A Christian Counselor’s Perspective on Healthy Boundaries, Part I
By Barney Armstrong, LMFTA, Seattle Christian Counseling
Principles from Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John TownsendIn our world around us, there are many examples of boundaries. We see stop signs, yield signs, walls, white picketed fences, hedges, traffic lanes – which are all physical boundaries. These physical boundaries indicate the beginning and ending of property. Also property usually implies there is an owner responsible for maintaining that property; for example, roads belong to the city and homes belong to the homeowners and these people are responsible to take care of this property.
These same concepts apply to the self and relationships. What is a personal boundary and what are the signs that we need to implement boundaries in our lives? This is the central question of the classic book Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. In this article I would like to look at what it means to have personal boundaries and why these are necessary for our health and growth.
Boundaries Indicate Ownership & Identity
Cloud and Townsend state, “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”(p. 35). In other words, your personal boundary lines define what is you and what is not you, just as property lines define a yard. Your personal boundary lines define what is your yard and what is your neighbor’s yard. Cloud and Townsend explain that understanding what you own and are accountable over, gives you a sense of freedom (p. 35). If you know where your yard is, you are free to do with it as you wish. Cloud and Townsend go further to state imagine how confusing it would be if someone told you to guard their property, but did not tell you where the property begins and ends. So what are you responsible for and what is within your control?
You are responsible for you. You are responsible for your own body, feelings, thoughts, spirit, choices, attitudes, values, talents, desires and behaviors. You are responsible for your health, to make good choices, to think positive thoughts and to have a good attitude.
Boundaries Offer Safety & Appropriate Limits
Boundaries also provide protection from danger and allow us to experience goodness. Boundaries often get confused with walls. Walls keep us closed off from receiving both good or bad. However, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the good in and keeping the bad out (p.38). For example, the doors in your home are there to keep intruders from coming in, but at the same time let friends enter. As a homeowner, you get to decide who enters your home. Imagine you own a house and inside that house are the things that are most precious to you. You are responsible for such things as keeping up the yard, house repairs, and furnishing that house, etc… You get to choose who comes to your house and how far you want to let them into your house. Some people, such as a thief, might not be allowed to come into the house. Some people are acquaintances who stay on the sidewalk—you might just wave to them from your porch. Some people might be allowed to come into the yard, others on the porch, and the closest of friends come inside. In sum, because you are responsible for you, you get to choose the people you want to share yourself with and chose the degree of intimacy you desire.
Boundaries establish limits. We must let people know when they are trespassing on our property. For example, when a husband physically abuses his wife that is a physical boundary being crossed. When a friend calls you a loser that is an emotional boundary that has been violated. What are your limits? Part of taking care of yourself and being responsible for yourself, is letting people know when they are have hurt you or trespassed on your property.
Examples of Setting Boundaries
There are many examples of ways we can set boundaries. Our physical self is a boundary. My body is mine and your body is yours and we are separate beings. Words are boundaries. Cloud and Townsend state, “you can create good protective fences with your words” (p.41). For example the words no and yes are a boundary setting words. Distance is also a boundary. By physically removing yourself from a negative situation you are creating a boundary of distance. Time away from a person or task can be a way to establish balance again and emotional distance is a way to repair from pain.
With setting boundaries there is always a risk of losing relationships. Because we were built for relationship, we need the support of loving, healthy people to help us set boundaries and say no to abuse. Relying on God’s strength and everlasting love and the support and wisdom from healthy relationships can help us make positive choices to set boundaries.
Signs of Boundary Issues & How Christian Counseling Can Help
Confusion over responsibility and ownership results in boundary troubles. When we start taking responsibility for someone else’s property such as their feelings, thoughts behaviors, etc., it is a warning sign. When you start controlling or feeling controlled this is red flag. Feeling hurt is also good indicator that your boundaries have been breached. Are you frequently tired, stress and burned out? Do you find resentment or bitterness creeping into your relationships? Do you have difficulty saying no? Are you feeling powerless? These are all symptoms of boundary problems and talking with a Christian counselor can help you locate where the boundary needs to be healed and give you the strength to regain ownership of your property or relinquish ownership that is not yours to control.
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“Beach Head” by Gualbeto107, “Heart Drawing On the Sand” by arztsamui, and “Primrose Flowers” by artur84