Main Idea: Boundaries are limits that determine what we will allow into our lives and what we will keep out of our lives. Effective boundaries are selectively permeable as boundaries that are too weak let the bad in and boundaries that are too strong keep the good out. You can only set boundaries around things that are in your control as you must accept what you cannot change or control. There are 10 rules you can use to help you set boundaries and avoid the myths of boundary setting.
I. What are Boundaries?
Boundaries define who you are by differentiating what is me and what is not me. A failure to understand, respect and maintain proper boundaries leads to all sorts of problems that interfere with our functioning. Problems arise when people fail to recognize what is in their control or they try to control what they don’t have control over. An excellent book on this topic is called “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Many of the principles that I will discuss are derived from their work.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he taught them that each individual was responsible to bear his own load but was also responsible to help others with their burdens. In Galatians 6: 2-4 we read:
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden.” (Gal 6: 2-4)
The Greek word for burden means “excess” while the word for load means “burden of daily toil.” Paul taught that everyone is responsible to take care of the everyday things that we all need to do. However, when excess burdens fall upon a person then that person is entitled to help from other people. Learning to differentiate between loads and burdens is essential to be able to function effectively in the world. Problems arise when people act like their loads are burdens which leads to perpetual irresponsibility. Treating our burdens as loads also leads to other problems such as perpetual pain and stress.
Without boundaries there could be no life as there would be no distinction between ideas or things. Boundaries are everywhere but here are just a few examples for your consideration:
1. Skin: Skin serves as the boundary between the external world and our internal anatomy. Like any boundary, skin functions to keep the good in and the bad out. It protects your blood and bones but opens to allow food in and to excrete metabolic waste.
2. Words: Our words act as boundaries as they signal what we will allow and what we will not allow. Many people struggle with using their words to establish boundaries but the most basic boundary setting word is “no.” If we don’t learn to set boundaries then other people will use and abuse us.
3. Truth: Reality sets boundaries on our behaviors as natural laws lead to natural consequences. The law of gravity puts boundaries on our upward movement and doesn’t change based on how we feel about the law. Many people fail to recognize and respect the natural boundaries that exist in reality and try to change the consequences of their behaviors.
4. Geography: Nature has established boundaries around what places are habitable and which are not. Nations set boundaries by defining their borders. You can also use physical space to set boundaries around what is permissible in areas you have control of. Paul taught the Corinthian Saints to separate themselves from those who do not keep God’s law and to establish clear boundaries. (2 Cor 6: 17)
5. Time: You can use time to set boundaries by establishing how long you will engage in or abstain from certain activities or behaviors.
6. Emotional Distance: You can choose whether to emotionally invest in something or not. You can set boundaries by not attaching to certain people, things or outcomes.
7. Consequences: A consequence is a boundary that you have set that is implemented when certain conditions are met. If someone begins yelling at you then you can implement the consequence of leaving the situation to communicate your boundary.
II. What is within my control?
Establishing boundaries is about recognizing what is in your control and what is not in your control. Trying to control what you cannot control is an exercise in futility that will lead to excess suffering. Below is a list of some of the things you have reasonable influence over:
1. Emotions: In many cases you have long-term control over how often and in what circumstances you will experience emotions. Nobody can “make” you feel anything as you can choose to escalate or deescalate automatic emotional responses. Your automatic emotional responses are also influenced by the habits you have ingrained in the subconscious over long periods of time.
2. Attitudes and Beliefs: You control what you accept to be true or false and the attitude you will adopt toward certain things. Many people with boundary problems blame other people for the feelings, beliefs and attitudes that they personally experience.
3. Behaviors: You control how you will behave over the long-term of your life. While momentary responses may be habitual, you are responsible for what habits you build into your character. In Galatians 6: 7 we learn about the law of the harvest which states: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This means that all behaviors have consequences that cannot be changed or avoided. While you control your behavior, you do not control the inevitable consequences of that behavior.
4. Choices: You control the decisions that you make. While you often cannot control the opportunities or threats in your environment you can choose how you will respond to them. You can also choose between good and evil.
5.Values:You are responsible for what you choose to value and prioritize in your life. Your values guide your choices and behaviors.
6. Limits: You can limit how often you are around certain people. God sets standards but lets people be who they are and then separates himself from them when they misbehave, saying “You can be that way if you choose, but you cannot come into my house.” We should separate ourselves from people who act in destructive ways (Matt 18:15‐17; 1 Cor. 5:9‐13).
7. Talents‐ While you can’t control the genetic gifts you have been given, you can choose whether to develop them or not.
8. Thoughts: While you cannot control every thought, you can control how you will respond to each thought. Do not try to suppress thoughts but instead accept them and nurture the productive ones.
III. What is not within my control?
Boundary problems and much suffering arises when you attempt to ignore boundaries and control what is not controllable. The following is a list of things that the scriptures tell us is not in our control:
a.) Gender: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Moses 2: 26-27)
b.) Human Nature: We cannot control the fallen nature of our bodies nor that we will be subject to afflictions, sin, temptation and evil. ( See Beliefs about Human Nature)
c.) Nature of the World: We cannot control the nature of the fallen world that we live in nor do we have power over how others will abuse their freedom. (See Fallen nature of the world)
c.) Behaviours or Beliefs of Other People: It is not within our power to control other people’s behaviours or beliefs. When Jesus performed His miracles, He was unable to control how others would react to them. The people attributed His exorcisms to the power of devil, and complained that His healing miracles were done on the Sabbath day.
d.) Commandments and Laws of this world and their consequences: We cannot control the consequences for choosing good or evil. Sin will always lead to a host of negative consequences and righteousness will always result in blessings whether we like it or not.
e.) Negotiating the terms of salvation: We are utterly powerless to save ourselves from death and hell. God is no respecter of persons and any who achieve salvation do so through obedience to unwavering law. (See Soteriology)
f.) The destiny and fate of nations: The Lord gives each nation their inheritance and sets their boundaries.
- “When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.” (Deut 32:8)
- The Lord ultimately controls who is in charge: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1)
g.) Moral Agency of others: Whether one accepts the Gospel or not is out of our control. See the Parable of the Growing Seed.
h.) The bounds and parameters of our lives. God determines the lengths of our lives and death is certain: “Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass.” (Job 14:5)
i.) Genetics and the limitations of our bodies: None of us can control the genes we have inherited nor the expression of those genes in terms of our personality, health, appearance, weight, height, etc… “
- We are as clay and God is like a potter who molds clay in His hand: “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)
j.) The will of God: Ultimately, the will of God will be done and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Herod tried in vain to kill Jesus and went so far as to execute every child in the region. However, his bounds were set and he could not pass. Jesus was protected by Angels. (From Nativity of Jesus)
k.) Our Foreordained life missions: Those in the church are foreordained to holy callings before they were born: “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (2 Tim 1:9)
- Jonah could not escape the consequences of fleeing his life mission. (Book of Jonah)
l.) The natural laws of the system within which we exist: God gives to all intelligence truth within which they are free to act, otherwise there is no existence: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” (D&C 93: 30)
- We all must have bounds placed upon the spheres within which we live otherwise chaos results. Men have different bounds placed on them compared to beasts or even the elements of the earth.
IV. Boundary Problems
Fundamentally, boundaries allow you to keep the good in and the bad out. When you don’t have effective boundaries, you keep the good from coming into your life and welcome the bad to stay. Cloud and Townsend observed that people tend to adopt a typical boundary style that will be outlined below.
1. Compliant: People who are compliant have a hard time saying no and say yes to the bad things that are harmful. Compliant people have boundaries that are too permeable. These people often comply out of fear and not out of love. They fear hurting other people, being abandoned, making others angry, being seen as selfish or experiencing guilt. As a result, these people become dependent on other people.
2. Avoidant: People who are avoidant have rigid boundaries and often say no to the good things in life. They have trouble asking for help, recognizing the needs of others and letting people in. Avoidant people tend to withdraw when in need and do not find support.
3. Compliant Avoidant: These people have reversed boundaries as they both keep the bad in and the good out. They erect boundaries where they shouldn’t and they fail to create boundaries where they should.
4. Controller: Controller’s are people who cannot respect other people’s boundaries and attempt to ignore them. These people are experienced as bullies, manipulators and aggressors. Taken to the extreme, these types of people can become physically and verbally abusive. Manipulative controllers try to talk people out of their boundaries using guilt messages. Controller’s typically have poor frustration tolerance and lack the ability to delay gratification. Controllers believe they are entitled to other people’s labor
5. Non-Responsive: People who are nonresponsive do not pay attention to the needs of others and their own responsibilities to them.
Ultimately, it is difficult to set good boundaries when you do not have secure attachments to people who show you unconditional love. Setting limits on people that don’t respect your boundaries creates the risk that you will lose the relationship. However, to not set boundaries is to forever remain a prisoner to the other person’s desires.
V. The Ten Laws of Boundary Setting
1. Law of Sowing and Reaping: This is the basic law of cause and effect which states that for every action there is a consequence. Boundary problems arise when others step in to try and rescue a person from the natural consequences of their actions. The rescuer becomes an “enabler” who bears the consequences of the persons actions preventing the person from seeing the full consequences of his actions. Proverbs teaches us to confront people when they are irresponsible. (Prov 9: 8)
2. The Law of Responsibility‐We are each responsible for ourselves and not for anyone else. However, we are responsible to show love to other people helping with their burdens and limiting sin. (Prov 19:19)
3. The Law of Power: The Serenity prayer is a prayer to clarify boundaries. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” You cannot change others but you can influence them and you can change yourself so that you aren’t manipulated by the destructive behaviors of others. While your power is limited, you have the power to submit to God who can exercise all power on your behalf.
4. The Law of Respect: You are responsible for respecting the boundaries that other people set and not judging them according to how you would set boundaries. You need to accept the freedom that other people have and not get angry or make the feel guilty or unloved for setting boundaries.
5. The Law of Motivation: When you decide to relax your boundaries and give it should be done out of love and not fear. Common motivations for giving include: getting love, avoiding anger, avoiding loneliness, avoiding guilt or gaining approval. If your giving does not produce joy then you need to examine your motives for giving.
6. The Law of Evaluation: You need to constantly be evaluating the effects that your boundaries are having in your life and make modifications when necessary. Sometimes things that seem good (junk food) are really harming you and sometimes things that seem hard are for your benefit. Judge everything by the long-term effect it has on your life.
7. The Law of Proactivity: This law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Proactive people are known by what they love and strive for while reactive people are known by what they hate and stand against. You need to learn how to proactively strive for good things instead of reacting against things you dislike.
8. The Law of Envy: When you are envious you are defining what other people have as “good” and denying the good that you currently have. Envy guarantees that you will never be happy as other people will always have things that you do not have. Envy focuses outside of your own boundaries into the boundaries of others and on what you cannot control. Envy can be a sign to you that you are lacking something so you can consider if there is a healthy way for you to obtain it and if it is truly necessary.
9. The Law of Activity: Boundary problems can arise from a lack of initiative and a passive lifestyle. The parable of the talents teaches us to be proactive and assertive instead of reactive and passive. You should be actively trying and failing, as this is simply learning, instead of not trying at all which will ensure your boundaries are either too rigid or too permeable.
10. The Law of Exposure: You need to communicate and make your boundaries visible to other people instead of setting secret boundaries that you try to passive-aggressively reinforce. If you are feeling resentful then that is a sign that one of your boundaries has been crossed and you need to communicate to the other person before bitterness consumes you.
VI. Boundary Myths
1. If I set boundaries, I’m being selfish: Appropriate boundaries will actually increase your capacity to care for others in the long-term. Poor boundaries leads to resentment, fatigue and burnout which is costly to those we love.
2. If I begin setting boundaries, I will be hurt by others: Others who truly love you will respect your boundaries while those who are are using you as a tool for their own gain will not. If you do lose a relationship because of setting boundaries then the cost of that relationship was your entire identity and soul.
3. If I set boundaries, I will hurt others: You aren’t responsible for meeting every need that other people have. God has no problem telling us no so we should not feel guilty about setting reasonable boundaries with others. If saying no to another person leads to devastation, you may have an idolatrous relationship with that person as only God should be indispensable in your life. Once you can’t say no to somebody, you have given them complete control over your life.
4. If I set boundaries, I will feel guilty: Sometimes people do favors for us so we feel obligated not to say no. However, if the person feels angry when you say no they are giving you loans and not gifts. If someone gives you something and gratitude is all they seek then they have given you a gift.
5. Reactively setting boundaries is healthy: It is best to try and respond to boundary breaking instead of reacting to it. When you react you automatically behave in a way that suggests the other person is in control of you. When you respond, you take time to think before acting and are truly in control.
6. I can control the boundaries of other people: Healthy boundaries are about yourself and not another person. Even when asking others to respect your boundaries you are saying what you will do and not what the other person must do when a boundary is broken. Boundaries without consequences are not boundaries. You must decide if you are willing to enforce the consequences before you set the boundaries.
7. Passive boundaries are effective: Passive boundaries include withdrawing, triangulating, whining, having affairs or any other passive-aggressive behavior. These behaviors are all destructive and never lead to increased intimacy.
8. Forgiveness means not setting boundaries: Forgiveness is about setting boundaries on your bitterness towards someone else and is not to be conflated with reconciliation. When you forgive you let go of your own hatred and stop seeking vengeance against those who have wronged you. However, this doesn’t mean you continue a relationship, immediately trust the other person or condone what the person did.