A few days ago I posted a book recommendation to my Facebook page. I said that if you could only read one self-help book in 2015, I’d recommend Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I didn’t make this recommendation lightly, because let’s face it, there are a lot of great books out there. There’s something that makes this book uniquely special. We live in such a permissive world today it can be very difficult to understand how and when to use the word no. Beyond that, some of us have grown up with a brand of Christianity that presents a picture of love without limits that makes boundaries seem downright un-Christian. But Drs. Cloud and Townsend do an expert job at explaining the fact that God has built limitations into the universe in which we live, and in you personally. Being able to set healthy boundaries is one of the most important steps you can take to achieving a healthy and productive life.
This blog post isn’t about the Boundaries book. I hope you own it, or have access to it and can learn what’s presented there. This blog post is about the backlash you should expect when you set a boundary with someone. Whether the person to which you must say no is 2 years old or 80, there is a fairly predictable response that you should expect and know how to handle.
Decades ago, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross developed a model of grieving that many of us are familiar with. Whether you know it as the Kübler-Ross model, or the “five-stage” model of grief, you’ve probably heard of these stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness,* and Acceptance. For a season, over-zealous counselors used the model as a prescription, trying to take grieving individuals “through” all five stages so that they could arrive at acceptance. That doesn’t work because these five stages are better seen as observations about how people grieve than a plan for recovery. This means that if someone you know loses someone they love, you shouldn’t be surprised when they exhibit signs of denial, anger, bargaining, and so forth. It also means that you shouldn’t try to make them go through the steps either.
So what does this have to do with boundaries? Every time you must set a boundary with someone or say no, you are taking something away from them. It is, to them, a loss. Thus, it make sense that they would behave the way people behave when they lose things. So you can and probably should expect the following fall-out:
- You don’t really mean that I can’t come over unannounced anytime.
- You don’t really mean that I can’t watch TV for a whole week.
- Surely you don’t expect me to ask you first before speaking to our group about our private lives.
- Are you really trying to tell me that you can’t babysit without a week’s notice?
Anger – That’s not fair.
- It’s not like you’ve ever expected anything unreasonable of me (sarcasm).
- You’re just being overly sensitive. That’s the way you always are (criticism).
- I guess you just have to have everything your way and don’t have the capacity to think about other people (contempt).
- I wouldn’t have to ask you for these things if you didn’t create so much craziness in my life (blame).
Bargaining – Okay; you might mean business, but surely we can come to some sort of an arrangement.
- What if I called on the way over, instead of not calling at all?
- OK, so I’m grounded, but can I at least go to Shirley’s birthday party?
- If you aren’t comfortable working so much overtime, how about doing overtime every other week?
Sadness* – Your boundary is making me sad.
- I thought we had a much closer relationship than this.
- I really wish I hadn’t misbehaved; being grounded stinks.
- It will be really hard for me to know how to handle things if I can’t call you every time I have a problem.
Acceptance – Okay. I’ll work within your guidelines.
Acceptance is usually a very quiet stage, marked by a relative recovery of the sadness stage, and a cautious optimism about life within the new structure.
A couple of quick comments and then I’m done. One of the most challenging things about successfully setting boundaries is sticking to your decision. It’s not usually difficult to stand strong through the stages of denial and anger, because in both of those stages, the other person seems unreasonable. In bargaining and sadness, though, it’s often you who seems unreasonable. When the other person is willing to bargain, it can seem like you’re unwilling to compromise, which can make you feel completely unreasonable. But remember, when you’re setting a boundary, it should be the minimum expectation you have of the relationship. It should be the line that, if crossed, will bring about consequences. As a result, since it is the minimum expectation, bargaining is not okay. Compromise is only acceptable if you are overshooting your expectations and are willing to find middle ground.Sometimes God has to take things away from me ...our relationship is better because of it. Click To Tweet
Then, when the other person finally comes to terms with the fact that the boundary is, in fact there (the end of denial), that whether or not they think it’s unfair, it is what it is (the end of anger), and that despite their attempts to compromise, the initial boundary is intact (the end of bargaining), they tend to slip into sadness. This is when most people give in. Nothing is worse than seeing someone you care about be sad. But setting boundaries will bring about a period of sadness in the other person. It tends to be temporary, and necessary. Sometimes God has to take things away from me. He weathers my sadness, and our relationship is better because of it. The same is true in our interpersonal relationships. Sadness is what you will typically encounter at the end of the boundary process… it means you’re almost there. Giving up at that stage simply teaches the other person that all they have to do to get you to back off your boundary is become sad. It’s a bad dynamic for both of you.
A positive note to end this post: going through this process isn’t fun, but like many difficult processes, it gets easier each time. The more people in your life understand you are serious about boundary setting, the faster they’ll fly through the stages with you. As a result, you can say no when you need to, and have people respect it. That’s huge.
*I have substituted the word “sadness” in the Kübler-Ross model for the original word “depression” to help distinguish the simple emotion of sadness (which is a normative process in any kind of grief) from the illness of depression (a serious condition that should be treated by appropriately trained medical and psychological clinicians.)