Book Review: Boundaries

Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend

My native personal habit, when I am confronted with an issue of great importance that is too difficult to quickly or easily resolve but too urgent and important to ignore, is to read and research about the problem in depth to greater understsand it and then to wrestle with the behaviors necessary to grow and to change. Such is the case with the question of boundaries, not only mine but those of others as well. To be fair, this is not a new problem, nor have I ignored it, but it has been the subject of considerable pondering and meditation and introspection. As a result of a few particularly painful experiences, though, I felt it necessary to research the subject in greater depth and wrestle with the reasons why the subject is such a difficult one personally for me. A friend of mine was generous enough to loan me the book to read, having wrestled with similar issues as well.

While this book is not perfect–its mentions of the Trinity and its heavy use of psychological language are definite drawbacks–it does an admirable job in a very difficult task of instructing and encouraging people to set and enforce proper boundaries in their relationships. At the beginning of the book is an idealized portrait of a day in the life of someone without boundaries who is constantly getting walked on and pushed around, and at the end of the book is an idealized portrait of a day in the life of the same person when there is an appropriate enforcement of boundaries and a respect for others. The form of this book places it firmly in the line of self-help books, a genre of books that I am known to read on occasion [1]. The usual weaknesses of self-help books in general apply to this book in particular, though this book is candid and honest enough to admit the difficulty of putting its principles into practice and the necessity of finding a support group of loving and respectful friends to allow one the practice and the building up of internal confidence and strength to put its principles into practice, which is creditworthy.

Between these idealized bookends is a book that in an organized and methodical fashion examines the thorny and difficult problem of boundaries. First, the book spends six chapters defining boundaries, looking at how boundaries are developed in the course of loving and well-functioning families, and how dysfunctional and broken families lead to offspring with extreme difficulties in forming appropriate boundaries with themselves and others. The second portion of the book examines the problem of boundary conflicts with family, friends, spouses, children, work, oneself, and God, looking at how an absence of appropriate boundaries can lead to chaos and havoc in one’s personal life. The third, and by far the shortest, section examines the difficult process of developing healthy boundaries, examining the problem of internal and external resistance to boundaries and how to measure success with boundaries. This is the optimistic portion of what is otherwise a rather grim and unpleasant book, looking at how with discipline and practice and faith and the help of God and others that there can be progress made in terms of boundaries, to the good of ourselves and those around us.

As someone who has been accused of being a pretty flagrant transgressor of the boundaries of others whom I deeply care for and respect, I found a few aspects of this book to be particularly helpful. For one, I know that like many people who wrestle with boundary problems, I have a hard time saying no, and I have been working on being better able to put my foot down on dealing with unwanted requests that I simply do not feel I have the resources to commit to. So, I am not without a great deal of sympathy with those who might struggle to say no to me, or who might not be comfortable defining their boundaries very easily, as they do not know of my respect for their boundaries given how others have responded in the past. That said, perhaps the most important aspect of this book is the development of openness in communicating one’s boundaries with others and even in admitting and understanding what one finds comfortable and uncomfortable for oneself. There is always a difficulty, a difficulty this book openly wrestles with, in understanding whether the people one deals with and who irritate and offend us are genuinely respectful of us and wish our best interests or whether they are simply abusers. Those who genuinely respect us and may not know our boundaries (because we do not tell them) may offend us without any intention of harm, and are the sort of people who would continue to respect us and be our friends and maintain our relationships in the knowledge of our personal boundaries, while those who are abusers and users will simply leave and abandon when boundaries are made clear because there is no genuine interest in the other person at all.

This book addresses the question of knowledge by showing that boundary problems generally spring from dysfunctional families that fail to properly teach and model proper behavior to their children. That said, at some point people have to take responsibility for their own well-being and happiness, and this book is part of a general body of works that is designed to do that from an avowed Christian perspective, pointing to God as the source of wisdom and strength and also pointing out the need for fellowship with people of like mind and like heart who will encourage and support those struggling to belatedly develop useful and appropriate skills in setting boundaries and in being good stewards of the temples that God has given us to maintain, whatever damage others may have done to them in the past. I’d like to consider myself the sort of person who would help and encourage those friends of mine who are wrestling with boundary concerns and would appreciate the same sort of help and encouragement from my own friends. For those who wish to have encouragement in book form for making their own needs and wants and boundaries more honest and openly expressed, this is a good book to read in the context of respectful people who will help us to grow and mature, despite its imperfections.

[1] See, for example, the following reviews:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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