When You Need to Set Boundaries

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This week on the podcast I got to interview Dr. Townsend, co-author of the book “Boundaries.” He’s also a business coach and leadership consultant. We talked about handling toxic relationships, when to set boundaries, and qualities to look for in your people. 

There are so many misconceptions about what it means to be in healthy community and how we live out these relationships that can get so complicated sometimes. The book “Boundaries” was actually revolutionary at the time it was published. No one was talking about how to set boundaries in relationships and it is still so helpful and needed today. 

IT’S OKAY TO SAY NO

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Townsend were operating Christian counseling and psychiatric centers and here’s how they realized this book needed to be written:

“We saw a lot of depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and relationship problems. They did all the good things the Bible said about loving the Lord, surrender, reading your Bible, following the Holy Spirit, and it was confusing why they were getting worse. We studied it together and we realized a lot of these people didn’t have boundaries. They couldn’t say no. It’s like nobody ever told them to “guard their heart” (proverbs 4:23) and hundreds of other verses like it. They were having problems with addicts, narcissistic disorders, and they were getting beat up but they kept giving. We told them they had to say no and they felt bad about it. So we would open our Bibles and have these sessions with them in the units and we would read Matthew. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” (Matthew 5:37) “Shake the dust of your feet.” (Matthew 10;14). People didn’t feel like it was okay to say no. We started giving them boundaries and they got well. Their marriages got better, their depression went away, and they had great careers. We looked around and there were plenty of books written about love and surrender, but nothing written about saying no when you need to. We had a mission: to help people see the hundreds of Bible passages about self responsibility. And that’s not selfish. That’s being a good steward of the life God gave you.” 

THE DEFINITION OF BOUNDARIES

So what is a boundary anyway? What does that mean in the context of relationships? Dr. Townsend had a really helpful explanation:

“Simply put, a boundary is a property line. In an apartment, it’s the walls. If you have a house, it’s the yard around you. Everything in that line is your responsibility. If you’re plumbing goes bad, that’s your problem. If your neighbor’s house gets a plumbing problem, you can support them, but that’s ultimately their problem. Boundaries mean you’re responsible for everything that’s in your property line. If you look back to Proverbs 4:23 and the idea of guarding your heart, we had to ask: what is your heart? What are you responsible for? It’s things like your time, your money, your energy, your feelings, your core values, your passions. I’m responsible to do something good with those things. The minute I take responsibility for someone else’s property line, I’ve violated that and I’ve become a  codependent...God never made us to take over charge of somebody’s life, unless it’s a medical situation or an infant. The property line works when I’m responsible for me and to others. When we keep the “for” and the “to” straight, life is better.”

THE THREE BOUNDARY SKILLS

We so often hear the message of loving your neighbor, surrender to God, forgive like Jesus, but we miss where that can get to an unhealthy point. We’re always going to be in relationships with people that are hurting, but there are also people we’re in relationships with who are unhealthy. What does it look like to be healthy in the midst of a broken world in relationships that are inevitably going to hurt us, wound us, and disappoint us? When do we know we need a boundary? How do we put boundaries within the idea of unconditional love? Dr. Townsend gave us three “boundary skills” which are:

  1. Be able to define yourself. You’re not being clear and having a voice. For example, “I don’t feel like Mexican tonight. I’d like Chinese food.” That’s a boundary. That’s defining yourself. That’s not arguing. People that don’t define themselves find themselves in trouble.

  2. The ability to say no in a healthy way. When people ask for your time or ask to have lunch, are you able to say no? We can’t be there for everybody. 

  3. Be able to have confrontations in a loving way. Like it says in Matthew 18, we have to be able to say this isn’t okay with me.

He also pointed out that areas where boundaries usually need to be set revolve around behavior, conversations, and attitudes. If the person’s behaviors are hurtful, if their conversations are unloving, or their attitude isn’t helpful, we have to define boundaries. How do we know when it has gone too far? This is what Dr. Townsend had to say:

When you’re finding you can’t be the you God made you to be. When you can’t have your own choices that others respect. It comes down to love and freedom and respect.”

This is exactly what Zac and I experienced in our first five years of marriage. I lost myself in an effort to please him and have peace, and I came exactly who he wanted me to be. I was very non-emotional, non-dramatic, which is not who I am. I put my gifts to sleep. We went to counseling and that year and a half is why our marriage is so great today. The funny thing is, Zac and I weren’t fighting a lot during that time. It was decently peaceful. It was actually disrupting the peace for me to come in and say we needed to go to counseling. 

DISRUPTING THE PEACE

Dr. Townsend made a great point: “sometimes you have to be disruptive for things to grow. There’s a big difference between being a peacemaker, like the Bible talks about in Matthew 5, and being a peacekeeper. The Bible tells me to make peace, but sometimes to make peace we actually have to disrupt the status quo and have difficult conversations. There’s nothing in the Bible that says to be a peacekeeper.”

Sometimes we just need that permission. We need permission to say no, because the people that we’re around are going to determine who we are becoming. We have to take the proactive stance of guarding our heart like Proverbs 4:23 says, but so often we let others drain us, define us, and take advantage of us. 

Another big problem I see that actually relates to creating boundaries is the epidemic of burnout. We live in a very overwhelmed, hustling, hectic culture, and so many people are getting burnout. It is rampant. Dr. Townsend had this super helpful imagery of a fraction when it comes to burnout.

“What I tell people is imagine a fraction. The numerator is what’s on top and the denominator is what’s on bottom. Imagine on the top you put my responsibilities. I have to raise kids, have a great marriage or good dating relationships, self-care, church, worship, make some money. That’s just normal life. But you’ve gotta have some resources to pull that off. The denominator is resources. What are my resources? Time, energy, support, help, the Lord, money, etc. There’s nobody I know that has a perfect 1/1. That’s not possible. I know very few people where the responsibility part is fewer than the resources part. Nobody has so much extra time and money that they’re just sitting around. Most of us are way over on the numerator. Burnout comes from that. It comes from a really big responsibility number and too low of resources number. There’s only two ways to fix that number and bring it closer into balance. I’ve got to decrease my responsibilities or increase my resources. Or both. What responsibilities do you need to decrease? What resources do you need to increase? Then burnout goes away.”

I think that requires a boundary, which is oftentimes to make choices and say no and disappoint people. To lower our responsibilites, we will have to say no to less important things to take care of the really important things. To increase our resources we might have to free up time, get more support, or be aware of our energy levels. 

Dr. Townsend actually just released a book called “People Fuel” and he talks about what to look for in healthy relationships and how to find these people. Here are the 7 qualities:

  1. Shared core values. You feel the same way about love, God, relationships, etc. You don’t agree on everything, but there are similar values. 

  2. They’re for you no matter what and you’re for them. 

  3. Honesty. They get to call you out on your shortcomings and failures, and you do the same for them. 

  4. Vulnerability. Life is too short to have your closest relationships not be vulnerable.

  5. Mutuality. If it’s 10% about you and 90% about them, that’s not friendship. That’s discipleship. 

  6. Commitment to growth. They’re committed to self-growth through books, Bible studies, conferences, etc. 

  7. Chemistry. I want people who have all those great qualities, but I also want to enjoy being with them! 

He literally suggests going through your phone contacts (you’ll be shocked at how many you have) person by person and thinking through all these qualities. Narrow it down to 20-30 people, start at the top, give them a call, and go get lunch! Take one vulnerable step toward them: tell them about how you’re struggling with one of your kids, a small fight you had with your spouse, or something that has been hard. Don’t go to the deepest depths of your soul, but start somewhere and see how they react. Dr. Townsend says they’ll have one of three reactions: Do they redirect the conversation? Do they immediately try to fix the situation and offer solutions? Or do they put their fork down and ask questions? That third response is what you’re looking for. Have a few more lunches and then you’ll know if they possess those seven qualities. 

Tell them you’d like to get together on a regular basis and there you go! You have a healthy friendship. And guess what? That person probably needed a healthy friendship in their life too. Y’all, sometimes we can make this so complicated! It’s as simple as getting together with some people you could potentially go deep with, and seeing if it would work out. We can do this!