“Boundaries” is a concept that is talked a lot these days, in Christian communities not least because of the aptly named book by Cloud and Townsend, but also due to a range of self-help books dealing with how to say “No,” how to be assertive, and related topics. It’s obviously a very important concept of daily life, especially when dealing with any sort of human relationship. I started out earlier in life as a helpless people-pleaser, so needless to say, I definitely needed to learn how to effectively use and protect my boundaries.
However, I think there are also some common pitfalls when coming up with any sort of framework or guideline for using boundaries, and those pitfalls and paradoxes have been on my mind on and off for years. In this post, I’ve done my best at boiling down my own understanding of boundaries and try to resolve some of the paradoxes that I think a book like Boundaries either doesn’t fully address or does so in a way that is too vague to come away with a fully satisfying understanding of how boundaries are truly supposed to work, especially as a Christian. In particular, one of the things that have bothered me the most is that people who take the idea of boundaries to the extreme can almost sound as if the Good Samaritan would be fully in his right to bypass the injured man on the road, since that man is not within his “boundaries.” To me, there is something deeply troubling with that; if we approach that parable without a preconceived notion of boundaries, I think we immediately rightly feel that it is objectively wrong to simply walk by someone bleeding out on the side of the road with no one else around. That is the central paradox that I wanted to address–how to honor proper boundaries while also retaining a sense of moral compulsion in a situation like the Good Samaritan.
I don’t think I’m saying anything new, and I doubt I’m contradicting a book like Boundaries (which I really liked) one bit honestly. But working through these ideas brought me greater clarity on how to understand boundaries the best I could, so I hope it can help others too. And as always, feel free to leave feedback with your own thoughts in the comments!
What’s Inside and What’s Outside My Boundaries
I think the primary thing that Boundaries teaching is for is to help a person with broken (or no) boundaries to understand the very important distinction between what is a part of their “deal” (their life, their money, their physical and emotional health, etc) and what is not (basically the same list of stuff for everyone else). It might seem simple at first, but just starting with your family, the overlap and careful separation of all those things is very complex and we often start off with distortions depending on how we were raised. To take another example, knowing exactly what you are required to do for your position at work and when you are in your right to say, “No,” can be tricky.
I think this is when a book like Boundaries is invaluable. For people who have a broken sense of what their normal, daily “load” is versus what another person’s “load” is, that sort of book can really help you rediscover them. I think the issue is, once you rediscover those boundaries, the paradox of the Good Samaritan then arises. The injured traveler is clearly not in your daily “load” (i.e. your boundaries). He is separate from you and is ultimately responsible for his life, and you are not. At the same time, there is a feeling that it would be objectively wrong to pass someone like that by (and Jesus sure does seem to think so).
In other words, I think many people who come away from freshly absorbed boundaries teaching can become almost myopic towards their own boundaries. They obsess over the idea that what is within their boundaries is their only responsibility, and recoil in disgust when pressured to feel guilty about absolutely anything else. I think this might be helpful training wheels, but I think that, at best, they are only training wheels. As the Good Samaritan parable shows, what is actually our responsibility, morally, is more nuanced than that.
So instead of thinking in terms of what is inside your boundaries and outside your boundaries, I’d like to introduce another way of framing the issue.
Core vs Situational Responsibilities
The problem with talking inside/outside boundaries is that it’s not clear when/if you are ever responsible for things outside your boundaries. In fact, it can seem like by definition nothing outside your boundaries are your responsibility. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it seems like we have a case where you have something that’s both outside the Samaritan’s boundaries but also is his moral duty to address. If you try to say, “well the injured traveler is actually within the Samaritan’s boundaries since he stumbled upon him,” then I think you are stretching the term boundaries to a point where it’s now useless. At that point you’re then having to constantly debate what is really inside and what is really outside your boundaries, which the concept of boundaries was supposed to help solve in the first place! Instead, I’d like to introduce a different way to look at it, via what I’m calling core (or daily) vs situational responsibilities.
Core responsibilities are essentially what is obviously “inside” your boundaries: your life, physical and emotional health, etc. Your daily duties. These are things that a psychologically healthy person doesn’t even question if they are his/her responsibilities or not. You wake up in the morning, and you don’t think, “Is today my day to take care of my health, or is that someone else’s job?” You know it’s your job.
Situational responsibilities are things that normally are not your responsibility, but in certain situations are indeed, and you are just as compelled (morally and/or otherwise) to act on them. The Good Samaritan is a great example of this. The Samaritan, under ordinary circumstances, would not be responsible for the injured traveler’s health. The traveler is responsible. But a very specific situation has arisen where the Samaritan has to help this man (if he is to do the right thing, that is). If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I would like to submit that the Samaritan is just as obligated to help the injured traveler as he is to take care of his own health (for instance). In other words, talk of boundaries in the normal sense is somewhat useless here. The traveler’s health, for a short time and in a limited way, is just as much as the Samaritan’s “load” that day as the Samaritan’s own health. I hope most would agree this analysis sits much better with our sense of moral duty than trying to decide if the traveler is or not inside the Samaritan’s “boundaries” and what the consequences of that would be.
The Importance of Internalizing Choice
There is a second element of choice, responsibility, and boundaries that needs to be discussed and that I think is implicitly at the heart of a lot of discussions around the idea of boundaries.
When we are young, a lot of things we are required to do don’t feel like they are our choices. We go do our homework or clean our room because we have to. We help Dad with the yard because we have to. There is a distinct lack of agency involved. We do these things, but we don’t particularly feel in control of our situation.
As we grow older though, more and more of those actions are moved internally into our own agency, so that we are the ones that ultimately want to do our homework in college because we want a good job when we graduate. We still don’t want to do these things on a superficial level, but on a deep level we are choosing it (and therefore do want it) because that is how we want our life to go. Similarly, we might not like mowing the lawn for our own house, but it’s still something we choose to do, because it’s our lawn and we want it to look nice. When this framework of mind is used, we feel much more in control of our situation, and will probably even start to enjoy these previously dreaded tasks, at least to a degree.
The difference here is that it doesn’t feel like there is an external force that forcing us to do things anymore. Yes, the grass is annoying and we don’t want to cut it now, but it’s because of who we are, what we want (a tidy yard), that we choose to mow the lawn. It’s an internally generated choice. This is exactly what is meant by having an internal locus of control versus an external one. Children start out with a highly external locus of control, but the ideal mature adult should have an internal locus of control.
It’s important to realize that even something as basic as health needs to be fully internalized to not be dysfunctional psychologically, but it’s surprisingly easy to screw this up. It’s easy to think, “ugh, why do I have to go to the gym today, I want to do something else.” But that becomes dangerous when you truly start to feel like there’s an anonymous external force that’s pressuring you to go to the gym. That force doesn’t exist, and only creates pathologies by inventing it in your mind (it’s probably invented as a proxy for the voice of your mother, or a sense of living a sort of life you were told you were “supposed” to live, etc). If you sense that external force pressuring you, you need to step back and decide what you want in life and make that the foundation for all your choices. Do you want to be healthy? You don’t have to be, you really can choose differently. But if you want to be healthy and live long, then exercise is required. Therefore you need to internalize within your own sense of agency that you, due to the person you want to be and the future you want to have, are choosing to go to the gym. This really can be a game changer for people, and is something that has definitely impacted me as well.
When making moral decisions this is important as well. You don’t have to be loving. You can be a jerk. But what type of person do you really want to be? If you start from the foundation of wanting to be a more noble person, then the best course of action is to help out a friend or even a stranger sometimes at great cost to yourself. But this needs to be chosen and fully internalized. As long as you are doing these things as if compelled by an external force (even God), then it will be pathological and dysfunctional. You are not really choosing to do it in that case, you are letting something “force” you to do something, which will only build up bitterness and rebellion in your heart. You will not be an integrated human being. That’s why a lot of sweet, loving church volunteers blow a fuse one day because of all the things they have felt guilted into doing over the years. They sense a constant external force (which might be conceived as God, the leadership at the church, an anonymous voice in their head, family, etc) forcing them to volunteer. They have an external locus of control. And the solution is to step all the way back and say, “what person do I want to be?” And then ask progressively more specific questions based on that answer to determine what is the best course of action. In the end, explicitly or implicitly, every single decision of your life should be channeled through your individual agency, rather than bypassing it, and be an internalized decision based on who you have decided to be on a foundational level. It should never feel as if an external force is making you do anything.*
Internal Choice and Situational Responsibility
This brings us full circle back to the Good Samaritan. I think a healthy view of boundaries means that, if you are in the position of the Samaritan, then you should experience a healthy moral compulsion to help the injured traveler. This comes from asking yourself previously, “what kind of person do I want to be?” which leads you to feel compelled by your own very self to help the traveler. You are not compelled by an external force, you are not in bondage. You are compelled by your own nature according to who you have freely chosen to be. This results in the remarkable combination of both being compelled to do something, but at the same time it coming solely from your own agency rather than some nameless external force that is bullying you around, so you feel like you are freely choosing it. And I think that’s the only way to meaningfully be a Good Samaritan. The only other options are to be someone who callously walks on by or someone that begrudgingly helps the traveler while constantly feeling annoyed and like they are being forced to do something they don’t want to do.
*A concerned Christian might ask, but can’t God simply command something and therefore “make” us do it? Isn’t that an exception? I would say no, unless God is literally taking over your body and forcing you physically to do something. Otherwise, the reality is that you are still the one calling the shots within your own mind and body, and it’s because of your own commitment to God that you follow his commands.