Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Drs. Cloud and Townsend is a Christian/Biblically based book on an essential life skill: setting healthy boundaries. I did not know this book was Biblically based when it was first recommended to me, and though I am still searching for a good secular book I can recommend, this book does an excellent job in educating the reader about what are boundary problems, where they come from, and how to address them. Setting healthy boundaries is a skill that most survivors of trauma, abuse, or controlling environments needs to learn. I plan to do a blog series on boundaries later on but for now here is a cliff notes version of the basic boundary problems:
4 Types of Boundary Problems:
- Can’t Say No – this person is a compliant, people pleaser. He cannot say no or set a boundary. He feels bad or guilty if he tries to say no, and then feels controlled by others when he just goes along with what they want.
- Can’t Say Yes –This person can’t hear the needs of others. They withhold support. They are usually very critical of themselves and others (e.g. I worked hard and never asked for help so should you). Sometimes this can be due to poor boundary setting in other areas of their life that they are too burned out to hear others; or they are simply too absorbed in their own needs and desires that they neglect others (a form of narcissism).
- Can’t Hear No – like the petulant 3 year old throwing a tantrum until she gets her way, this person never learned to accept the boundaries others have placed. Always rescued by family or surrounded by those who cave in and just do what they want, this person never learned to regulate their own emotions and take responsibility for their actions. They tend to be very controlling of others and to blame their problems on others.
- Can’t Hear Yes – this person is numb and/or closed off to others. She has built a concrete wall and won’t let anyone in. This often stems from fear of trusting and being hurt again for trauma survivors. This unfortunately shuts out all the good. This person is unable to ask for and accept help and support. She is unable to identify her own needs. She is alone, isolated, and depressed.
The 2 Biggest Boundary Problems:
Of the 4 types of boundary problems listed above, there are 2 that specifically plague survivors of trauma, abuse, and controlling environments:
Solution: Learn to Say No to the Bad
Many people who say yes to everyone (the people pleaser) often do so out of fear of retaliation/conflict or fear of losing the relationship/being alone. Attempts at setting a boundary while growing up, such as saying “no I don’t want to” was likely met with a loss of love and attention (e.g. the mother who withdraws her love and guilts the child into complying) or met with anger or abuse (e.g., the father who yells and punishes when you don’t comply). So this person learned to just go along with what others wanted. They are easily guilt tripped into doing things and over time they find themselves growing resentful and angry with others. They also overextend themselves, wear themselves out, and burnout. The goal here is to learn to say No to others who are controlling, using, and abusing you. Say no to the friend who only calls when she is in crisis and never has time to listen to you. Say no to the co-worker who always mismanages his time and asks you to “help” or “do a favor” and bail him out yet again. Say no to the sibling who is asking for your support at a time when you are at your wits end and have no more energy to give.
Solution: Learn to say Yes to the Good
Many people who say No to the good things in life often have been hurt so many times that they have just learned to close themselves off to others. They may have come from environments where help and support always came with strings attached, or where asking for support was met with ridicule or scorn. In an effort to close out all the bad in life (controlling, aggressive, and manipulative people) they also end up closing out all the good (supportive, replenishing friendships and relationships). The problem here is that growth and recovery requires support. You cannot learn how to set a healthy boundary by yourself. The goal here is to learn to say yes to the good. Say yes to the friend who asks you what is wrong and open up a little bit. Say yes to the coworker who invites you to have lunch together. Say yes to the sibling who is offering to bring something to the family gathering (so you don’t have to do it all).
Drs. Cloud and Townsend also do a good job of addressing many of the myths and fears that often stop people from trying to set healthy boundaries. The 3 most common ones are:
If I set boundaries, I’m being selfish.
Being selfish is when we focus on our own desires to the exclusion of others. The difference here is that setting a healthy boundary includes a consideration of others needs as well as our own needs. Healthy boundaries allow us to freely choose when to give others. A lack of boundaries leads us to give to others out of fear or compliance, not love. I liked the analogy the authors used of managing a store. Our lives are like a store. If we manage it well, with boundaries and saying no, the store will be successful. If we mismanage it, never say no, and let everyone who goes to the store do what they want or take what they want, the store will fail. We need to protect ourselves and learning to set boundaries is the first step; it is not being selfish.
If I set boundaries, I’m hurting others.
If others are not used to you setting a boundary, they will likely express hurt, anger, or disappointment when you finally decide to set a boundary with them. However, hurting someone is when you maliciously decide to do something that is detrimental to them. Setting a boundary is actually allowing the other person to learn how to take responsibility for themselves, an important part of maturing. The other person is responsible for their own feelings and responsible for the consequences of their actions. Setting a boundary is a defensive tool, you are protecting yourself, your resources, your energy. It is not an offensive tool used to hurt others.
If I set boundaries, I will get hurt.
The biggest fear is that if we set a boundary the other person will leave us, hurt us, and we’ll be alone. This is a possibility but if it happens it reveals the true nature of the relationship. Healthy relationships learn to respect and adapt to your boundaries, unhealthy relationships retaliate, manipulate, or leave when you start to set boundaries. This allows you to see your relationships for what they really are and it now gives you an opportunity to choose what types of relationships you want in your life. Keeping someone around only by your strict compliance to them (aka your complete lack of boundaries with them) is not a healthy relationship and will lead to depression, resentment, and burnout.
If you don’t mind the religious overtone of the book this is a great place to start learning about boundaries. I also especially enjoyed how they addressed common assumptions about what it means to be a “good Christian,” “submissive,” “humble,” and giving “selfless love” as these are all Christian tenets that some people use to prevent setting healthy boundaries but that is not what God intended for us.
I encourage you to check out the book from your local library! In fact many libraries even have the books available as ebooks for download! All of the books I have reviewed here I borrowed from my local city and county libraries.