Boundaries, Compliance, and the Fear of Saying No

“May I tell you something embarrassing?” Robert asked me (Dr. Townsend). A new client, Robert was trying to understand why he had so much difficulty refusing his wife’s constant demands. He was going broke trying to keep up with the Joneses.

“I was the only boy in my family, the youngest of four children. There was a strange double standard in my house involving physical fighting.” Robert cleared his throat, struggling to continue. “My sisters were three to seven years older than me. Until I was in sixth grade, they were a lot bigger and stronger. They’d take advantage of their size and strength and wale on me until I was bruised. I mean, they really hurt me.

“The strangest part of it all was my parents’ attitude. They’d tell us, ‘Robert is the boy. Boys don’t hit girls. It’s bad manners.’ Bad manners! I was getting triple-teamed, and fighting back was bad manners?” Robert stopped. His shame kept him from continuing, but he’d said enough. He had unearthed part of the reason for his conflicts with his wife.

When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into a world that contains much evil. Evil in the form of controlling, manipulative, and exploitative people. Evil in the form of temptations.

To feel safe in such an evil world, children need to have the power to say things like:

  • “No.”
  • “I disagree.”
  • “I will not.”
  • “I choose not to.”
  • “Stop that.”
  • “It hurts.”
  • “It’s wrong.”
  • “That’s bad.”
  • “I don’t like it when you touch me there.”

Blocking a child’s ability to say no handicaps that child for life. Adults with handicaps like Robert’s have this first boundary injury: they say yes to bad things.

This type of boundary conflict is called compliance. Compliant people have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries; they “melt” into the demands and needs of other people. They can’t stand alone, distinct from people who want something from them. Compliants, for example, pretend to like the same restaurants and movies their friends do “just to get along.” They minimize their differences with others so as not to rock the boat. Compliants are chameleons. After a while it’s hard to distinguish them from their environment.

The inability to say no to the bad is pervasive. Not only does it keep us from refusing evil in our lives, it often keeps us from recognizing evil. Many compliant people realize too late that they’re in a dangerous or abusive relationship. Their spiritual and emotional “radar” is broken; they have no ability to guard their hearts (see Proverbs 4:23).

This type of boundary problem paralyzes people’s “no” muscles. Whenever they need to protect themselves by saying no, the word catches in their throats. This happens for a number of different reasons:

  • Fear of hurting the other person’s feelings
  • Fear of abandonment and separateness
  • A wish to be totally dependent on another
  • Fear of someone else’s anger
  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of being shamed
  • Fear of being seen as bad or selfish
  • Fear of being unspiritual
  • Fear of one’s overstrict, critical conscience

This last fear is actually experienced as guilt. People who have an overstrict, critical conscience will condemn themselves for things God himself doesn’t condemn them for. As Paul says, “Since their conscience is weak, it is defiled” (see 1 Corinthians 8:7). Afraid to confront their unbiblical and critical internal parent, they tighten appropriate boundaries.

When we give in to guilty feelings, we are complying with a harsh conscience. This fear of disobeying the harsh conscience translates into an inability to confront others—a saying yes to the bad—because it would cause more guilt.

Biblical compliance needs to be distinguished from this kind of compliance. Matthew 9:13 says that God desires “compassion, and not sacrifice.” In other words, God wants us to be compliant from the inside out (compassionate), not compliant on the outside and resentful on the inside (sacrificial). Compliants take on too many responsibilities and set too few boundaries, not by choice, but because they are afraid.

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If compliance has taken control over your life, find freedom by reading The New York Times bestseller Boundaries, Now Updated & Expanded!

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Comments

  1. Susan says

    Wow! I finally saw myself in this reading;it helps to explain a lot of my twisted, hurtful decisions I’ve made in my life. Praise God He saved me! God used a critical situation to turn my life around. But this reading hrlped me see why I put myself in those situations. Thank you.

  2. Lindsey says

    Thank you for teaching me! I’ve been going to a counselor for about a year and have learned that I was abused as a child. I’m learning how to name my feelings and what my feelings really are…my style of relating still struggles with that fear list you mentioned. I’m blessed and excited God is teaching me and revealing what boundaries even are and most importantly that he has boundaries so I’m allowed to have them too. My heart is so thankful how your book is challenging me and pointing me to scripture. Thank you!

  3. says

    Would you help me understand why I went from being timid with no boundaries for most of my life – to being aggressive in my later adult live 40+ years (to the point of being fired from multiple jobs!) when someone crosses a boundary, or disrepects me in my perception?
    My dad was an angry, critical and strict man. As a girl, I was so afraid of his beatings I would literally have urine running wetting my clothes and down my leg in a puddle. I did not have any healthy boundaries.
    I’m sure it was gradual, but I still don’t have a clue why or when I became so outspoken. And that’s putting it mildly. At any rate, it is very upsetting, disappointing and costly. It’s as if I’ve lost all self control in spite of what’s at risk for me personally. I don’t understand why I did/do the things I’ve done. I live in fear during my search for a job because I don’t understand how to ensure it never happens again. Thank you very much! Blessings

    • Kristin says

      Talk to a counselor. He or she will help you understand and change your behavior so that you can set healthy boundaries. Many people who are compliant will at times set very rigid boundaries. It’s like we are saying, “No! Never again!” I urge and encourage you to seek out counseling as it can be a huge help.

    • Jay says

      My father had an explosive temper & totally separately from home issues, i was sexually abused by a relative. Before therapy i was very aggressive with some but let others run over me and make me feel guilty, shameful, & bad. I swung from too rigid to too loose with swings of irrationality & addictive type behaviors (to people, food, places, things etc.). I used to be non committal at times for fear that I’d become trapped in something i didnt want to be in or that someone would get me “where they wanted me” & then begin to hurt me &/or treat me badly. I had outbursts when i felt disrespected. NOW when I’m actually being disrespected it’s easier to spot. It may take a day or so to recognize it, but I’m able to go back & discuss my issue or to just go back & inform the person that I don’t like what happened & that it won’t be happening again. so therapy is powerful, a relationship Christ in your life along with a therapist who’s Christian is even moreso powerful. So keep pushing ahead & look that stuff in the eye. It’ll be challenging, but you’ll be glad you did. I know i was!

  4. Jenn says

    I have always been compliant, which led me to having few and fuzzy boundaries. I have grown a lot and learned more about myself in the past several years, but still have trouble saying ‘No’ or ‘I disagree’ to my husband or boss. Mostly due to the ‘fear of’ list of reasons.
    How does one overcome those fears to speak up and say what their boundaries are?

  5. Audra says

    Thank you! I never understood what was wrong with me–I’m compliant.

    As a child, I had no right to say no to my dad’s verbal, physical, and sexual abuse; my no would result in “punishment” with more abuse.

    As an adult, I have been harrassed, stalked, raped, and bullied, because I fear for my life when my requests aren’t listened to.

    I wish the police would read this and understand more the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault with someone who’s been taught to be compliant, instead of mocking and revictimizing the victims.

    Thanks again; this article can really help many people.

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