Most relationship problems, and you could even say most sins in the world, come down to problems with this one thing. Boundaries. And most boundaries problems come down to the refusal to either hear or say one of two little words. “ Yes” and “no.”
[The concepts in this post come from the excellent book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. These two strong Christians have practiced psychology for decades and have amazing insight we desperately need. I wish I’d read this book 30 years ago.]
Backpacks and Boulders
Before we dive into boundaries, we need to talk briefly about backpacks and boulders. The definitive passage for boundaries is Galatians 6:2–5.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. (Galatians 6:2–5)
I’ve bolded the two important phrases we’re going to call-out here.
“Carry each other’s burdens.” The word translated “burden” means “boulder.” It’s something too huge for a single person to move alone. Stuff like that happens in this life. We’re supposed to help each other when we see someone else under the crushing weight of a boulder. There’s no way they can bear that weight themselves.
“Each one should carry his own load.” The word translated “load” means “backpack.” It’s basically a military term for a soldier’s daily pack. It’s the weight each person is both capable of carrying and expected to carry on their own.
We get in trouble with boundary issues when we mix up our boulders and our backpacks. We don’t let anyone help with our boulders, while we try to get others to carry our backpacks.
The 4 Main Boundary Problems
Here are the 4 main boundary problems. People with healthy boundaries say and hear, the words “no” and “yes” appropriately, in the correct situations. These issues result when we don’t.
- Compliant — Won’t say “No”
- Controller — Won’t hear “No”
- Non-Responsive — Won’t say “Yes”
- Avoidant — Won’t hear “Yes”
Let’s go through these 4 boundary problems one by one. See if you recognize yourself. I do.
1) The Compliant — Won’t Say No
A compliant person is happy to help, answering the call to carry everybody else’s backpack. They get burned out and overloaded, and believe they just need to try harder. It looks great on the outside. Everyone else praises them because they’re so helpful, but it’s a horrible way to live.
Their life is often controlled by others. In inner healing, we call this Performance Orientation. It’s hard sometimes to see this as a problem because they’re doing so many good things.
But if they’re doing the wrong good things, all these good things are actually stealing the calling on their life. All the time spent doing all the good things leaves no time or energy for the one Great Thing, that unique contribution to the world only they can bring. It’s tragic. The compliant life is tragedy with a bow.
The problem isn’t the things they’re doing. The problem is they’re getting their value from the things they’re doing, not from their relationship with Jesus. It’s a perversion of the Biblical principle of dying to yourself. (See Luke 9:23, one of my favorite verses. Yes, I was a complaint. I can still lean that way if I’m not careful.)
2) The Controller — Won’t Hear No
Controllers don’t accept other people’s boundaries. They don’t carry their own backpack. Controllers spend all their time and energy trying to get someone else to carry their backpack, because in their deception, they perceive it as a boulder. So every backpack God brings into their life to make them strong and help them grow is thrown away.
They take advantage of other people to get their needs met, or at least what they perceive as their needs. Do you know people who don’t accept a “no”? They argue with you. They try to work a deal. They say, “Ok, but just…” They are abusers in the making, if not already there. (There are many forms of abuse: physical, verbal, emotional, and even spiritual.)
Controllers have a scarcity mindset. Intrinsically believing there’s not enough love to go around, they have to control the situation to make sure they get their share.
3) The Non-Responsive — Won’t Say Yes
Non-responsive people set boundaries, but they’re the wrong boundaries. They set boundaries against loving other people. When someone comes to them with a legitimate need, they have no grid for it. “Why don’t they just deal with it?”
To non-responsives, everything’s a backpack. They don’t see boulders. So, for example, when their spouse reaches out to them with a legitimate need (maybe for time spent together, being treated decently, or maybe just being loved), they don’t help or even try to. “I’m carrying my backpack, why can’t you just carry yours? What’s wrong with you?” They brush off their responsibility to love, claiming the other person is just overly needy.
4) The Avoidant — Won’t Hear Yes
Avoidants also set the wrong boundaries. They set a boundary against being loved. That’s called a wall, by the way, and is not a healthy boundary.
They won’t let someone else help with their boulders. “I can do it myself.” Like the non-responsive, they don’t see boulders. Well, actually, they see other people’s boulders, but not their own. They’re happy and willing to help someone else, but they won’t let anyone help them. “My problems pale in comparison to others.”
The 2 Diagonals
Often we have multiple boundary problems. There are 2 particularly common combinations. Look at the diagonals in the table.
The compliant-avoidant won’t say “no” to helping with other people’s problems, but they won’t say “yes” to allowing anyone to help them with theirs. Desperately trying to earn the love we all crave, they get their value from helping others, literally to a fault, while never being vulnerable enough to allow anyone to help them. This is the post-card picture of Performance Orientation. They help everyone carry their backpack while letting no one help them with their boulder.
The non-responsive-controller, on the other hand, won’t hear “no” and won’t say “yes.” They steamroll over other people, demanding their needs get met while totally ignoring the needs of others. This is the post-card picture of Narcissism. They demand everyone else carry their backpack while never helping anyone with their boulder.
The really sad thing is — these two diagonals often marry each other! For a non-responsive-controller, who better to manipulate into carrying their backpack while doing nothing in return, then a compliant-avoidant? And who better to make a compliant-avoidant feel needed than a non-responsive-controller?
So What Really Makes These Tick?
The inner motivation for all of these is… wait for it…. Fear. Pure and simple fear. We use these mechanisms to guard our own heart instead of trusting God. We’re afraid, and we don’t trust him to protect us or value us, at least to some extent, so we have to do it ourselves.
It comes down to this. We don’t believe we’re loved for ourselves. By whatever means we got that message, how we were raised, trauma in our life, etc., it stuck. And so now we have to either earn love or control the situation to get it. The problem is, it never works for long. God loves us too much to let us be satisfied living like that.
The Way Out
Fortunately, Jesus is stronger than our boundary problems. But he’s also a gentleman. He won’t force our boundary issues from us. But he’ll bring infinite opportunities throughout our life to give them to him, to start trusting him with our hearts instead of our own devices.
Sometimes recognizing we have a problem is 90% of the solution. Naming that problem is also powerful because we have power over what we can name. That’s why AA meetings famously start by saying, “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.” That’s why anger management counselors teach people words to label their emotions. “I’m not angry, I’m frustrated (or scared or lonely or tired or sad or shocked, etc)”.
The choice is ours.
Compliants — Start saying “no” to good things that deplete you. Your own self-care is just as worthy of your time.
Controllers — Begin to listen for “no.” Honor the other person’s right to say “no,” whether you think it’s silly in this circumstance or not. No means no. Trust God to bring you what you need. Face the fear.
Non-Responsives — Other people have boulders. Intentionally look for them. What’s one thing you can help your spouse/friend/co-worker with? Help them with something that seems like a boulder to them, even if it looks like a backpack to you.
Avoidants — Start saying “yes.” Let people in. Let people help you. We were designed to live in community, and avoidants totally get that as far as helping other people. But community works both ways. You’re not really living in community if you don’t let people help you. (Not control you, just help you.)
Now, an important note here. We justify our extremes by the other extreme. Compliants look at non-responsives and say, “I don’t want to be insensitive like them!”. And vice-versa. Non-responsives look at compliants and say, “I don’t want to be a doormat like them!” Same for controllers and avoidants.
Relax. No one’s trying to turn you into the other extreme. But we have to move in that direction if we’re going to move out of the unhealthy extreme we’re stuck in. Non-responsives need to be more sensitive to the needs around them. Compliants need to be less sensitive to, and controlled by, the needs around them. Etc.
If any of this is you, pray for grace to acknowledge it and repent. Pray for the grace to learn and be teachable, recognizing the opportunities God brings into your life to grow, to say and hear “yes” or “no” where you haven’t before.
So how about you?
Did you recognize yourself in these descriptions? Have you lived with any of these? How are your boundaries?
Do you know who you are? Learn how to discover the wonder of who you really are in a fun and engaging story. Download Dave’s free eBook The Runt: A Fable of Giant Inner Healing. And tell us your story in the comments. What are you learning about who you really are? And please share this post if it would bless someone else.