Managing interpersonal boundaries challenges all of us every day. Good boundaries wall out negative influences from others that could disrupt our lives. Good boundaries restrain some our own toxicity to respect the dignity of those around us. Good boundaries result in good manners, poise, grace, propriety, diplomacy, and so on. One of my interns offers a very readable and substantive article on this issue as well as some recommended reading. Give Lorraine a read and check out her own web site.
By Lorraine Turbyfill, LPC Intern
My English friend was learning to drive his rental car “on the wrong side of the road” in America. He did well until we came to an intersection. Though the light was red and he knew to come to a stop, he could not find a line on the road to tell him where to stop. Before I could say, “stop” he had drifted into the middle of the intersection! The line he was looking for (and the invisible line that existed though unknown to him) is a kind of boundary. Boundaries provide direction to us, telling us where one thing stops and another begins. They may be physical, emotional, relational or spiritual in nature.
In relationships, boundaries clarify the nature of the relationship between two or more people. Positively, they help us enjoy a balanced life and healthy relationships. Negatively, they may lead to relational distress. Sometimes people can’t say “no” to others (can’t set boundaries) or can’t hear “no” (they violate the boundaries set by others). Other times people can’t say “yes” (to loving others) or can’t hear “yes” (to receive love/care). Some people feel controlled, manipulated, and/or exploited by others and others may become controlling, manipulative, and/or exploitive of others.
The bottom line is that a person with poor boundaries may frequently take responsibility for others or situations (things they cannot truly control or change) and they may not take responsibility for themselves (the things they can control or change). As a result this person often pays the consequences of another’s behavior while the offending party continues out of control with no consequences (whether they be emotional, physical, or spiritual). In this way people may enable others’ poor choices. Though it may be difficult to do, the healthy thing to do is to take responsibility for the enabling behaviors and to let others experience the natural consequences (the pain) of their choices in hopes that they will acknowledge the problem and take steps to change.
Some common obstacles to setting boundaries may include the fear of losing the approval of others or losing the relationship itself. Some may worry about getting an angry response, feeling guilty or selfish, and appearing unloving if they say “no.” With little emotional muscles to set boundaries people may pretend things are “okay” but in reality resent it. They often feel sad, frustrated or angry, unappreciated, lonely, unsupported, running on empty, and out of control of their lives. In the end, individuals and relationships suffer because boundaries exist and affect us whether we talk about them or not.
The key to boundary building is rooted in healthy, supportive relationships with others (and especially established in relationship with God who is perfect Love). Foundationally, boundary development takes place primarily during childhood in the context of relationships with our primary caregivers. For example trust is developed to the degree that the caregivers meet a baby’s basic needs. When the child’s needs are not met, he (she) learns that others cannot be depended on. Mistrust develops. Over time this child may decide it is better to be self-reliant than to get disappointed or hurt. Further, one may believe that to ask for help is a sign of weakness, and that he (she) does not want to appear weak. In that a child views God largely through the lens of their experiences with their caregivers and in that caregivers cannot meet a standard of perfection, the child may come to believe God cannot be trusted either. Ultimately, the tension for us is that this runs counter to God’s design and our deep desire to belong in relationship with others and Him. When relationships are severed, our deepest God-given need for true intimacy (to be known and to know another person) goes unmet. The good news is that we can unlearn old ways of being that we once used to survive and we can adopt healthy ways of being so we can truly live (thrive).
For a fuller understanding of boundaries, I recommend reading Boundaries by Drs. Cloud & Townsend (1992) and From Bondage to Bonding: Escaping Codependency, Embracing Biblical Love by Nancy Groom (1991). Cloud and Townsend have also written books devoted to specific topics – Boundaries in Marriage, Boundaries in Dating, etc. Groom lays out a plan to help boundary-injured people who function in a codependent way with others. She unmasks the behavior that seems loving (but is actually very self-focused) and points the way to healthy relationships and becoming truly loving.