What are Boundaries?

My husband and I bought a house in January of this year. It has been exhausting but fun to remodel and make it our own. One item on our to-do list has been to get a fence built for our backyard. Most of our neighbors have fences, so we only need a small amount to make a complete boundary line. One reason, among many, we want to complete our fence is so that we can freely let our dog out and not have to watch him. He is pretty good about staying within the boundaries of our yard, but if he sees a person or another dog, he will often cross that line to get to them. He knows his boundaries, somewhat, but those boundary lines often get blurred when there is a distraction or lack of ability to recognize when he steps over those lines.

As a therapist, I have found this to be true of people as well. Many times, the individuals I interact with come in feeling exhausted, broken, and hurt, which is often related to a lack of boundaries in their lives. Sometimes it can be for the simple reason that no one has taught them what boundaries look like or how to begin setting them and for others it is a fear of what will happen in relationships when those boundary lines are set.

There is a great book called Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. I often refer it to many of the individuals I meet with because it outlines very clearly what boundaries are, issues with no boundaries, how to set boundaries, and what boundaries look like in various places of life such as work, family, friendships, etc. In the book it states, “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. 31). It is learning about what we are to take responsibility for as well as help us define what we are not responsible for.

One thing I have found many people fear about boundaries is that it means putting up walls. It is not about building walls but being in a community where everyone has their own property lines. Some examples given in the book regarding boundaries are skin, words, truth, geographical distance, time, emotional distance, other people, and consequences. These are clear lines that are drawn of which we are not responsible for. However, there are things that fall within our boundary lines of which we are responsible for including feelings, attitudes and beliefs, behaviors, choices, values, limits, talents, thoughts, desires, and love.

Boundaries are not something that are inherited. They must be developed, nurtured, grown, and taught. When individuals lack the nurturing and growth of boundaries as a child, they must learn to be developed as an adult. This may be challenging but is absolutely possible. Cloud and Townsend state that “No matter how much you talk to yourself, read, study, or practice, you can’t develop boundaries apart from supportive relationships with God and others. Don’t even try to start setting limits until you have entered into deep, abiding attachments with people who will love you no matter what” (p. 66).

If you find yourself exhausted and struggling to say no it may be because you have not set appropriate boundaries in your life. I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and build healthy relationships around you, but especially with God, as you learn to set healthy boundaries. Just like with my dog, the boundary lines may get blurred, or you may get distracted from time to time, but ultimately these boundaries you set will keep you safe and allow you to feel more relaxed in your relationships.

Excerpts from “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

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