Do you ever feel like your life is out of control and you don’t have much to say about it? You feel obligated to help others or feel overwhelmed by daily life demands at the risk of harming yourself? When I say harming yourself, I am talking about being stressed, tired, irritable, frustrated, anxious and even angry. There can be an internal conflict of knowing that you cannot add one more thing to your life—but you do. When we don’t understand our responsibilities and set limits for ourselves we can end up, in trying to help others, harming ourselves. We also can over-commit or go against ourselves and our beliefs and values. We can get confused with how to integrate limits in our lives and what the Bible tells us about being loving and unselfish.
We all need boundaries in our lives, though often that can be quite a challenging undertaking. How can I say no to my family, my church, my friends, my work, or even to myself? And what is a boundary anyway? One way I have heard it described is the example of a fence around you, a property line. It’s a limit. I will only go so far and someone else can only come so close. We can set limits in our lives and feel that it’s OK to do so. We can have some say in what we believe we are responsible for, or what we want in our lives and what we do not want. We can allow what gets close to us, and make decisions about our responsibilities and self control. We are all responsible for ourselves and where our limits lie.
There are different kinds of boundaries such as physical boundaries that include who, when, and how others touch us or we touch others; spiritual boundaries that help us know our will versus God’s will for us; mental boundaries that allow us to think and own our beliefs; and emotional boundaries that allow us to feel what we need to feel without guilt or shame, and without allowing others to tell us how we should feel.
A common example of lack of boundaries is being over-obligated. Trying to be everything and do everything that others may want or expect can be exhausting and impossible. There can be fear in setting rules, and belief that setting limits is not legitimate or appropriate. The fear that someone may not like the rule or be hurt by it can keep us in the pattern of giving in when we don’t want to.
I think of the example of a married couple who doesn’t set boundaries for themselves in the marriage. They have not thought about nor discussed what would be appropriate boundaries for their marriage. An example is how the couple will include others, such as friendships with the opposite sex. They begin to have problems in the marriage and develop closer relationships with opposite sex friends, talking with them about the marital problems, sharing personal information, getting and receiving comfort, support, and encouragement, and drawing away from their spouse. They are talking with their friends about the marital problems rather than talking and trying to work through them with each other. The next thing they know, they are trying to understand how the affair could have happened. It wasn’t something they believed in or would ever have seen themselves doing. Where do they go from here? It can be a very painful process.
In the book , Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend explain that only when both partners know and respect each other’s choices, needs and freedom, can one give freely to the other. Respect, affirmation, intimacy and mutual care are important. These abilities are key in setting boundaries for marriage.
Oftentimes we believe we must not set limits because that would be selfish and unloving. To set up effective boundaries is necessary to improve mind, body and soul health as well as our relationships with others. Being able to make our own decisions and be assertive in expressing them helps maintain some needed limits in our lives. As Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:15, we are to speak the truth in love.
Successful boundaries are when we can say yes or no, and in making either choice, we can be content with our decision.
Patricia Hall, Staff Counselor, EdS., LMFT, LPC
Boundaries When to Say YES and When to Say NO to Take Control of Your Life; and Boundaries in Marriage. Authors: Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend