Back in my Christian days, one of the more popular books to relentlessly circle every church group was one called Boundaries by Henry Townsend. It’s been many years since I last read it, so I can’t speak to how effective it is, but I know that nearly every person who reads it loves it, and in the years since it was first published, there have been many sequels.
Boundaries in Dating, Boundaries in Marriage, and Boundaries in Parenting — folks just can't seem to get enough talk about boundaries.
Boundaries = No?
The glaring problem with all of the talk about boundaries, however, is that people often get stuck on the meaning. They hear the word boundaries and think it merely means knowing how to say no.
Sure, knowing how to say no is important for anyone’s mental health… if you keep saying yes to your detriment. But to be honest, we don’t all have that problem. Many, if not most of us, actually have the opposite issue and say no way too much for our own good.
Not to mention the good of others.
If we do have a problem with saying yes too much, it happen with a few specific people and not even happen across the board. But then we read a book like Boundaries and think we've got to start telling everybody no.
Something I remember vividly from my church days was how seriously people drew thick lines around their hearts and began to glorify saying no after reading about those damn boundaries.
To refuse to help could even be considered something next to Godliness.
The world needs people who know how to say yes.
When I look around the world and see just a fraction of the work that needs to be done to help each other and to aid the less fortunate, I'm not seeing a plethora of yes. If anything, it feels like we’ve got a bad case of the “NOs.”
Or, you know, “boundaries” turned into excuses.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself for the times you’ve said ‘yes,’ when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly helpful only to someone else.”
― Fred Rogers
Personal boundaries run so much deeper than simply knowing how to say no. Or when. You also need to learn how to say yes. And when.
Saying yes matters. The world needs people who can say yes. But that requires you to more fully know yourself, and your decisions must flow from that knowledge of who you are.
Boundaries are a natural consequence of your beliefs. So, if you struggle to know yourself, you’ll more than likely struggle with setting or maintaining appropriate boundaries.
Mental and emotional boundaries matter.
There are too many types of boundaries to cover briefly, but two of the most important, though often overlooked types are mental and emotional limits.
When we talk about mental boundaries, that means our thoughts, opinions, and values. If we mindlessly take on the opinions of everyone else around us or we cannot listen to others with an open mind, we lack healthy mental boundaries.
When we set our emotional boundary lines, we create invisible fences between ourselves and others. These fences help us react more reasonably and weigh our emotions rather than allowing ourselves to ride an emotional roller coaster where we blame ourselves, blame others, and essentially lose sight of the emotional responsibility we have to ourselves and those around us.
Whenever I think about healthy boundaries, I ponder, what’s the best way to be true to myself without being shitty to others as a result?
It doesn’t mean that people won’t accuse you of being a jerk because you’ve set a particular boundary. If they lack healthy boundaries themselves, they may also take issue with the lines you draw.
But healthy boundaries can help you rest easy with a clear conscience. You’ve done your part. Now you can let them do theirs. Or not.
Once you've done your thing, their reaction isn't your call.
A final takeaway.
The best tip I know about boundaries is to make sure you’re creating them out of a strong sense of self, and never out of a desire to punish someone. Even yourself.
Boundaries are meant to be positive and beneficial for all. If you’re using them to hurt or punish anybody, you’re doing it wrong.
The next time you think about setting healthy boundaries, remember to keep it positive. And be honest with yourself about the times when you really might need to say yes.