Border Patrol: Do You Have Godly Boundaries?


Border Patrol: Do You Have Godly Boundaries?

–Ashley, twenty-five, confides in her best friend that she always
seems to wind up with a jerk for a boyfriend. “I always seem to get
stuck with the guy that borrows money to pay for dinner when he asked me out, or who tells me after three dates that he is still seeing someone else, but he really needs me…”


thirty-something, still can’t settle on a career, lives at home, and
gets jobs that pay enough to cover immediate expenses. . . but never
enough to help him get established on his own.


–Erika is
exhausted by the many demands on her time. She runs herself ragged
volunteering for her parish, even though she has little time left for
herself. How can she be selfish when others have bigger problems to
deal with than she does? She is also silently frustrated at work,
always having to clean up the messes created by her angry boss whom she
fears and dreads.

What Ashley, Matt and Erika (not their real names)
have in common is a lack of healthy personal boundaries. Just as
physical boundaries mark the division between my property and yours, so
too do personal boundaries distinguish what is my responsibility versus
what is yours. When we take on or feel responsible for what is properly
someone else’s responsibility, we blur our personal boundaries. When we can’t say ‘no’ we also compromise our boundaries.

tends to be very fearful and awkward in social situations and
unwittingly sends out social cues that say “stay away.” The only people
who bulldoze their way past her overly strict boundaries are the
buffoons or jerks who have no sense of appropriate boundaries
themselves. They mooch off her and take advantage of her neediness. She
fears rejection, and can’t say ‘no’ to inappropriate demands. Acting
out of fear of rejection is not Christian charity, it is doormathood.[1]

Matt was a child, his parents never allowed him to make his own
mistakes, or to have age-appropriate independence. Now that he is an
adult, they still want him to be their little boy; they live through
him and they give him subtle messages that he is the source of their
happiness and that he surely cannot make it on his own. He can’t get
out of this enmeshed family to begin his own life; he finds himself
always short on cash, keeping him safely at home.

Erika is a
sensitive young woman who balks at direct confrontation and tries to
live the Gospel virtues of charity and humility and service to her
neighbor. Unfortunately, she is exhausting herself in the process. But,
is Erika acting freely, out of love? Or is she, in fact, reacting to
the message she received as a child? She grew up with an angry
alcoholic father around whom the entire family had to walk on
eggshells, never knowing whether he would be in a good mood or a bad
one. She fears any strong emotion and rushes in to keep the peace. She
feels upset and angry inside, but is afraid to say so. As an adult, she
needs to feel needed.

Beginning from the moment we are born, our
understanding of personal boundaries is being developed. Our parents
have a “sacred trust” to help us feel safe and loved in our earliest
years. They also affect our understanding what is within my control and
what is not.

A newborn infant is totally dependent on his
parents; he depends on them for food and for loving attention to his
emotional and physical needs. In a healthy parent-child relationship,
an infant bonds with his caregiver. He feels safe and nurtured. At this
stage in his development, he cannot distinguish between himself and his
caregiver: mom and baby are one. But very soon the process of
individuation begins. Most of us have had the experience of trying to
hold an eight-month old baby while his mother is nearby: the infant
will cry desperately and resist going to the other person’s arms. We
call this “separation (or stranger) anxiety” and it is a typical step
in the process of individuation. This is one step in the development of
boundaries: what belongs to me and what does not. Who am I, apart from

Toddlers naturally venture away from their parents in
tentative exploration of their exciting new world, but always return to
their parents to “touch base.” Mom and Dad usually respond with a hug
or a smile, showing the toddler that it is OK to venture out and that
they can always count on their parents’ love. Toddlers who are punished
for exploring, or whose parents reacted with abnormal anxiety to this
natural development, may experience boundary issues later in life.
Another normal step in the development of boundaries is when a toddler
learns the word “no.” This is the first step in learning to make free
choices. In short, children need to grow up feeling safe and that they
have some form of control.

Unhealthy personal boundaries
confuse the distinction between what is properly mine and my
responsibility and what is properly yours. Sexual abuse is the most
severe violation of an individual’s personal boundaries. But there are
other, less dramatic, ways that a child who is growing up and learning
how to behave responsibly can become confused. A parent whose moods are
violent or wildly fluctuating can confuse a small child who doesn’t
know how to react. Parents who have no rules, haphazard rules, or who
have overly severe rules can affect healthy boundary development. When
a parent demands that a child not only obey, but like it, he is teaching his child that his feelings are not his own.

the Garden of Eden, God said: “‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth
and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the
air, and all the living things that move on the earth’” (Gen 1:28). God
wants us to take ownership of and responsibility for what is properly
ours. God set clear limits (boundaries) for Adam and Eve: they were not
to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they
disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden.

Each of us
needs to develop our own unique personality and the talents we have
received from God—to fulfill the mission he has in mind for each one of
us from before we were formed in the womb. But we have to be able to
follow God’s will in freedom and love. God does not want slaves, he
wants us to love and obey him freely: “I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called
you friends…” (Jn 15:15). Our deepest vocation is to love. A slave does
not love freely, and unhealthy boundaries keep us slaves to their
shifting borders.

But, isn’t Erika (in our example above)
simply practicing Christian charity, following the guidelines that
Jesus gave us: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you
gave me to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed
me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:

As Dr. Henry Cloud, author of the best-selling book Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life writes, “We are to love one another, not be one another.”[2]

How can we tell whether we are stepping outside our boundaries, or even
trespassing on someone else’s, when our intentions are noble? Sometimes
we say “yes” to too many requests for help—whether from an adult family
member who is strapped for cash or a co-worker who is in need of
last-minute assistance on a project, or from a neighbor who is in
trouble. How do we distinguish between being a Good Samaritan and
overstepping our boundaries?


I asked Carol King, a
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with an MS in Pastoral
Counseling who sees clients in private practice and at the Alpha Omega
Clinic (a Catholic mental health clinic in Maryland). She suggests that
we “take it to prayer; always seeking God’s will. That is, in this
particular case, does God want me to be a cheerful giver or do I need
to have the courage to say ‘no’? God doesn’t want us to do things for
the wrong reasons—out of fear of rejection, or out of an inordinate
desire to please, for example.” As Scripture says, “If I give away
everything I own, and if I hand my body over…but do not have love, I
gain nothing” (1 Co 13:3).

“There is a place for self-sacrifice,
a place for denying yourself and your own desires—we can’t always do
what we want. While it might win us immediate praise and positive
regard, over-functioning for someone else is not real love, or respect, or true charity. It allows the other to under-function, to under-use his gifts and/or to avoid the natural teaching consequences of his choices.”

Mrs. King points out that a red flag indicating boundary transgression is resentment.Saying
‘yes’ when we really internally mean ‘no’ sets us up to resent, which
silently damages relationships. When we are angry but do not admit it,
our anger hides below the surface. It is hidden under outward
compliance, but breeds resentment.”


In his book, Dr. Cloud lists some warning signs that might indicate unhealthy personal boundaries:


  • becoming
    depressed, self-critical, withdrawn, angry or perfectionist when around
    your family of origin, with whom your emotions are fused


  • neglecting your spouse or children to give preference to your family of origin


  • as an adult, being unable to stand on your own financially or emotionally, without the help of your parents


  • triangulation (failure to directly resolve a conflict, and bringing in a third party to take sides)


  • being co-dependent (“help” that only keeps the loved one infantilized or dependent on you)


was created in the image and likeness of God, who is love. We were
created for love, to be in relationship with God and with our neighbor:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all
your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first
commandment. The second is like it: You shall your neighbor as
yourself.’” (Mt 22: 37-39)


Before he was pope, Karol
Wojtyla was a friend and counselor to many young couples. He wrote to a
newly engaged young friend, Teresa Heydel: “The ability to love
authentically…constitutes the deepest part of a personality. It is no
accident that the greatest commandment is to love. Authentic love leads
us outside ourselves to affirming others…”[3] But, what is authentic love?


God created man and woman together (male and female he created them (Gen 1:27), each a helpmate for the other. He willed each for the other.[4] They are equal in dignity,
yet complementary. Eve was not created to be a domestic servant for
Adam. Rather, he recognized in her his perfect complement: “This one,
at last, is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2: 23). Authentic
love is respectful of persons, not using one person for the sake of another.


the dignity of men and women begins with respecting our own dignity as
human persons created in the image and likeness of God. Part of
respecting our own dignity is recognizing healthy personal boundaries
and acting out of true freedom and love. “The understanding of Godly
boundaries is a profound catalyst for positive change,” says Carol King

[1] For an excellent presentation
on the difference between holiness and doormathood, listen to Fr.
Emmerich Vogt’s series called “Detaching with Love,” which can be found

[2] Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992. p. 86.

[3] George Weigel, Witness to Hope. New York: Harper-Collins, 1999, p. 101.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 371.


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