Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me.

I wrote about boundaries recently, particularly in the sense of taking responsibility for setting your own boundaries.

“Boundaries” by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend is a book that gives really practical advice around boundaries; it has sold over 2 million copies. However, unless you’re very religious, you’ll probably find the biblical quotes and references interspersed through every page a little distracting, so it’s not one I’d recommend for everyone. Though the information itself is excellent. So I’m summarising here for you!

Boundary problems are not JUST the inability to say no

According to Cloud and Townsend, there are two kinds of boundary problems – the problems that arise  because you have difficulty setting boundaries, and also the problems that arise through not respecting others’ limits.

Boundary problems are NOT just the inability to say no.

What’s more, if you have boundary problems, it’s pretty likely you’ll attract in others who have boundary problems too, which may be similar or different to your own boundary issues.

They describe boundary issues using four descriptions:

  • The compliant – saying “yes” to the bad
  • The avoidant – saying “no” to the good
  • The controller – not respecting others’ boundaries
  • The nonresponsive – not hearing the needs of others

Let’s look at each:

Compliants – saying “yes” to the bad

If you’re in a compliant pattern, you will find it very difficult to say “no.” If as a child you were taught it wasn’t ok to say no, or learnt that it is bad or wrong to say no to things or to disappoint others through not doing what they want, it can create real problems later in life.

Many parents find the stage children go through of finding the power of “NO” fairly taxing, however it is widely understood that this is an essential developmental stage. As a child, it’s hugely important that you learn that it is ok to say things like:

  • “No”
  • “I disagree”
  • “I don’t want to do that”
  • “Stop that”
  • “It hurts”

Someone who hasn’t learnt to say no can become quite the chameleon, adapting themselves and their behaviour to suit whoever they’re around. (I know I was certainly like this until my mid-late twenties). A compliant person can take MUCH longer than someone with healthy boundaries to realise they’re in an unhealthy or abusive relationship. If you’re in a compliant pattern it’s likely you’ll find it hard to say no due to:

  • Fear of hurting someone else’s feelings
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of someone else’s anger or punishment
  • Fear of being shamed or seen as bad
  • Feelings of guilt when putting yourself first

If you’re in a compliant pattern you probably take on way too much, give too much to others and set far too few boundaries.

Avoidants: saying “no” to the good

If you’re in an avoidant pattern, you’ll find it hard to ask for help, to recognise your own needs, or to let others in. When you need help, you’re likely to withdraw. Your boundaries are like walls and don’t allow enough support or love to flow in. If you’re in an avoidant pattern you’re likely to feel pretty resentful and unsure of how to meet your own needs (or even know what they are).

If you’re in both a compliant AND an avoidant pattern, you’ll have no boundaries where you need them, and boundaries where you shouldn’t have them. At the extreme, you’ll probably feel burnt out from doing too much for others and have no real idea how to get your own needs met and fill yourself up.

Controllers: not respecting others boundaries

A controller can’t respect someone else’s limits. They resist taking control for their own lives, so they need to control others. A controller can’t hear no and tend to project responsibility for their lives onto others. To a controller, a “no” is simply a challenge to change the other person’s mind.

Controllers can be more overtly aggressive, or control in a manipulative fashion, using guilt, persuasion, persistence or other means to break down the boundaries others set.

Nonresponsives: not hearing the needs of others

Someone who is in a nonresponsive pattern doesn’t really listen to or respect the needs of others. They are either critical or judgemental of the fact that others have needs, or they are so absorbed in their own needs and desires that they completely ignore the needs of others (a form of narcissism). They don’t notice other people’s boundaries and might ignore boundaries that are set.

Someone who is both controlling and nonresponsive has a hard time looking past themselves. They see others as responsible for their struggles and gravitate towards those with blurry boundaries, who will naturally take too much responsibility in the relationship and who won’t complain about it.

When boundary problems collide…

These different forms of poor boundary function often mesh together.

Compliant avoiders search for someone to repair and help. This keeps them saying yes, and keeps them out of touch with their own needs and avoids them having to take full responsibility for their own lives.

Controlling nonresponsives search for someone who will help and take responsibility for them, who doesn’t express too many needs and who will allow themselves to be controlled or manipulated. This ALSO keeps them from having to take full responsibility for their own lives.

What happens when these patterns meet up?

Well clearly … it’s a match made in HEAVEN! 😉

What can you do if you recognise you’re in one of these patterns?

As always, awareness is the first step, and quite often we can start to make changes through simply becoming aware of a pattern we’re in. If you’ve identified you have boundary problems, you can definitely change that!

Get out your journal now, and here are some questions from me to aid your self-reflection:

  • Which of these patterns do I act out, and what is this looking like in my life?
  • What did I learn about boundaries when I was a child, and how might have that contributed to my current pattern?
  • What am I GAINING from staying in this pattern. Confused by this idea? Even when the pattern is clearly damaging to us, there will often be a secondary gain, or we would have already changed it. The gain might be feeling hard done by, complaining, avoiding taking responsibility for ourselves, blaming others, a sense of importance or validation, feeling internally self-righteous. Dig deep!
  • What MIGHT healthy boundaries look like for me?
  • What might change for the WORSE if I had healthy boundaries? Seriously – look at your fears. We can often experience resistance when we alter our boundaries. Particularly if you’ve been an excessive giver. For some reason, others will often like being around someone who gives a lot and may try to tell you you’ve changed, or are now selfish. If you’re prepared you’ll understand this can be a natural part of the shift towards healthier boundaries. It’s ok if others don’t love YOUR boundaries!
  • What might change for the BETTER if I had healthy boundaries?

A final quote.

Many times when people hear a talk on boundaries and taking responsibility for their own lives, they say, “That’s so self-centred. We should love one another and deny ourselves.” Or they actually become selfish and self-centred. Or, they feel “guilty” when they do someone a favour…

The Law of Responsibility includes loving others… Anytime you are not loving others, you are not taking full responsibility for yourself; you have disowned your heart…

Problems arise when boundaries of responsibility are confused. We are to love one another, not be one another. I can’t feel your feelings for you. I can’t think for you. I can’t behave for you. I can’t work through the disappointment that limits bring for you.

In short, I can’t grow for you; only you can.

Likewise you can’t grow for me.

Boundaries, p88.

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