Observations of a Pattern
Over the years, talking with people about their lives and where they are versus where they thought they should be or would like to be, I’ve observed a particular pattern emerge. This pattern is not necessarily true for all instances, but was certainly significant enough to warrant some deeper reflection.
I concluded that many people are unable to reach their goals and dreams because they are too focused on fixing or dealing with the problems of other people in their lives.
- Financially – A family member is struggling to make ends meet and get out of debt, but cannot say no to her family whenever they ask for financial help.
- Emotionally – A friend who is having a great day, gets a call from that one friend who always seems to be going through some emotional crisis, and is unable to say no, eventually turning a great day into one of emotional stress.
This is not to say that we should not help others, we should, but within healthy boundaries, making a clear distinction between what is their problem and what is ours.
Burdens and Loads
Authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend make a distinction between burdens and loads in their excellent book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. This terminology is taken from the following biblical passage in the book of Galatians:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. (Galations 6:1-5, ESV)
This passage speaks of burdens as something to be shared, while loads are our own to carry. Townsend and Cloud explore the original Greek words, defining burden as excess burdens – those so heavy they weigh us down, and load as cargo – the burden of daily toil. To clarify this distinction in modern terms, the authors liken burdens to boulders, which require help to carry, and loads to knapsacks, things we are expected to carry ourselves.
The problems arise when we treat boulders as daily loads and refuse help, or we treat daily loads as boulders that we shouldn’t have to carry ourselves.
How do I know if I have a Boundary Problem?
For starters, we all have need of healthy boundaries, and we all likely have areas where these boundaries need work. However, for purposes of our discussion here, Townsend and Cloud offer these three statements as a kind of litmus test for whether we are dealing with a boundary problem:
- Trying harder isn’t working
- Being nice out of fear isn’t working
- Taking responsibility for others isn’t working
- If you are taking on someone else’s burdens or loads as your own, thinking that you can fix them, stop for a moment and let the following statement sink in: You can’t fix them.
- Now, answer this question: Can I fix them? (Hint: The answer begins with “n” and ends with “o”).
- Just like when you are on an airplane, when you are instructed in an emergency to put your oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, you need to know your own boundaries and have them firmly established in order to most effectively help others with theirs.
- Ask yourself, “Is this my problem, or someone else’s?” If it is yours, then get to work on it and seek some help if necessary, but if it is someone else’s problem, let it go.
- Saying “No” to someone just might be the best way to help them