"Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom." ― Henry Cloud

I have a theory that most conflicts can be traced back to a breakdown in communication about boundaries. Having healthy boundaries is essential for ensuring that we can have happy and fulfilling relationships with ourselves, with work, and with family and friends. In their book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” psychologists Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend define a boundary as “where you end and I begin”. I find it helpful to picture boundaries like a bubble; I don’t want my bubble to overlap with someone else (not enough boundaries), but I also don’t want to isolate my bubble from everyone else (too strict boundaries).  Cloud and Townsend describe four styles of boundary conflicts: compliant, avoidant, controlling, and non-responsive. By understanding what leads to boundary conflicts, we can know how to get unstuck and move towards a healthy balance.

  1. Compliant—“Saying yes to the bad”

A person who experiences compliant boundary conflicts struggles with saying yes to the bad. For example, if you and I had dinner plans, I might say yes to going to a barbeque restaurant even though I am a vegetarian. In this case, I might be afraid to say no to you or assume you would be upset if we had or make special accommodations for my diet. So, I say yes to the bad in order to avoid conflict. A person who struggles with compliance often has difficulty saying no. This person has been taught that saying no will disappoint others, or hurt their feelings. This person typically also feels responsible for the feelings of others. A person with compliant tendencies will often change their behavior to match whoever they are with. This person may fear abandonment, hurting the feelings of others, feel guilt about asserting their own needs, and fear being seen as bad. The intent of compliance is typically to avoid rocking the boat and experiencing conflict, but compliance can actually make relationships unsustainable in the long-term. The work of a compliant person is to lean into the discomfort and say no!

  1. Avoidant—“Saying no to the good”

A person who experiences avoidant boundary conflicts typically has rigid boundaries where they don’t need them and too few boundaries where they do need them. A person who struggles with avoidant boundaries might say something like, “It was pretty bad when I lost my job during COVID-19, but I can’t complain…other people have it worse”. Or a person might say, “I don’t want to ask anybody to help me move because I should be able to figure out how to do it myself”. People with avoidant boundaries tend to withdraw rather than asking for help. Avoidant boundaries are like a solid brick wall—they keep out the bad AND the good. A person who struggles with avoidance might not see their needs as being legitimate. They typically fear being hurt or rejected and are hesitant or unwilling to talk about their needs. Ideally, we would want our boundaries to be like a fence—let in the good and keep out the bad. The work of an avoidant person is to try to tolerate the discomfort that comes with being vulnerable by asking others for help.

  1. Controllers—“Not respecting the boundaries of others”

A person who is controlling has a hard time hearing no. For example, if you tell someone that you are too tired to make it to a social event, a controlling person might try to convince you that your tiredness is not a legitimate reason to say no. A controller might dismiss your valid feelings of tiredness and insist that you be at the event. A person who experiences boundary conflicts with control often hears the word “no” as a challenge. This person might have trouble controlling their own lives, which can motivate them to try and control the lives of others. The work of a controller is to turn the focus inward and start by regaining control in their own lives, while also listening to and respecting the needs of others.

  1. Non-responsive—“Not hearing what others are saying”

A person who is non-responsive can have a hard time acknowledging or listening to what other people are trying to tell them. Have you ever tried to tell a friend about something that was bothering you only to have them respond by turning the conversation back towards themselves? A non-responsive person can get wrapped up in their own struggles, which makes it harder for them to respond to what people are trying to share with them. A person who is non-responsive can also see others as being responsible for their struggles. For example, they might say something like “I was late this morning because other people don’t know how to drive”. A non-responsive person may seek out a relationship with a compliant person, due to the compliant person’s tendency to over- function and take on too much responsibility. The work of a non-responsive person is to validate and reflect the needs of others while claiming responsibility for their own lives.

What are you supposed to do?

I hope as you were reading through the different types of boundary conflicts, you both recognized a description of yourself, as well as other people in your life. As you work towards developing balance with boundaries, look at where you might have difficulty saying or accepting “no” or difficulty saying or accepting “yes”. Listen to what fear is telling you about setting or not setting a boundary. We often let fear dictate what we do or don’t do without taking the time to test out whether or not our prediction is accurate. I might avoid correcting someone who mispronounces my name, due to the fear that they will be embarrassed or uncomfortable. However, fear often does not give us a completely accurate appraisal of what might happen. The truth is that setting and maintaining flexible yet firm boundaries is a way of loving ourselves and others well.

 

Maddie Johnson, MA, LPCC- Rogers