A friend recommended the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. And let me tell you it was an encouraging and sometimes difficult book to read.
We start developing boundaries as soon as we exit the womb. I can say that I didn't really see it at the time with my boys but when I look back you can see how small but obvious those boundaries are - as an infant. That's just crazy to me, but it makes perfect sense. They are slowly developing and are learning that they are not "one" with mom anymore. They also start to exude independence when they learn to move and explore. And then their language kicks in and one of their first words is inevitably no.
Boundary construction is most evident in three-year-olds (that was shocking to me). By this time, they should have mastered the following tasks:
- The ability to be emotionally attached to others, yet without giving up a sense of self and one's freedom to be apart.
- The ability to say appropriate no's to others without fear of loss of love.
- The ability to take appropriate no's from others without withdrawing emotionally.
That seems like a tall order, but I can see it in my boys and I want to help them develop healthy boundaries because they will cycle through creating boundaries again in their tween/teen years, and again in their 20's.
I see the cycle return in the lives of the students my husband and I work with. Those 13-year-old girls who are trying to be attached to their parents but want to be their own person and want their freedom. They want to be able to say no to their parents without feeling judged or unloved. They also are learning to hear no's from their parents without withdrawing from them and secluding themselves. But I gotta tell you, the experience is way harder in the teen-years than it is as an infant or even a toddler. :)
We as parents need to remember that as our children practice setting their boundaries we need to show that our love is constant and doesn't fail (1 Cor 13:8). When we detach from our "misbehaving children" instead of staying connected with them we misrepresent God's love. When we show hurt or disappointment, even passive rage, we are sending the message that our kids are unlovable. They are not lovable when they don't behave. That's a tough statement. (pg 75) It's hard knowing that I've misrepresented God's love and I need to work on my heart to help my children develop appropriate boundaries.
This book also goes past the parenting and shares with readers how they can develop healthy boundaries even if they didn't learn them as they were growing up. And it's hard work. Whether we are learning to say no to a parent, to our grown children, to our spouse, to our boss, or even to ministry opportunities.
I struggle with saying no, sometimes out of pride. "If I don't say yes, who will do it? How will it ever get done without me?" And I do have certain gifts that are often utilized, but sometimes just because I'm good at something doesn't mean that's where my heart is. :)
I've said no to a few opportunities this spring in areas of ministry that I know are not my gifting. I did feel that guilt of "things falling apart if I don't help out" or like I was disappointing people. But that's not what happened. Other people (the planners or people on committees) may have had to change their plans or their strategies but it was still ok. And the two times that I said no to a ministry opportunity that is not my gifting or not my heart's calling, God opened a door for me to serve in a way that is more comfortable and natural for me.
I was asked to do a monologue at a women's Bible study. I've told people before that when it comes to acting, I'm more like Simon Cowell: I know what looks and sounds good, but I can't do it myself. :) Well, I can do it, but I'm not very good at it nor am I comfortable with doing it. And I had a hard time saying no. But when I did, God blessed me with an opportunity to serve a mom that had lost her twin girls at 20 weeks. I was able to go to the hospital and be with her and her husband. And that was a blessing to me and I think to the couple as well. I know that if I had said yes to the monologue I wouldn't have been able to go to the hospital that same morning and I would have felt terrible guilt over saying yes to the thing that was less on my heart. But God worked it out for His purposes but I need to be proactive and say no.
And it goes beyond ministry. It goes to boundaries within family relationships. Whether you're dealing with adult children mooching off you, people taking advantage of you at work, your spouse verbally or physically abusing you, or even if you are an adult dealing with your parents or siblings. Some of these boundary situations are way more than just feeling like you've disappointed the Sunday School committee. When you're setting boundaries within relationships, there is hard work and pain that are connected to boundaries - or our lack of them.
When we think about saying no to people who are close to us we need to consider:
- What do we stand to lose by setting boundaries? We need to know the risks and prepare our hearts for the consequences of our boundaries.
- Are we willing to risk loss by enforcing our boundaries? Are we willing to accept the consequences?
- We need to be diligent in making up for what is lost. If we lose a friend, parent, sibling, child, or our job over setting boundaries with them we need to work on our hearts. We need to have a support group ready to love on us after a boundary-setting loss; to reassure us that the boundaries we set are healthy and appropriate.
- We need to do it! It's healthy to have boundaries and we need to count to three and jump in (after prayer and some wise council).
- Remember that the hardest part is the beginning. It may not go perfectly or the way that we expected (whether that's better or worse) but we need to do it.
The book goes through different scenerios and relationships and gives practical ways to set boundaries and deal with the aftermath that comes with it (anger, manipulation, retaliation, abandonment, etc).
Boundaries is a great book for parents learning how to teach their children healthy boundaries right from the beginning. It's also a great book for people learning to set boundaries in relationships, work, or ministry. I'm sure I'll reference it often. Thanks Kerry, for the great recommendation!
Other recommended reading:
Boundaries in Dating:
Making Dating Work
Boundaries With Kids:
How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children