I finally finished the book Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This is the book I’ve mentioned before that I thought did an excellent job of defining when to say yes and when to say no in order to have a bit more control of your life. Today I want to spend a few minutes talking about the importance of boundaries and go a little beyond what is in the book.

According to the book, boundaries are personal property lines that define who you are and who you are not, and they influence all areas of your life. The book outlines four types of boundaries:

  • Physical boundaries help you determine who may touch you and under what circumstances.
  • Mental boundaries give you the freedom to have your own thoughts and opinions
  • Emotional boundaries help you deal with your own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others.
  • Spiritual boundaries help you distinguish God’s will from your own and give you renewed awe for your creator.

As I read through the book it became apparent we all have boundary issues! Examples included not being able to tell the boss no; not being able to set rules for your children; not being able to draw appropriate lines in a relationship; feeling as if you are taken for granted in your marriage because you don’t set boundaries regarding any number of issues. When you read the book chances are you will see yourself in one of the examples.

Being psychologists, the authors do a fantastic job of explaining that boundary issues as an adult really start with dysfunctional learning during a child’s developmental years. As part of our normal development as children we learn a variety of important emotional skills. Having appropriate boundaries set for us and then setting appropriate boundaries ourselves is vital learning during this period.

The examples are pretty obvious: the first boundaries you encounter as a child are those things that can harm you. Parents tell you not to touch something for your safety – you do anyway only to learn that you shouldn’t have touched it thus confirming the importance of listening to your parent’s boundary instructions. As we grow older we begin to set boundaries. For example, when we begin to walk we tell our parents to put us down because we want to begin to draw more of a boundary to separate us as individuals from our parents who up to this point have been nearly one with us. It’s pretty common sense stuff if you think about it.

However, imagine if the building blocks of boundaries were messed up during this period. You were never told not to touch the hot stove. You were never allowed down once a parent was holding you. You didn’t learn about personal space or the appropriate way to respect someone. Missing these boundary lessons as a child would result in disaster as an adult. And that is where Drs. Cloud and Townsend come in.

Boundaries establishes where these dysfunctions happen, how they manifest themselves in an adult life, and what you have to do to rectify the situation by setting appropriate boundaries. I don’t believe any of it is easy, but all of it is necessary.

The only critique of the book I have is nearly all the stories focus on someone who has not set the appropriate boundary and are being run over because of it. Thus all the advice is about how to set a solid boundary so that people understand where that line is and the consequences of crossing it. That is all good information, but the author’s don’t really address the opposite of what can happen from dysfunctional child development – people creating inappropriately stringent boundaries.

This was my experience. Having grown up in complete dysfunction, my experience was that as a child I was not allowed to have boundaries. The cops could come in anytime they wanted and arrest my father. My mother was taken from me and put in a nursing home where I rarely could see her. I was shuttled off to foster care, sometimes being moved between several homes until they found a long-term placement. Many times my sisters were separated from me, leaving me alone. I had no voice or rights in any of these and many other situations that affected me negatively.

When I became an adult I vowed I would not allow anyone to run over me like that again. I became hyper-vigilant about my boundaries. When that happens you end up setting inappropriately strict boundaries for yourself, for how others can interact with you, and unfortunately for how you apply those boundaries to control others to ensure they also do not hurt you. At my worst I had so many boundaries set up to protect myself that I painted myself into a corner where I stood alone in the illusion of safety.

Whether you suffer from a lack of boundaries or as in my case an over application of boundaries neither is how God intended for you to live! And that’s the good news in all this: God has something better for you!

For me the best part of the book is how the authors weaved in scripture to support taking the appropriate action to regain a sense of control in your life. In their examples we see that people react differently to boundary setting. The rich young ruler didn’t like the boundary Jesus set for him, asking him to sell all he owned in order to follow Jesus. In this case the person walked away, which is something the authors warn can happen to us when we set boundaries with people – they may not like it and walk. But there are other examples where a boundary is set – Moses’ father-in-law Jethro telling him to establish judges because Moses can’t do all the work himself – that work out very well indeed.

I think this book is a must read for anyone interested in personal development or anyone who struggles with themselves or others in the home, at work, at church, or in any other setting. Boundaries has become so popular the authors have penned a series that look at boundaries in a variety of settings, including Marriage, Dating, Kids, and Teens.

Setting the appropriate boundaries in your life can exponentially improve the quality of that life. Doing so based on biblical principles will bless you even more. No, it’s not easy but nothing worth doing is.