By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Seattle Christian Counseling, PLLC
References “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
The best way to send a wayward person back toward the straight and narrow is to stop giving them a ride. What do I mean be this? You must take stock of how you make it easier for them to slack off, and then plan how to stop. Nagging and sulking alone will not convince someone to pursue treatment.
How to stop enablingIn their book, “Boundaries” Cloud and Townsend use the example of a couple that comes in for help with their lazy son. They did not understand why he was not motivated to go to school or get a job or show any willingness to take on adult responsibilities. The authors countered asking why he would want to do any of these things when he could live at home, all expenses paid, without lifting a finger. (30)
The problem here is a lack of healthy boundaries. There is no guilt quite like denying a loved one. Parents feel neglectful for prodding their children to become more independent. So they make over the basement to house their 30-year-old child. Spouses feel cruel for not softening the blow when their addict spouse incurs yet another consequence. So they call their spouse’s boss to say they are too sick (hungover) to come into work, yet again.
If you truly want to help your sluggish child to become independent, or convince your substance abusing loved one to seek treatment, it’s time for some tough love.
Develop healthy boundaries
By tough love I do not mean reminding them what a disappointment they are. Insulting someone only makes them feel worse about themselves, which they then usually try to ameliorate by lazing around even more or self-medicating with the source of their addiction. Continue to love them, but take a step back to examine how you might be enabling their self-destructive behavior. Establish healthy boundaries.
What is a boundary? The authors describe a personal boundary like a property marker. It is meant to mark what is your responsibility to look after, and to make others cognizant of what area they should respect. Boundaries are not walls (although some exceptions may be made for people would abuse you). “The important thing is that property lines be permeable enough to allow passing and strong enough to keep out danger.” (34)
How do you create a boundary? You need to assess what is your responsibility, and what is not. Galatians 6 offers helpful distinctions. Verse two describes when you should help others, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The authors explain that, in the original translation, the word “burdens” means a load too heavy for one person to carry. We show love and generosity when we deny ourselves for the sake of helping them with a task too difficult for them– such as nurturing an infant child, or driving a disabled person to church.
However, verse five tells us when to stand back, “for each one should carry their own load.” The authors refer to the original translation again, wherein the word “load” means something different from “burden.” It refers to something an adult can handle independently. It is not a license to be a Scrooge, rather to prohibit others from taking advantage of you.
Why you should set boundaries
Boundaries are healthy for both sides. They keep the builder from being taken advantage of, and they teach the encroacher how to treat others. Revisiting the example of the overprotective parents– they thought they were helping their son by creating such a secure safety net, but they were just making it easy for him to mooch. He had no incentive to help out because he was getting all the benefits for free. The parents went for counseling because they thought their son had problems, but he didn’t. It was the parents who had the problems. Which is why the authors suggested they started making problems for their son– taking measures such as requiring he get a job if he wants to continue living at home, or asking for a contribution to the cost of food or housing.
It goes the same for family members of addicts. Nagging and sulking will not help your loved one see the light. Refusing to enable their behavior will. They are an adult. You cannot physically stop them from using, but you can find ways to make it more difficult for them. If they puke in the bed, leave it for them to clean up. Are they too hungover to go into work? Let them call in sick. Refuse to be around them when they are high.
God created each one of us with a finite amount of energy, time, and talents. Part of establishing healthy boundaries is identifying and respecting your limits. He did not intend for us to agree to every human request. You need to step back from your life, and be honest about what you do not have time for.
Examples of areas that need boundaries:
- Your kids have so many activities you feel like a taxi service. Scaling down might be a welcome relief for them too.
- Relatives who drop by unannounced, demanding your attention. Maybe you have a widowed parented who uses their loneliness to guilt you into dropping everything for them.
- Work responsibilities. It can be intimidating to establish boundaries at work. You worry your reputation will suffer. But taking on too many projects means your performance will suffer, which can be just as damaging.
Christian counseling for building boundaries
People will not like it when you begin to build your boundaries. They are used to having you pick up their slack. They will resist. Be strong. No one has the right to demand you do their work in addition to your own. You have the right, and obligation, to take care of yourself. If you burn out, you will be no good to anyone.
They can help you differentiate between selfishness and biblical boundaries. A professional Christian counselor will use therapeutic principles supported by scripture to help you learn what is and is not your responsibility.
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