Reading a book about boundaries just prior to sending your child to college is excellent prep. It’s akin to training for a marathon and then running a 5k. I’m not saying I’ll do it perfectly but I’m thankful for this providential maternal gut check.
Boundaries, written by Cloud and Townsend was first published in 1992 and revamped in 2017 with an added section for the digital age. Divided into three parts, What Are Boundaries, Boundary Conflicts and Developing Healthy Boundaries, no stone is left unturned. It’s easy to feel a bit like you’re drinking water from a fire hose in the beginning but as the chapters move along, the important foundational concepts are repeated from differing angles. Setting boundaries can feel selfish. When being formed from a desire to be more important than another, holding fast to limits of self can be a result of sinful pride. But when the desire is for the good of the kingdom, boundaries are not only freeing, they place responsibility and consequences on the shoulders of the appropriate parties.
The overall premise of this book brings to light our need to recognize where we begin and where we end. Drs. Cloud and Townsend express value in setting limits as you would lines around your property. Our boundaries form themselves in our skin, words, truth, geographical distance, time, emotional distance, other people, and consequences. Not only do we have to acknowledge where our parameters lie, we also need to respect the parameters of others. In addition to seeing where these invisible boundaries should exist, we then have to acknowledge how others may be encroaching in ways that are unhealthy. As the reader walks through these concepts it becomes apparent that drawing relational lines is not only kind, but also obedient.
It didn’t take long for this book to hit a nerve for my own personal struggle with boundaries. I’m often perplexed as to when to help someone with their emotional burdens as well as recognizing when I need to carry my own. In Galatians chapter 6 verse 2 the Hebrew word “burden” refers to “excess burden”. This represents the type of load that should not be carried alone. God created us to be relational. We need community, support systems, friends to help when the struggle is excessive and cannot be carried alone. In verse 5 Paul uses a different word, the Hebrew word “cargo”. Cloud and Townsend explain “We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as responsibilities God has given to each one of us, even though it takes effort. Problems arise when people act as if their “boulders” are daily loads and refuse help, or as if their “daily loads” are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry” (Townsend, Cloud, 2017, pg. 33). If I’m honest, I get very frustrated when people do the former. And I’m desperately guilty of doing the latter.
Over all, boundaries are vital in taking responsibility for ourselves and having responsibility to others. When sin rises within the property of our hearts these lines get blurred by our need to control, stir feelings of acceptance or the need to be needed. Understanding ourselves and our tendencies when relating to those around us is a necessary task in order to maintain healthy relationships. Through counseling examples in their collective careers the two authors combat these habits and reactions we are all guilty of falling prey to.
Throughout the book, there were reality checks that stopped me in my tracks. I was continuously writing down quotes or texting them to friends or family members. For example, hurting someone’s feelings is not the same as considering their feelings. We should always consider the feelings of others but honest and healthy relationships on occasion will result in hurt feelings. In other words, we have to separate the concepts of hurting someone’s feelings and harming them with our words. Another zinger: ministry is not the same thing as friendship and when allotting time to each, the distinction is important. We have to limit the time in ministry so that we can refuel with friendships. Finally, problems arise when we blame others for our needs and our wants. It sounds so simple but we have to fight the temptation to direct feelings of hurt toward others when life brings disappointment.
One of the most significant life lessons the reader is challenged with is remembering to draw from life-experience when acknowledging a lack of boundaries or recognizing unhealthy boundaries. Allowing emotion that brings painful memories to work for your good isn’t easy but ignoring what we’ve experienced in the past is tossing aside some of God’s most fruitful goodness. “The past is your ally in repairing your present and ensuring your future” (Townsend, Cloud, 2017, pg 64). “God has secured our salvation and our sanctification. In position and principle he has healed us. But we have to work out his image in us” (Townsend, Cloud, 2017, pg 270). At our core, we want to belong, to be in relationship. This is how God created us to be. We are created in his image and by his very nature, God is relational.
At the end of the week I’ll be dropping my son off at MSU. As I silently whisper prayers for him on move-in day, I’ll also be praying for myself. My desire is for all I’ve been learning about boundaries to be fleshed out in my mind and my heart. Through the last eighteen years, I have experienced a great deal of joyful emotion in being my middle child’s mom. However, he isn’t responsible for maintaining that joy. While I will miss him and am sad no longer to have his daily presence flowing through my life, I will work to remember how his existence is not for the purpose of making me feel joy. Thankfully, God is not bound by limits of effectiveness or control and is free to bring helpful books into my world as my son ventures into his own new world. Ironically, the very desire to be God rather than to be like God is what makes boundaries so tricky in the first place.