Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. – Proverbs 4:23
This is an exclusive excerpt from Boundaries, the landmark book that has sold more than millions copies and transformed millions of marriages, families, organizations, and individual lives. This book and small group study has helped people around the world find answers to tough questions, such as:
- How do I set limits and still be a loving person?
- What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries?
- Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider telling someone “no”?
- What can I do when someone wants more of my time, love, energy, or money than I’m comfortable giving?
What Do You Mean “Boundaries”?
from Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
The parents of a twenty-five-year-old man came to see me (Dr. Townsend) with a common request: they wanted me to “fix” their son, Bill. When I asked where Bill was, they answered, “Oh, he didn’t want to come.” “Why?” I asked.
“Well, he doesn’t think he has a problem,” they replied. “Maybe he’s right,” I said, to their surprise. “Tell me about it.” They recited a history of problems that had begun at a very young age. Bill had never been “quite up to snuff” in their eyes. In recent years he had exhibited problems with drugs and an inability to stay in school and find a career. It was apparent that they loved their son very much and were heartbroken over the way he was living. They had tried everything they knew to get him to change and live a responsible life, but all had failed. He was still using drugs, avoiding responsibility, and keeping questionable company.
They told me that they had always given him everything he needed. He had plenty of money at school so “he wouldn’t have to work and he would have plenty of time for study and a social life.” When he flunked out of one school, or stopped going to classes, they were more than happy to do everything they could to get him into another school, “where it might be better for him.”
After they had talked for a while, I responded: “I think your son is right. He doesn’t have a problem.”
You could have mistaken their expression for a snapshot; they stared at me in disbelief for a full minute. Finally the father said, “Did I hear you right? You don’t think he has a problem?”
“That’s correct,” I said. “He doesn’t have a problem. You do. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, no problem. You pay, you fret, you worry, you plan, you exert energy to keep him going. He doesn’t have a problem because you have taken it from him. Those things should be his problem, but as it now stands, they are yours. Would you like for me to help you help him to have some problems?”
They looked at me like I was crazy, but some lights were beginning to go on in their heads. “What do you mean, ‘help him to have some problems’?” his mother asked. “Well,” I explained, “I think that the solution to this problem would be to clarify some boundaries so that his actions cause him problems and not you.”
“What do you mean, ‘boundaries’?” the father asked. “Look at it this way. It is as if he’s your neighbor, who never waters his lawn. But, whenever you turn on your sprinkler system, your water only falls on his lawn. Your grass is turning brown and dying, but Bill looks down at his green grass and thinks to himself, ‘My yard is doing fine.’ That’s how your son’s life is. He doesn’t study, or plan, or work, yet he has a nice place to live, plenty of money, and all the rights of a family member who is doing his part.
“If you would define the property lines a little better, if you would fix the sprinkler system so that the water would fall on your lawn, and if he didn’t water his own lawn, he would have to live in dirt. He might not like that after a while.”
“As it stands now, he is irresponsible and happy, and you are responsible and miserable. A little boundary clarification would do the trick. You need some fences to keep his problems out of your yard and in his, where they belong.”
“Isn’t that a bit cruel, just to stop helping like that?” the father asked. “Has helping him helped?” I asked. His look told me that he was beginning to understand.
Invisible Property Lines and Responsibility
In the physical world, boundaries are easy to see. Fences, signs, walls, moats with alligators, manicured lawns, or hedges are all physical boundaries. In their differing appearances, they give the same message: THIS IS WHERE MY PROPERTY BEGINS. The owner of the property is legally responsible for what happens on his or her property. Non-owners are not responsible for the property.
Physical boundaries mark a visible property line that someone holds the deed to. You can go to the county courthouse and find out exactly where those boundaries of responsibility are and whom to call if you have business there.
In the spiritual world, boundaries are just as real, but often harder to see. Our goal is to help you define your intangible boundaries and to recognize them as an ever present reality that can increase your love and save your life. In reality, these boundaries define your soul, and they help you to guard it and maintain it (see Proverbs 4:23).
Me and Not Me
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. However, if I do not “own” my life, my choices and options become very limited.
Think how confusing it would be if someone told you to “guard this property diligently, because I will hold you responsible for what happens here,” and then did not tell you the boundaries of the property. Or they did not give you the means with which to protect the property? This would be not only confusing but also potentially dangerous. This is exactly what happens to us emotionally and spiritually, however. God designed a world where we all live “within” our- selves; that is, we inhabit our own souls, and we are responsible for the things that make up “us.” “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no one shares its joy” (see Proverbs 14:10). We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what that is. If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain.
The Bible tells us clearly what our parameters are and how to protect them, but often our family, or other past relationships, confuses us about our parameters. In addition to showing us what we are responsible for, boundaries help us to define what is not on our property and what we are not responsible for. We are not, for example, responsible for other people. Nowhere are we commanded to have “other-control,” although we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get it!
To and For
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. – Galatians 6:2-5
We are responsible to others and for ourselves. “Carry each other’s burdens,” says Galatians 6:2, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This verse shows our responsibility to one another.
Many times, others have “burdens” that are too big to bear. They do not have enough strength, resources, or knowledge to carry the load, and they need help.
Denying ourselves to do for others what they cannot do for themselves is showing the sacrificial love of Christ. This is what Christ did for us. He did what we could not do for ourselves; he saved us. This is being responsible “to.”
On the other hand, verse 5 says that “each one should carry his own load.” Everyone has responsibilities that only he or she can carry. These things are our own particular “load” that we need to take daily responsibility for and work out. No one can do certain things for us. We have to take ownership of certain aspects of life that are our own “load.” The Greek words for burden and load give us insight into the meaning of these texts. The Greek word for burden means “excess burdens,” or burdens that are so heavy that they weigh us down. These burdens are like boulders. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders—those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives.
In contrast, the Greek word for load means “cargo,” or “the burden of daily toil.” This word describes the everyday things we all need to do. These loads are like knapsacks. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own. We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the responsibilities God has given to each one of us, even though it takes effort.
Problems arise when people act as if their “boulders” are daily loads, and refuse help, or as if their “daily loads” are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry. The results of these two instances are either perpetual pain or irresponsibility.
Lest we stay in pain or become irresponsible, it is very important to determine what “me” is, where my boundary of responsibility is and where someone else’s begins. We will define what we are responsible for later in our book. For now let’s look more closely at the nature of boundaries.
Good In, Bad Out
Boundaries help us to distinguish our property so that we can take care of it. They help us to “guard our heart with all diligence.” We need to keep things that will nurture us inside our fences and keep things that will harm us outside. In short, boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. They guard our treasures (see Matthew 7:6) so that people will not steal them. They keep the pearls inside, and the pigs outside.
Sometimes, we have bad on the inside and good on the outside. In these instances, we need to be able to open up our boundaries to let the good in and the bad out. In other words, our fences need gates in them. For example, if I find that I have some pain or sin within, I need to open up and communicate it to God and others, so that I can be healed. Confessing pain and sin helps to “get it out” so that it does not continue to poison me on the inside (see 1 John 1:9; James 5:16; Mark 7:21-23).
And when the good is on the outside, we need to open our gates and “let it in.” Jesus speaks of this phenomenon in “receiving” him and his truth (see Revelation 3:20; John 1:12). Other people have good things to give us, and we need to “open up to them” (see 2 Corinthians 6:11-13). Often we will close our boundaries to good things from others, staying in a state of deprivation.
In short, boundaries are not walls. The Bible does not say that we are to be “walled off” from others; in fact, it says that we are to be “one” with them (see John 17:11). We are to be in community with them. But in every community, all members have their own space and property. The important thing is that property lines be permeable enough to allow passing and strong enough to keep out danger.
Often, when people are abused while growing up, they reverse the function of boundaries and keep the bad in and the good out. When Mary was growing up she suffered abuse from her father. She was not encouraged to develop good boundaries. As a result, she would close herself off, holding the pain inside; she would not open up to express her hurt and get it out of her soul. She also would not open up to let support from the outside in to heal her.
In addition, she would continually allow others to “dump” more pain into her soul. Consequently, when she came in for help, she was carrying a lot of pain, still being abused, and “walled off” from support from the outside.
She had to reverse the ways her boundaries worked. She needed fences that were strong enough to keep the bad out and gates in those fences to let out the bad already in her soul and let in the good she desperately needed.
The concept of boundaries comes from the very nature of God. God defines himself as a distinct, separate being, and he is responsible for himself. He defines and takes responsibility for his personality by telling us what he thinks, feels, plans, allows, will not allow, likes, and dislikes.
He also defines himself as separate from his creation and from us. He differentiates himself from others. He tells us who he is and who he is not. For example, he says that he is love and that he is not darkness (see 1 John 4:16; 1:6).
In addition, he has boundaries within the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one, but at the same time they are distinct persons with their own boundaries. Each one has his own personhood and responsibilities, as well as a connection and love for one another (see John 17:24).
God also limits what he will allow in his yard. He confronts sin and allows consequences for behavior. He guards his house and will not allow evil things to go on there. He invites people in who will love him, and he lets his love flow outward to them at the same time. The “gates” of his boundaries open and close appropriately. In the same way he gave us his “likeness” (see Genesis 1:26), he gave us personal responsibility within limits. He wants us to “rule and subdue” the earth and to be responsible stewards over the life he has given us. To do that, we need to develop boundaries like God’s.
What’s Within My Boundaries?
The story of the Good Samaritan is a model of correct behavior in many dimensions. It is a good illustration of boundaries—when they should be both observed and violated. Imagine for a moment how the story might read if the Samaritan were a boundaryless person. You know the story. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was mugged. The robbers stripped him and beat him, leaving him half dead. A priest and Levite passed by on the other side of the road, ignoring the hurt man, but a Samaritan took pity on him, bandaged his wounds, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Samaritan gave the innkeeper some money and said, “Look after him. When I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
Let’s depart from the familiar story here. Suppose the injured man wakes up at this point in the story and says:
“What? You’re leaving?”
“Yes, I am. I have some business in Jericho I have to attend to,” the Samaritan replies. “Don’t you think you’re being selfish? I’m in pretty bad shape here. I’m going to need someone to talk to. How is Jesus going to use you as an example? You’re not even acting like a Christian, abandoning me like this in my time of need! Whatever happened to ‘Deny yourself’?”
“Why, I guess you’re right,” the Samaritan says. “That would be uncaring of me to leave you here alone. I should do more. I will postpone my trip for a few days.” So he stays with the man for three days, talking to him and making sure that he is happy and content. On the afternoon of the third day, there’s a knock at the door and a messenger comes in. He hands the Samaritan a message from his business contacts in Jericho: “Waited as long as we could. Have decided to sell camels to another party. Our next herd will be here in six months.”
“How could you do this to me?” the Samaritan screams at the recovering man, waving the message in the air. “Look what you’ve done now! You’ve caused me to lose those camels that I needed for my business. Now I can’t deliver my goods. This may put me out of business! How could you do this to me?”
At some level this story may be familiar to all of us. We may be moved with compassion to give to someone in need, but then this person manipulates us into giving more than we want to give. We end up resentful and angry, having missed something we needed in our own life. Or, we may want more from someone else, and we pressure them until they give in. They give not out of their heart and free will, but out of compliance, and they resent us for what they give. Neither one of us comes out ahead.
To avoid these scenarios, we need to look at what falls within our boundaries, what we are responsible for. But taking care of what lies within our boundaries isn’t easy; neither is allowing other people to take care of what lies within their boundaries. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is hard work. But, as you’ll see in our book, the benefits are always worth it.
Boundaries make life better.
In what area of your life do you need to set more boundaries? At work, with your kids, with your family, or in your marriage? Where would you like to set more limits in your relationships?