Add Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend to your list of required reading. Do it. I don’t mean to be pushy (I do), but it will change your life.
Let me explain.
Boundaries are what makes us, us. My boundaries make me, me. Your boundaries make you, you.
Boundaries keep in what you want (values, ideals, tastes), and keep out what you don’t want (toxicity, shaming, harmful people/ideas). They do this because they define you.
If you don’t have boundaries, you’re likely exhausted, stressed out, angry, guilted, depressed, or anxious. How do I know? I’ve been all of those things because of my lack of boundaries.
Lack of Boundaries
The authors give many examples of people living with a lack of boundaries. Examples range from taking on projects for coworkers that aren’t your responsibility, keeping a friend who continually makes passive aggressive negative remarks about you, to letting your family guilt you into doing things you don’t want or staying with a partner who repeatedly breaks promises.
Having no boundaries mean you hold yourself responsible for other people’s feelings. You may refuse to spend Thanksgiving with your family and they react badly, either in anger, sadness, or disappointment. A person without boundaries would feel guilty and think that they had caused the emotion.
Now, if you agree with that statement (that you cause that emotion when you do something), you really need to read this book. If you didn’t agree, great! You’re already on your way to having healthy boundaries. Maybe you shook your head over anyone who would feel responsible for anyone else’s reaction.
Well, I did for years. YEARS. Every time someone got upset with my actions, I thought it was MY fault. As though I had the power to control the moods of everyone around me. I became terrified of conflict, a subordinate people-pleaser, and a very secretive person, in that I rarely voiced any opinion that I knew my friends or family wouldn’t agree with.
You get used to it though. It’s not like I felt bad all the time, or I would have changed. One thing I’ve learned in therapy is that we do things for a good reason (or what our brains think is a good reason). Depression, anxiety, denial; these all do what they’re meant to and protect us from a painful emotion. The problem though isn’t the emotion. (Read more about that in my review of Emotional Agility.)
The problem is that you cannot control other people. You only control yourself. You make choices, and people will react. Now reverse this. Other people are not responsible for your emotions either. That customer yelled at you and you got furious? Justified? Probably. But did you have to? No. You have great power over yourself. You can choose to respond calmly. This does not mean becoming a doormat. Personally, in that instance, what I would ideally like to do is firmly tell the person that I won’t deal with them if they treat me in a rude manner, and either ask them to leave or seek a manager. I wouldn’t allow it, but I wouldn’t let myself get out of control either.
Let’s say your partner breaks their promise to stay on budget for the fifth time in a week. You’ve had it, and you get angry, hurt, and ready to leave them once and for all. They made you so angry. Justified? Probably. But again, you have power over yourself. You can get angry, cry, storm out and never see them again, or you can have that serious and painful conversation and let them know that until they get themselves straightened out, you won’t be seeing them, and until they can prove they’ve made lasting change, you two are over.
The above are all examples of relationships with poorly defined or absent boundaries. So what do good ones look like?
A healthy boundary is like a fence with a gate. First, let’s look at the fence. A fence defines property, and in this case, it’s defining what is our responsibility and what is not our responsibility. Our actions and values are ours – your actions, reactions, thoughts, opinions, and ideas are yours. It’s important to have that fence to make sure we know when someone is overstepping boundaries with us, as in the case of a coworker asking another coworker to do something for them even when they aren’t able to.
But a good boundary must have a gate. It must be able to let in good things and let bad things out. Many people have very good fences with no gates, and keep themselves locked up tightly, becoming stubborn, rude, abrasive and lonely as they struggle to let anyone or anything in.
Other people have no fence at all and allow every person to dictate what they need to do and what to believe and how to act, effectively taking over that person’s property and soul.
A healthy boundary is telling your mother she can’t keep spoiling your children by letting them do things they aren’t allowed to at home (and not feeling guilty when she gets hurt by this). A healthy boundary is not letting a date kiss you even if they’ve paid for dinner and you feel you “owe” them something (warning; you don’t owe anyone anything).
There are lots of examples of good boundaries, and the book gives very clear and practical guidelines on how to establish and maintain good boundaries.
I learned a lot of things over my year of building boundaries. One of the first things I learned was to say no. It was really hard. I’m a people pleaser, and also an INFJ/HSP, which means conflict, even among other people, is physically painful for me. I always said yes, let people have their own way, and did what other people wanted because I didn’t want to rock the boat into a potential dive.
I accepted requests from my boss to edit things or make things that were not in my job description even when I was overwhelmed because I didn’t know I could say no to my boss. I didn’t know I could have a calm conversation about priorities and my needs in the workplace.
I let men touch me when dating when I wasn’t comfortable with it and felt guilty when I did say something because I felt like I owed them something for taking me out.
I let friends influence me in negative ways because I was too afraid of losing them to point out how uncomfortable their choices and conversation made me.
Learning to say no has been hard. Another thing the book mentions is how often people swing to an extreme of defiance when they start building boundaries. For people who’ve continually denied themselves for other people, the backlash can cause a swing to the other extreme of always saying no, and this is okay. You need to go through this process of ridding yourself of the bad boundaries before you can learn to discriminate what should be coming through your gate.
I’m still in the defiant mode, saying no a lot just to practice. I’m okay with this, because I still often find myself feeling responsible for how people react to my decisions.
It’s an ongoing process, and I’m sure it is for most people, but this book was another one that really changed how I looked at my life. I came to realize that I had no healthy boundaries and that I needed to start on a path to making them.
I encourage you to read the book. This felt like a really short review simply because the book is so dense with good stuff, and there was no way I could cover everything, but I hope I’ve given you some motivation to evaluate your own boundaries.
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling responsible for other people’s emotions or feeling out of control of your own life, or like you aren’t allowed to make your own decisions, please read this book!