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Am I Having “Boundary” Trouble?

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By Cara Jones, LCPC and Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor
Stenzel Clinical Services

Stressed out? Tired? Angry? Short-tempered with the kids or spouse? Do you over-commit, have trouble saying ‘no’, or promise to take care of yourself when everything else is done? Do you feel responsible when others are upset? Must you always be the one to smooth it over?

If any of these describe you with regularity, you may be having difficulty drawing and holding healthy boundaries in your life. ‘Boundary…’ it’s a term we hear, but what does it really mean? The term has been given a variety of definitions all conveying the idea of delineating our responsibility and control from that of others. The boundary material I reference most often is that of Henry Cloud and John Townsend who have written the classic Boundaries (1992) book, as well as a subsequent series of more targeted applications to marriage, child-rearing, and dating (all of which I also highly recommend). They use the term boundary to ‘define what is me and what is not me. It leads to a sense of ownership for my own life and choices. It is permeable to let good in but strong enough to keep bad out. I have a need to back them up with consequences.’ (Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend 1992).

There are 4 general patterns of boundary problems as categorized by Cloud and Townsend. Can you match these up? Which are you?

Do you..
.. fear hurting other’s feelings with your “no”?
.. fear other’s anger from your ‘no’?
.. consider saying ‘no’ bad or selfish? Do you fear being perceived as such?

.. have trouble recognizing your own needs?
.. asking for help?
.. letting others in?

.. have trouble taking responsibility for your own life?
. .fear you will be abandoned if you stop threatening people?

.. have trouble hearing the needs of others?
.. have trouble attending to the ‘responsibilities of love’?

A. Controller: Doesn’t respect others’ boundaries. Resists taking responsibility for own life so needs to control others. Perceived as bully. Can’t make others feel guilty and also receive their love.

B. Avoidant: Says “no” to the good. Generally, doesn’t have boundaries where they are needed and has boundaries where they shouldn’t. (ie. sets boundaries against receiving love and care from others).

C. Nonresponsive: doesn’t hear the needs of others.

D. Compliant: Says “yes” to the bad. Emotional radar may be broken. Sacrificial (compliance with resentment), feels guilty or controlled by others.

Often those that tend to be avoidant and complaint seek counseling help because of symptoms of anxiety, depression, or relational problems. When this idea of boundaries is presented, sometimes clients (and perhaps you) ask some good questions. Aren’t I being selfish by saying ‘no’? Don’t I always have to explain my reason and have someone understand it in order to disagree/say no/do it differently? What if someone gets mad at me? Doesn’t it make me a terrible wife/mom if I put a need of mine before my husband/child’s? Women are typically prone to struggle in this area due both to our high need for relationship (which means we’re often tempted to do a lot to get and/or keep it) and our belief that our role as homemakers, wives and mothers automatically puts our own needs at the bottom of the list. In the Christian community, there is the added confusion of what ‘sacrifice’ means in our daily existence.

The hard work of therapy takes each of these questions seriously and unpacks what experiences formed a client’s beliefs about these things. I find when clients learn what boundaries really are and aren’t, and the invaluable tool they are to our health, clients become highly motivated to carefully dismantle this belief structure, examine it, challenge it, and experiment with new ways of relating with self and others. When using healthy boundaries, there’s freedom! I can make the choices I want to make for my own life, and I can let others do the same. I can recognize that I am valuable and taking care of myself by exercising, sleeping, having downtime for recreation or relaxation are all important to my well-being and actually make me more available to others. I can break the chains of guilt I live with every day when I’m drowning under obligation, duty and lack of self-care or when I’m angry because ‘life’ and others around me aren’t all doing as I want! Increased freedom and peace await you on the other side of this journey through the boundary-building process. Please call if we may assist you.