Boundaries define us. They show what is me and what is not me. We are responsible to others, and we are responsible for ourselves. Boundaries are not walls, but are rather like fences with gates that we can open or close. They can help us to keep the good in and the bad out. But some trauma victims are keeping the bad in and good out because the world outside their “fence” seems untrustworthy – and for them, it has been. However, keeping in the secret darkness of grief can often lead to shutting out help.
What are Boundaries?
Here are some examples of boundaries: Skin defines our bodies, words (such as yes and no) create structure, truth sets limits on our behaviors, geography establishes our nationalities, use of time declares our priorities, emotional distance creates needed space, consequences verify the principle of reaping and sowing, values facilitate choices, feelings disclose our hearts, and talents can make room for us.
Four Types of Boundary Problems
In this article, I outline four types of people with boundary problems, namely Compliants, Avoidants, Controllers, and Nonresponsives. I also show how these different types of boundary problems relate to, and feed off, one another.
Compliants Accept the Bad
Compliants say “yes” to the bad. If we ask why they do this, we see that it is usually because of:
- Fear of hurting someone else’s feelings
- Fear of rejection
- The desire to be dependent
- Fear of someone else’s anger
- Fear of punishment
- Fear of being ashamed
- Fear of being seen as selfish
- Fear of being unspiritual
- Fear of an over-strict conscience (false guilt)
As a result, compliants take on too many responsibilities and set too few boundaries because they are afraid.
Avoidants Refuse the Good
Avoidants say “no” to the good. If we seek to understand why they do this, we see that it is usually because of:
- An inability to ask for help
- They do not want to be vulnerable
- They see needs and legitimate wants as something destructive or shameful
- A fear of being hurt
Many avoidants are also compliant, which means that they are set up to say “yes” to the bad (compliant) and “no” to the good (avoidant). As a result, they end up drained and unfulfilled.
Controllers Don’t Respect the Other Person
Controllers fail to respect the boundaries of others. They see a “no” from someone as simply a challenge to change the other person’s mind. They use various means of control to motivate others to carry the load intended by God to be theirs alone.
There are two types of controllers:
- Aggressive Controllers may sometimes be verbally or physically abusive in order to get to a yes.
- Manipulative Controllers try to get to a yes by using persuasion, manipulation, guilt, or even trickery.
Controllers may be undisciplined and limited in their ability to take responsibility for their choices. They may feel isolated and deep down they know that people respond to them because of control rather than love.
Nonresponsives are Deaf to Others
Nonresponsives do not hear the needs of others. We are responsible to care about and help, within certain limits, those others who have been placed in our lives. But nonresponsives fail to do this.
Nonresponsives fall into two categories:
- Those who hate being incomplete in themselves and, as a result, ignore the needs of others.
- Those who are so absorbed in their own desires and needs that they exclude others (a form of narcissism).
However, we need to find a healthy place in which we can take care of our own needs so that we are not depleted when we care for others.
The Relationship between Different Types of Boundary Problems
Controlling nonresponsives have a hard time looking past themselves. They see others as responsible for their struggles and are on the lookout for someone to take care of them. They gravitate toward someone with blurry boundaries, who will naturally take on too many responsibilities in the relationship without complaining. This is like the old joke about relationships: What happens when a rescuing, enabling person meets a controlling, insensitive person? The answer is that they get married.
Actually, this makes sense. Compliant avoidants search for someone to repair. This keeps them saying yes and keeps them out of touch with their own needs. Who fits the bill better than a controlling nonresponsive? And controlling nonresponsives search for someone to keep them away from responsibility. Who better than a compliant avoidant?
A Boundary Chart
Here is a chart of the four types of boundary problems.* It shows at a glance the kinds of problems with which each of us may struggle.
Can’t Say No
Feels guilty and/or controlled by others; can’t set boundaries.
Aggressively or manipulatively violates the boundaries of others.
Can’t Say Yes
Sets boundaries against the responsibility to love.
Sets boundaries against receiving care from others.
Christian Counseling for Boundary Problems
As a Christian counselor, I have witnessed the impact that boundary problems can cause in people’s lives. However, recognizing these problems is the first step towards healing. A trained Christian counselor can provide both a sympathetic ear and insight into the problems that boundaries are causing in your life, as well as expert support as you seek to move forward.
* Taken from Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
“The Bridge Past the Boundary,” courtesy of Donna M. Cowan; “Wisteria Walk Way Beyond,” courtesy of Anna Langova, PublicDomainPictures.net