Does it seem like everywhere you turn, someone is asking a favor of you? Your children demand your attention, time and energy. Your relationship with your spouse needs your care to keep it strong. Your boss requests that you add yet another project with a tight deadline to your to-do list. Everyone in your life asks you to give and give and give. And you feel pressured to always say yes.
What’s more, our culture celebrates being busy, despite research that says we’re actually less efficient when we multitask. Being busy conveys that you are important because you are needed. Being busy says, “I matter.” But this sense of importance comes at a cost. Saying yes to every request that comes your way, or allowing others to treat you like a human doormat, leaves you feeling drained, stressed, and resentful. Live this way for long, and you begin to experience burnout.
On the surface, this might seem very Christian. After all, didn’t Mother Teresa say, “Give to each other until it hurts”? Many Christians struggle with this problem. We believe it’s selfish to think of our own needs. We worry that saying no—to worthy causes, needy friends or even our own spouses—seems contrary to Christian charity.
But according to Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, co-authors of the best-selling self-help classic, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, establishing clear personal boundaries—knowing when to say no to demands on your time and talents—is not only psychologically necessary, it’s also part of God’s plan for our lives.
Clear boundaries communicate who we are and what our life’s purpose is.
Defining boundaries is a way to identify psychologically healthy limits regarding what you are—and are not—responsible for in your life, so that you can give of yourself without depleting your energy, time and resources
“Boundaries are related to the biblical concept of self-mastery,” says Dr. Cloud, referencing Titus 2:12: “…to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” Boundaries can also protect you from enabling someone else’s destructive behavior—Leviticus 19:17: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.”
It may seem counterintuitive, says Dr. Cloud, but by putting up fences we will accomplish more, not less. We thrive when our goals and responsibilities are well-defined, when our yes means yes and our no means no. Dr. Cloud claims that boundaries are the secret to good, healthy relationships; happy kids; and even a successful business. Healthy boundaries help us resist our inclination to control others, and they protect us from those who would attempt to control us. Clear boundaries respect the dignity, limitations, and responsibilities of the giver and the receiver, helping both sides to flourish.
If you’re feeling stressed, overcommitted, unproductive and burned out, Dr. Cloud suggests performing an “audit” of your days. Begin with a blank slate by articulating your fundamental goals, values and objectives. Answer the questions: “Who am I?” “What do I believe in?” “What do I value?” Then go line-by-line through your daily activities and consider how each contributes (or doesn’t) to accomplishing your goals.
With this audit in hand, Dr. Cloud says, you can begin to prune toxic practices—from substance abuse to negative relationships—that prevent you from achieving your goals or contradict your vision for your life. Then you can begin to erect the fences that will help you avoid falling into those same destructive patterns.
As part of my work as a licensed counselor, I give presentations on developing and maintaining boundaries and practicing self-care. I recently spoke to a group of young leaders who work on college campuses. They were a wonderful group, whole-heartedly dedicated to their mission. They struggled with the same problems that confront so many Christians: Must I always say yes to a project that furthers my mission, even at the expense of my ability to eat meals or spend time with friends and family? Isn’t it selfish to say no?
We thrive when our goals and responsibilities are well-defined, when our yes means yes and our no means no.
Working together, I was able to help these leaders make the connection between identifying and honoring their limits and responsibilities, and their ability to authentically give. They are now better equipped to judge whether future activities run the risk of harming their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
My work with these young leaders illustrates how boundaries are not merely fences—they’re declarations of your identity. Clear boundaries communicate who we are and what our life’s purpose is.
Dr. Cloud observes that, “Boundaries are about God’s restoring freedom to you and me so that we could take control of our lives to be able to love Him and others. Ultimately, that is the fruit of boundaries—to love out of freedom, and with purpose… Sometimes love requires ‘no.’”
Those of us who can’t say no often also have a difficult time saying yes when someone offers to help us. This is the flipside of the boundary problem—learning how to receive from others. A tendency to get by solely on our own strength, and to find meaning exclusively in our own generosity, will keep us from building healthy relationships with others. And it’s profoundly un-Christian. Living as if we are self-sufficient and autonomous makes it harder for us to rely on God, and to accept His unconditional love. It inevitably leads to psychological and spiritual problems.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), addressed this issue when he wrote that Christians must learn to integrate what the ancient Greeks called agape (self-giving love) with eros (desirous love).
“Man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone,” Pope Benedict explained. “He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to love must also receive love as a gift.” The Catholic Church, in its social doctrine, has used the term “reciprocity” to describe this sort of relationship.
“Man cannot always give,” Pope Benedict wrote. “Anyone who wishes to love must also receive love as a gift.”
Similarly, the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has said that moral relationships are based on what he calls “just generosity,” which involves both giving and receiving. In his book, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, McIntyre makes the surprising claim that altruism can be a “disguised form of egoism.” Self-sacrifice, he says, “is as much of vice, as much a sign of inadequate moral development, as selfishness.”
The goal of education, McIntyre concludes, is to become “neither egoists or altruists, but those whose passions and inclinations is directed to what is both our good and the good of others.”
Dr. Cloud’s life audit is one practical method for restoring such moral balance to our lives. By identifying our needs and limitations, we’re able to determine how and what we can give of ourselves to others.
How you implement boundaries in your own life will be unique to your situation. But whatever method you choose, remember that as a child of God, you have the right to live with dignity, worthy of both giving and receiving love. You’ll then have the strength to truly follow God’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”