Ask a Counselor for a book recommendation: a Boundaries bundle

How do you know if you need this month’s bundle of books on boundaries?


If you’re a human being, you probably need to think about healthy boundaries and how they apply to your life.  In other words, it would be good for every person to do a little reading on this topic, and the books in the boundaries bundle are a great starting point.

But you might be in special need of the boundaries bundle if…

  • You say “yes” when you want to say “no.”
  • You do more than your fair share of the work.
  • You’re disappointed or angry with all the slackers around you.
  • You are surrounded by needy and demanding people who never really seem to appreciate you like they should.
  • You feel pressured, over-committed, stressed, rushed, undervalued, and used.
  • You are last on the list.  And you just thought:  “Wait a minute.  I’m allowed to be on the list?  Isn’t that selfish?”
  • You’re hoping somebody will notice how bad you feel, and make you feel better.
  • You think that saying “no” makes you a mean, bad, unspiritual person.
  • You suspect that people who say “no” to you are not especially nice and maybe not too spiritual, either.
  • You feel sad or angry because nobody seems to do as much for you as you do for them.
  • You feel anxious and guilty over other people’s feelings, actions, wants, needs, and well-being.
  • You can’t say what you really think or feel, because that would hurt the other person’s feelings or make them mad.
  • You walk on eggshells.
  • You don’t really know how to have fun.  And if you do have accidentally have fun, you feel guilty.
  • You worry about what everybody thought about you after you leave a meeting or party.
  • You aren’t quite sure how you feel.  But it’s not mad, sad, or scared, that’s for sure.  Those feelings are bad.
  • You let other people hurt you.  Again and again and again.  You call this forgiveness.
  • You lie to protect other people.  You lie to protect yourself.  You lie to yourself to protect yourself.  You call this being nice.
  • You’re terrified of the truth.  You can’t even name it in your own mind.
  • You come to a point where you just can’t deal with the pain any more.
  • You get really angry, intolerant, distant, and shut down, because that’s the only way to be safe.  (adapted from Codependent No More, Melody Beattie)

The term “codependent” was coined in alcohol and drug treatment programs to talk about the maladaptive behaviors of friends and family members who supported and enabled the addict to remain addicted.  Now we recognize that you don’t need a drug addict or alcoholic in the equation to have codependent behaviors and bad boundaries with others.

For me, the bottom line with bad boundaries is this: a pattern of confusion over what is mine and what is yours.  If I have bad boundaries, I tend to feel more responsible for you than I should, while neglecting my own choices and emotional responsibilties.

I suspect that those of us drawn to missions work have special challenges in the area of boundaries. 

Think about it for a minute.  Out of the millions of Christians who’ve heard the sermons about going “out there” to help “the others” with whatever it is “the others” need—we were the people who thought that was a good idea.

Maybe it was God’s call, maybe it really was a great idea, but I also suspect that sometimes we missionaries tend to feel a teensy bit more responsible for the rest of the world than sometimes is healthy. 

It’s great to be nice and caring and helpful, but if we find our thoughts and feelings named on that list up above, we may have wandered out of healthy caring and into bad boundaries.

Here are three tips that have helped me in my own journey to better boundaries.

A Practical Tip:  Practice on the people who don’t matter.

(I hear you out there howling already, but bear with me.)

There are people who really, really matter in our lives.  Our parents.  Our children.  Our in-laws.  And if we’re codependent, we are probably going to be in it up to our necks with these people.  The patterns have been in place for years, and change is difficult with them.

For some of us, being able to identify the fact that we don’t like something, and to tell the person we don’t like it, and to ask for what we want, and to allow the other person to have their emotions about it–that is ENORMOUS.  We have had absolutely no experience in this, and we need to practice, practice, practice.  And it can help to practice in the small, everyday exchanges that aren’t quite so emotionally charged as family interactions.

You can start practicing on the fast food industry.  Send back the cold fries, my recovering-codependent friends!  Never eat a wilted salad again!  No espresso shots in the chai tea!  In the huge scheme of your life, what that server thinks of you just DOES NOT MATTER.  You need never see them again.  So take the opportunity to identify what you don’t like, and ask for what you do like.

This is not about being mean and ugly and selfish, it’s about being honest and assertive in baby steps so that we can experience the fact that the universe will not implode when we ask for what we want, and maybe someday take a similar baby step in a relationship that really matters.

An Emotional Tip:  Do the right thing and learn to live with a little guilt.

When you start changing care-taking patterns, you will probably feel guilty and worried about what the server at McDonald’s thought of your Christian witness when you refused the cold fries.  That’s okay.  (Unless you cussed her out, which is not okay.  I said assertive, not aggressive.)

Don’t let your emotions control you.  You just do the right thing, stick with your healthy boundaries, and eventually your emotions will get used to it. 

It really helps at this point to have a couple of close friends (or a counselor) who can help you figure out the right thing, and press on through the guilt and fear.  When you’re feeling confused and upset, talk it out before you take any action.  Make sure you’re doing the right thing and not the guilty, fearful thing.

A Spiritual Tip:  God is in charge of the universe, not me.

Ann Lamott asks this question:  “What’s the difference between God and me?  God never thinks he’s me.”

I am not God.

I am not responsible for the health and happiness of every person I meet, even if they tell me that I am.

If I’m running around like a crazy person, feeling all heavy-laden, then it’s likely I’ve taken over trying to run the universe again.  Jesus offers rest for my soul, but He won’t force it on me.  He’ll let me go on thinking I’m him for as long as I need to, until I’m ready to lay that burden down.

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of a pastor, weeping, and saying, “When will it ever be enough?”  And this man said to me, “It is enough already.”

The reason it’s enough already is because Jesus has done everything that needs to be done.

His love is enough for me, and His love is enough for you.

When I really believe that, I can stop trying to be God all the time. And when I stop trying to be God, and accept the limitations that my humanity entails, my boundaries get healthier for me and for everybody else.

Recommended Reading

Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend is a great place to explore the Biblical foundation for boundaries.

Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff Van Vonderen is fantastic.

Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff Van Vonderen is life-changing.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet Goldhor Lerner pretty much blew my mind the first time I read it.  Dance is especially great for changing unhealthy patterns in close relationships.  If your extended family drives you crazy, read The Dance of Anger.

Happy reading, and happy new, healthy boundaries!

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adapted from an original post at

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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