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Do you have a hard time saying “no” to people, because you don’t want to be rude? Is there someone in your life you’re always covering for, because they’re consistently late, can’t be counted on, or frequently act irresponsibly? Or perhaps you’re always helping people, but no one ends up ever being there for you?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, this post is for you.
Let’s take look at a few more situations, and you tell me if any sound familiar:
- Your sibling agrees to take care of a time-sensitive task, and simply “forgets about it” until the last minute, leaving you to drop everything and do it yourself.
- An employee of yours consistently shows up late to meetings, so you either wait to start or backtrack to fill them in when they arrive.
- Your parent gambles away all their money again, and comes to you for a “loan.” You begrudgingly give them money, knowing you’ll never get it back.
- You buy a car for your teenager, but they neglect the proper care and maintenance, so you step in to do it yourself so you don’t have to pay for repairs later.
- Your parents regularly offer unsolicited parenting advice, so you stop going over to visit, instead of telling them you don’t want advice.
- The person you’re dating expects you to be there for them when they’re going through a hard time, but they’re never willing to listen when you are.
- Or, perhaps that person calls you up on the weekends, expecting sex, but isn’t willing to commit at any level or actually develop the fulfilling relationship you’re hoping for.
- Your spouse is struggling with an addiction and, despite your pleas for them to quit—and their regular promises to do so—they continue acting out and are unwilling to get help. So you try to “make” them stop, or just hope they’ll eventually figure it out.
All of these situations breed resentment, damage your relationships, and weaken your self-respect. The good news is, they can be transformed into straightforward, healthy, helpful conversations with one simple (though admittedly intimidating) addition: boundaries.
While it may seem like you’re helping the other person in these situations, the truth is…you’re not. In fact, you’re hurting them. Here’s how these all play out:
- Someone drops responsibility.
- You are negatively affected by it, or worry that they will be.
- You feel like you have to do something to save the other person and/or yourself from the consequences.
- You throw your time, focus, money, and/or self respect out the window.
- You end up resenting them.
While we usually mean well, all of these scenarios are harmful to both us and the other person. In our attempt to help, we end up enabling (i.e. allowing and encouraging) their irresponsible behavior, and throw our time, energy, and self-respect out the window. These examples demonstrate textbook codependency and a lack of boundaries—two critical concepts to understand if you want to live a healthy, happy, connected life.
What is “Codependency?”
In the simplest terms, codependency means feeling like you’re responsible for other people’s actions, feelings, or happiness. If they’re not happy, you’re not happy. If someone’s upset, you feel an almost uncontrollable need to make them feel better. You worry that if you don’t show up a certain way or say just the right things, the other person will leave or no longer like you.
The term “codependent” was originally used to describe partners of alcoholics who felt like their partner’s addiction was somehow their fault, or that there was something wrong with them because their spouse refused to quit. But in the years since, we’ve come to realize that anyone can struggle with codependent thoughts and tendencies, whether they’re in a relationship with an addict or not. And I’ll go so far as to say nearly everyone on this planet struggles with it to some extent or another. I know I do. Daily.
I’ll save the deep dive into codependency for another article, but I mention it here because our inability (or rather, unwillingness) to set healthy boundaries is nearly always the result of codependent thoughts. We’re so worried that we’ll hurt, offend, or lose the other person that we decide it’s safer to just take care of the situation ourselves, and hope they’ll change on their own.
What are “Boundaries?”
Boundaries are lines—physical or metaphorical—that separate what is ours and what is someone else’s. In the physical world, fences are obvious boundaries that tell your neighbors which land is yours and which is theirs. They show where you have rights and responsibilities, and where you don’t.
Imagine your neighbor completely neglects their lawn for the summer, refusing to cut or fertilize the grass, until it’s completely grown over with weeds. You, in contrast, find great joy in taking care of yours. It’s lush, green, and well-kept, and a sort of sanctuary for you when you need to relax and unwind.
Then, one day, you get a knock on your door. It’s your neighbor, and he’s yelling at you because he wants to enjoy his yard, but it’s now so overgrown that he can’t even walk through it.
“It’s not fair that you get to enjoy your back yard like this, when mine’s just covered in weeds!” he says.
What would you do?
This is ridiculous, right? His yard is not your problem. You’ve put in the time and effort to care for your land, and you get to enjoy it. You have zero responsibility for taking care of his, and it’d be a shame to suddenly stop enjoying your own just because he didn’t put in the same work you did.
Similarly, boundaries in the emotional world help us understand what we’re responsible for and what we’re not. They help us understand who we’re responsible for, and who we’re not. And they are a tool to help others understand what we’re okay with, and what we’re not.
Boundaries Make Life Better
Having a solid understanding of how to set and protect boundaries is life-changing. I’m not exaggerating. Especially if you struggle with codependency. The better you get at setting and holding boundaries, the happier you will become. Allow me to illustrate.
1. Boundaries Protect Your Happiness
Let’s return to your angry neighbor for a moment. Suppose you politely told him you were sorry that his yard isn’t useable and reminded him that he has the power to fix it. You shut your door and return to your yard and your ice-cold lemonade.
Then, a few moments later, you see a giant weed fly over your fence and land in your garden.
Then, a bag of trash!
Puzzled, you stand up and walk over to the fence to get a better look. As you peer over the fence, you see your neighbor, frantically pulling out weeds, picking up trash, then throwing it into your yard.
Now what do you do?
It’s not your place to tell your neighbor what he can and can’t do in his yard, as long as it doesn’t affect or harm yours. But this? This is too far. His careless actions are now affecting you, and you’re not okay with it.
You ask him to stop, come retrieve the weeds and garbage he threw over, and dispose of it elsewhere. “And if you don’t stop,” you say, “I will call the police.”
While this may not be an easy conversation, I think most would agree that it’s a perfectly reasonable, self-respecting way to handle the situation. You can’t make your neighbor stop (at least, not without risking assault charges…), but you can be very clear about what you will do if he doesn’t.
This is a boundary. You’re saying “I am not okay with _________, and if you keep doing that, I will __________.”
If your sibling comes to you last minute because she maxed her credit card again and can’t make the payment, she’s essentially throwing her weeds over into your yard. She’s trying to make her problem yours. The unspoken message is “if you love me, you’ll pay my bill for me.”
If this is a pattern for her, the codependent response would be to lend her the money (even if doing so would strain your budget), save her from the consequences, and resent her for it.
The healthy, loving, boundaried approach would be to kindly let her know that you will not lend her the money because you know it is enabling the irresponsible behavior. While that’s not an easy conversation to have, it prevents you from feeling like you’re being taken advantage of, stops feelings of resentment toward your sister, and increases the chances your sister will wake up to her actions and change.
2. Boundaries Help Others
In my favorite book on boundaries, Dr. Henry Cloud shares an excellent story of a couple who came to see him, seeking help for their adult son.
Their son had gotten into drugs, struggled to stay in school, and was having a hard time finding a career. He still lived at home, squandered his money, and was altogether ungrateful for everything they were doing for him.
“He doesn’t think he has a problem!” the couple exclaimed, clearly looking for some support or magic trick to turn it all around.
After hearing all the different ways this couple was trying to help their son, Dr. Cloud interjected:
“I think your son is right. He doesn’t have a problem.”
Confused, the couple stared at Dr. Cloud for a moment, thinking they’d surely misheard him. Eventually, he continued:
“He doesn’t have a problem. You do. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, no problem. You pay, you fret, you worry, you plan, you exert energy to keep him going. He doesn’t have a problem because you have taken it from him. Those things should be his problem, but as it now stands, they are yours. Would you like for me to help you help him to have some problems?”
I love this statement. Dr. Cloud’s observation here is spot-on, and tremendously eye-opening. This couple’s lack of boundaries was enabling their son to continue on in all sorts of unhealthy, irresponsible, disrespectful behaviors. For their son to change, they had to stop saving him from the consequences of his actions.
I know a family whose son exhibited similarly irresponsible behaviors and refused to change. When he turned eighteen, they set clear (loving) boundaries about what they would and wouldn’t put up with in their home. As long as he did his part, showed respect, and abided by the rules of the home, he had a room, food, clothes, and other essentials. But if he chose not to respect that boundary, and continued to harm the family, he was out.
Ultimately, he chose to violate the boundary, and his parents followed through. They told him to leave.
I watched as this couple struggled daily with their decision, wondering if it truly was the right thing to do. They certainly felt the judgment from others in their social circles, and even from their own family. How could they just let their son fend for himself on the streets like that?
I won’t go into all the details, but this young man hit consequences—fast. And he suffered through them for a number of months. He literally lived on the streets. His parents stayed in contact and always made sure he knew they loved him unconditionally, without backtracking on their boundaries. The moment he decided to change, he had a place back at home.
To his credit, after several months, he did change. He came around. After facing the harsh consequences of his actions and finding himself in some pretty bad places, he recognized that he had brought this upon himself, and that he therefore had the power to change it. He stepped up and took charge of his life. He joined the military and got his pride in check. And he thrived. He continually ranked up, got into the best physical and mental fitness of his life, started calling his family weekly, and began living a life based on personal responsibility.
I spoke to his parents a few of months after this all happened. They had just finished their regular Sunday call with their son and said:
“He thanks us almost every time we talk to him, for having the courage to hold him accountable. For making the hard call. He’s a completely different person now—happier than he’s ever been—and we have a fantastic relationship.”
How cool is that? That’s the power of boundaries, when used and set in love.
3. Boundaries Earn You Respect
If you want a surefire way to earn respect—whether from friends, family, co-workers, or even enemies—set and hold boundaries. Few things are as attractive as a man or woman who knows what they will and won’t put up with, and holds their ground. Few things are more admirable than a leader who sets clear expectations, holds people accountable, and doesn’t get pushed around.
A friend of mine had been dating someone for a good long while, and was ready to start moving toward marriage. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, was still terrified by the idea, and kept insisting that he just needed more time. While she was happy to grant that the first five times he said that, she was having a hard time now believing things would ever change.
After strong encouragement from her support group, she set a boundary:
“Either you go all-in on our relationship, or I’m out. I won’t just sit around waiting forever. I need to feel like this is progressing, or it’s no longer going to work for me. You know I love you, but if something doesn’t change in the next two weeks, I’m moving on.”
It’s easy to sit on the fence of indecision when you feel like both options will remain open indefinitely. But it’s funny how quickly we act when one of those options suddenly threatens to walk away. It didn’t take long for this guy to realize that he was about to make a huge mistake by letting her go, if he didn’t snap out of it and commit. She wasn’t bluffing, and he knew it. She had enough self-respect to look out for her own happiness and future, and he woke up to the reality that he wasn’t respecting her in the way she deserved.
He stepped up, went all-in, and they are now happily married.
What do Healthy Boundaries Look Like?
Your boundaries will be unique to you and your situation. But below are a handful of examples of what healthy, self-respecting boundaries might look like:
- Telling friends and family members that, while you appreciate their concern, you would not like dating advice.
- Making it clear to a prospective employer that you need to be home with your family no later than six each night.
- Letting your kids know that you’re leaving for the movie at 4:45 sharp—and if they’re not ready and in the car at that time, they’re staying home.
- Telling a toxic family member how their actions are harming you, and explaining that they will no longer be invited to family events unless they are willing to go to therapy with you.
- Letting someone you’re dating know that you’re no longer okay with your relationship just being casual—you’d like to either go exclusive or break it off entirely.
- Calling a co-worker out for talking about you behind your back, and asking that they come to you directly the next time they have an issue with you.
- Telling a prospective client that you require 50% down before you’ll ship an order.
- Telling your spouse how their [pornography, alcohol, drug, gaming, etc.] addiction is affecting you, and telling them you will leave if they do not seek help.
Now one important clarification here, on the heels of these examples: boundaries are not threats. While some people may perceive them as such, you are not waving some scary promise of harm in their face to get them to do what you want. Healthy boundaries must be rooted in self love, not in a desire to manipulate or control the other person. It’s saying “I want this. If you’re not willing to do or provide that, I respect that. You do you. I will simply need to ____________ in order to stay true to myself.”
So…How Are Your Boundaries?
Have certain relationships or experiences come to mind as you’ve read this? Have you been able to identify ways you could use boundaries to regain some self respect and happiness?
As you go throughout the rest of your day, keep an eye out for codependent thoughts and opportunities to set boundaries. If you want a quick trick for finding areas that may lack boundaries, look for any event that has left you feeling resentful, closed-off, or victimized. Then, explore how you might have used boundaries to help it play out differently.
While there’s so much more we could discuss, this article needs to come to an end. For further reading on the subject I highly recommend the aptly named book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts. Does this article resonate with you? Have you seen success in using boundaries to strengthen your relationships? Let me know in the comments below.