The parents of a twenty-five-year-old man came to see me (Dr. Townsend) with a common request: they wanted me to "fix" their son, Bill.
When I asked where Bill was, they answered, "Oh, he didn't want to come."
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, he doesn't think he has a problem," they replied.
"Maybe he's right," I said, to their surprise. "Tell me about it."
They recited a history of problems that had begun at a very young age. Bill had never been "quite up to snuff" in their eyes. In recent years he had exhibited problems with drugs and an inability to stay in school and find a career.
It was apparent that they loved their son very much and were heartbroken over the way he was living. They had tried everything they knew to get him to change and live a responsible life, but all had failed. He was still using drugs, avoiding responsibility, and keeping questionable company.
They told me that they had always given him everything he needed. He had plenty of money at school so "he wouldn't have to work and he would have plenty of time for study and a social life." When he flunked out of one school, or stopped going to classes, they were more than happy to do everything they could to get him into another school, "where it might be better for him."
After they had talked for a while, I responded: "I think your son is right. He doesn't have a problem." You could have mistaken their expression for a snapshot; they stared at me in disbelief for a full minute. Finally the father said, "Did I hear you right? You don't think he has a problem?"
"That's correct," I said. "He doesn't have a problem. You do. He can do pretty much whatever he wants, no problem. You pay, you fret, you worry, you plan, you exert energy to keep him going. He doesn't have a problem because you have taken it from him. Those things should be his problem, but as it now stands, they are yours. Would you like for me to help you help him to have some problems?" They looked at me like I was crazy, but some lights were beginning to go on in their heads.
"What do you mean, 'help him to have some problems'?" his mother asked.
"Well," I explained, "I think that the solution to this problem would be to clarify some boundaries so that his actions cause him problems and not you."
"What do you mean, 'boundaries'?" the father asked.
"Look at it this way. It is as if he's your neighbor, who never waters his lawn. But, whenever you turn on your sprinkler system, the water falls on his lawn. Your grass is turning brown and dying, but Bill looks down at his green grass and thinks to himself, 'My yard is doing fine.' That is how your son's life is. He doesn't study, or plan, or work, yet he has a nice place to live, plenty of money, and all the rights of a family member who is doing his part.
"If you would define the property lines a little better, if you would fix the sprinkler system so that the water would fall on your lawn, and if he didn't water his own lawn, he would have to live in dirt. He might not like that after a while. As it stands now, he is irresponsible and happy, and you are responsible and miserable. A little boundary clarification would do the trick. You need some fences to keep his problems out of your yard and in his, where they belong."
"Isn't that a bit cruel, just to stop helping like that?" the father asked. "Has helping him helped?" I asked.
His look told me that he was beginning to understand.
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. If I know where my yard begins and ends, I am free to do with it what I like. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. However, if I do not "own" my life, my choices and options become very limited.
Think how confusing it would be if someone told you to "guard this property diligently, because I will hold you responsible for what happens here," and then did not tell you the boundaries of the property. Or they did not give you the means with which to protect the property? This would be not only confusing but also potentially dangerous.
This is exactly what happens to us emotionally and spiritually, however. God designed a world where we all live "within" ourselves; that is, we inhabit our own souls, and we are responsible for the things that make up "us." "The heart knows its own bitterness, and no one shares its joy" (Prov. 14:10). We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what that is. If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain.