus on their marriage. They grew agitated that they couldn’t visit their grandchildren or offer relatives a place to stay during the family reunion. They did provide a place for the missionary kids, but at what cost to their own stress level, marriage happiness, and time with family members?
Of course there must be a balance between saying yes and saying no. Boundaries can certainly be taken to an extreme and used as an excuse to never serve others.
Here are a few more tips:
- I highly recommend reading Boundariesby Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. There’s a workbook too. I liked listening to it on audio.
- Practice with strangers and people who are least important in your life (e.g. phone solicitors, door to door salesmen, restaurant servers)
- Practice saying no without reasons. Your reasons actually weaken your no and are usually apparent to others.
- Think of yourself in third person. “Lucille gets cranky when she’s overwhelmed. This would not be good.”
- Realize that not setting boundaries is really about immaturity. It is also about trying to get love from others in an unhealthy way. If people stop loving us because of our boundaries, then they are toxic.
- Understand that taking time for you will create a more harmonious environment for others. You won’t present yourself to the world in an angry, resentful, and frustrated way.
- Get support from a friend or counselor. Most people need someone else to help them be able to set boundaries.
Okay, here are the SOS tips I promised:
S – Spend time thinking about what you really want. Counselors often use the Magic Wand question. We might even hand them a toy fairy wand that when waved lights up and makes noise. “Tell me what would look different tomorrow if your problem was solved?”
Someone might say:
I’d have thirty minutes of quiet time to read.
I’d have time to exercise.
I’d have time to work on my goals.
I’d have time to relax.
I’d have time to think and reflect.
I’d eat my meals at the table, slowly.
Sometimes people don’t even know who they are or what they want!
Taking a strengths assessment can be helpful. There’s a free version and a more in depth paid version of the VIACharacter Strengths test. When I took the assessment I learned that savoring beauty was important to me. Now that I know how important it is, I make opportunities to walk in nature, enjoy a sunset, take photographs, and listen to music.
O – Orchestrate your week and your month. Print out a calendar . Visualize what you want a week to look like. Cross out the times you are going to do something for yourself. So, on my calendar I cross off every Monday and Wednesday morning. That’s when I do yoga. I also take an hour long walk with my husband first thing in the morning. That’s our together time so I defend it with a vengeance. If a client calls and wants to be seen first thing in the morning I will offer them Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday. Selfcare is not selfish.
S – Start small and take it step by step. Don’t try to set boundaries with everyone all at once. Consider one situation with one person. Now, think about it, write it out, and perhaps talk to someone like a counselor so you can have success. I’ve found it helps to be honest and to use “I” statements. Just today I had to tell the children’s leader at our church I couldn’t fill in at the nursery. I wanted to, but every single time I do, I get sick for three or four weeks. I felt bad but told her, “I have been sick for six or seven weeks from the past two times I helped out. Ugh, I hate saying no, because I really want to help out, and yet I don’t want to be sick for Thanksgiving.” I try to give back to my church in ways that feel manageable to me: Financial giving, filling Christmas shoeboxes with toys, teaching a bible study, etc.
At first you may feel mean, and you may botch it, but soon you will be setting boundaries like a boss! You’re going to love it. Your family and friends are going to love it too because they will see how happy and refreshed you seem. They’ll enjoy spending time with you.
What tips would you offer to someone who struggles with setting boundaries?
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."