Discerning Boundaries

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your LifeBoundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife asked me to read this book, so that she could get my insights on it. I ended up liking the book; I think that it includes valuable information about taking ownership of your own life and divesting yourself of the notion that you can control others, or that your life somehow depends on others. At the same time, the book wasn’t without its problems.

Like (almost) everything I review, there were a few typos–mostly the sort of thing that can’t be caught by spell-check software (a B instead of an M in “my,” for example), and all of them minor (context clues provided the correct meaning easily). But I feel obligated to mention them, all the same.

I found the lack of references in the book particularly jarring. In a lot of ways, “Boundaries” purports to be a scholarly work, something focused on psychological healing and spiritual development, but it doesn’t mention any papers, or studies, or journals, or scientific inquiries. The endnotes in the book are reserved for “see also” suggestions. I gather that the authors were working from their own practice, but a few references to a little research would have gone a long way to earn my placidity.

The book contains a very large number of what I call “pastor stories.” Probably, these vignettes come from actual examples in the authors’ private practice, with the names and details changed to protect patient confidentiality… but they come across as those stories used by pastors to prove a point. You know the ones–anecdotes about people who only have first names, with no clear evidence to suggest that they are factual, but they perfectly (and conveniently) encapsulate the message that the pastor is trying to get across. I don’t trust stories like these, and while the clinical experience of the authors lends a little credence to them, I’m still not a fan.

The authors have, in my opinion, an incorrect view of both love and marriage. They assert that love is primarily a feeling, rather than an action (indeed, that action without feeling is worthless in the case of love); this may correspond with their experience, but it implies that a marriage without “that loving feeling” should end. Marriages, while I’m on the subject, are also not relationships of unconditional love, according to the authors. (I do not mean only in practice, for definitely there are countless marriages that are not based on unconditional love, but I mean the authors suggest that marriages should not be so.)

There seems to be a misapprehension of why “work” is “bad” in the modern mind. The authors insist that work existed before the Fall (in a probable misreading of the poetic structure of Genesis 1-3, but I digress), but I am reminded of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes: “It’s not work unless somebody makes you do it.” The reason “work” is unpleasant is that we define unpleasant tasks as “work.” To fill the earth and subdue it may have been a great challenge, and an enormous task, but it wasn’t “work” until the Fall. (You may find this a minor nitpick, but you get what you pay for with these reviews, and I don’t recall being paid anything.)

In the vein of their “pastor stories,” the authors also supply every story in the book with a happy ending. This strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. Even moreso, I’m surprised that doctors with clinical experience would suggest this result. It’s simply not possible that every story ends happily, but the authors imply that, no matter your circumstances, if you simply say “no,” to your spouse/friend/parent/self, that person will eventually respect your “no” and become the person you’ve always wanted them to be. “Emotionally abuse husband? Tell him ‘no’ a few times and he’ll realize what a wonderful person you are and treat you better!” Of course, because no emotionally abusive husbands become physically abusive when their victims exhibit signs of resistance. “Susie told Jack to do his own job and stop making her do it. Her boss figured out that Jack was the problem and told him to shape up. Jack did so, and everyone is happy.” Of course, because no one has ever been blamed for somebody else’s shoddy work, right?

I just don’t see it being possible in every case.

Perhaps my biggest struggle is the authors’ tendency to blame absolutely every poor character trait on the parents of the unpleasant person. No one ever made a bad decision for themselves, it seems, but everything bad about you is your parents’ fault. Only you can fix it, of course, but they’re the ones that made you this way–they didn’t teach you good boundaries, or they tried to control you with guilt or anger, or they only looked out for themselves and did not respect your needs or boundaries, or… the list goes on. As a child myself, I can recall times that I made my own bad decisions, and I cannot trace my current problems to my parents. They weren’t perfect, of course, but they aren’t to blame for all of my hardships. As a parent myself, I find it hard to believe that every bad decision my son makes will rest on my head when judgment day comes–it’s just not a reasoned position to take here.

As I said, I eventually ended up liking the book (which may be hard to believe, at this point, but it’s true). The final few chapters, especially, have very good points that are important to internalize if you have any boundary problems at all (and most people probably do). The practical advice finally starts kicking in and the nebulous examples take a backseat to a more informative style. There are a lot of insightful directions to help you set boundaries in your life, and it really is useful.

Yet, I must admit sadly, there are even problems in these final sections. For one thing, there are a few glaring omissions from their practical advice and examples–extended family and in-laws come to mind most readily. Both extended family and a spouse’s family can be tremendous violators of boundaries, but since they had no effect on your childhood development, they don’t get their own chapters (unlike parents, friends, spouses, and self, which can all be traced back to poor parenting by your own folks). The second major problem in this section is assumptions: “Go to your support group,” they write, as if support groups were in every church, or grew on trees, and could be trustworthy and reliable wherever they may be found. Assumptions like these make the practical advice more difficult, but other, simpler advice must first be sought out (like How to Find or Develop a Support Group 101).

As I said, I did like the book. I think it’s a good resource–but you don’t have to read every page and paragraph, either. Look for the good; if you start getting bogged down in it, I don’t think you would miss much to skip ahead a few paragraphs, or a chapter. Look for what is most relevant to your situation, and I think you would do well.

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