The Most Common Effects of Weak Boundaries

A lack of clear personal or professional boun­daries can lead to several types of serious difficulties.

Unhappy Coworkers, Unhappy Family

Let’s face it: if you don’t set and maintain boundaries, you will lose time and intimacy with your family. Yet when you do set limits, you may lose the approval of some coworkers. Either way, you can’t win. When you are tempted to surrender your boundary limits to others’ opinions, remind yourself of what you already know: by trying to please everyone, you please no one. Recently, I saw a sign that underscores this:

I can only please one person per day.
Today is not your day.
Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.

A hard fact of life is that you often must make tough, no-win choices. This truth certainly applies to boundary setting, both in your job and in your home life. Most working professionals face these choices weekly.

On one hand, if you cut out work opportunities and obligations, you will probably not accomplish some of the goals you’ve dreamed of for your career. On the other hand, if you do not preserve your personal and family time, those important parts of your life will suffer.

Boundary implementation and maintenance is crucial to keeping a proper balance. If you continue on a course of escalating your workload to fifty- or sixty-plus hours a week, serious problems will surface in your marriage, with your children, or with your physical or mental health. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Passive Problem Solving

It is hard to be proactive without boundaries. People who don’t stick to their boundaries will often act like the little Dutch boy who kept scurrying, helter-skelter, trying to halt leaks in the dyke by plugging his finger in one leak after another.

Rarely are people on the offense, proactively solving problems. Most operate on the defense, only reacting to pressures from various sources such as: scrambling to find a plumber for a major pipeline leak instead of repairing it before it reached crisis mode, or not arranging ahead of time for enough cars to carpool to a little league game.

Countless men and women rush from crisis to crisis, from panic to panic, trying to fix problems at work, at home, and elsewhere—all the while neglecting their own personal care time and family commitments.

I saw a cartoon that showed a man walking his dog on a leash, with the dog lifting its leg over a fire hydrant. The quote below the drawing, which I’ve paraphrased here, was priceless:

Ever feel like a fire hydrant, and everyone else is a dog, always using you to meet his own needs?

Human Robots

Many individuals eventually become emotionally-absent “human robots.” They present a positive, outwardly successful shell that says, “I’ve got it all together,” but they have no real life apart from their work.

This phenomenon doesn’t happen only to working professionals. In a 2013 MTV interview, singer Miley Cyrus said, “There’s no life for me other than entertaining.”

Many people, if they are honest, might as well reword Miley’s statement to say, “There’s no life for me other than my job as a [doctor, computer programmer, mechanic, teacher, lawyer, business professional, architect, contractor . . . ].”

I include myself in this “robot” category—my job was my whole life, with few hobbies, limited time for family, and an inadequate social life.

Can you identify with Miley and me? Is your whole life taken over by your work? Do you have a life outside of your career? Do you have any time or energy left after work to do personal or family activities? Because of the demands of your job, you may be tempted to emotionally detach from your family, preoccupying yourself only with things work-related—eventually becoming a human robot.

Keeping up a good front in a non-stop, fast-paced robotic life is exhausting. You feel totally drained—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and your mental outlook and physical health deteriorates. Your gas tank runs on fumes. Your patience is thin, and your anger boils just below the surface.

To your loved ones, it seems as if “your lights are on, but no one’s home.” You are physically present, yet mentally and emotionally absent. Your spouse and kids may complain, but you defend yourself by saying, “It’s just been an extra-busy week. After this week’s over, things will slow down.”

Such behavior can eventually become an addiction, a lifestyle you can’t give up. By not adhering to boundaries and priorities, overworked people often find escape and comfort in a compulsive habit: emotionally detaching from family and friends, working longer hours, eating or drinking excessively, abusing legal or illegal drugs, taking sexual risks, or spending recklessly. This addictive, robotic behavior hurts a leader’s ability to effectively manage a local business, non-profit organization, or family.

Damaged Personal Relationships

A lack of boundaries can cause our relationships to suffer. I know of a father-daughter relationship that’s still strained because of the father’s unwillingness to set limits on his daughter’s spending for her wedding. He simply said, “Get whatever you need.” So she and her fiancé did just that.

They had a storybook wedding followed by a lavish reception. But the unlimited expense account later forced her father to work two jobs in an attempt to pay the wedding-related bills.

Not long after the wedding, his health failed due to his long work hours and he had to file for bankruptcy. His lack of courage to set a “wedding-budget boundary” resulted in financial chaos and an unspoken damaged relationship with his daughter.

Ineffective Work

Your effectiveness at work will suffer if you refuse to assign boundaries for professional and personal limits. The Bible cautions against excessive work hours, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat.” 1

Although I knew this scriptural warning, for years I disregarded it, believing that I was different, that I could put in extra-long hours and still maintain a quality work and family life. Instead of arranging for adequate personal and family times, I sacrificed my own health for the sake of others. And once my personal health began to fail, I was not as able to effectively engage at work.

Poor Self Care

The Old Testament’s King Solomon, apparently a workaholic, penned these words (paraphrased here) thousands of years ago, “Why am I working like a dog and never having any fun?

Fortunately, he was later able to pass on the things he learned about the importance of balance in his life. Like Solomon, I have tried to gain from my mistakes, sharing with others what I’ve learned through setting and maintaining boundaries.

Consider the following examples from two gifted women, Jan Dravecky and Jennifer Garner. They illustrate how our own problems with time management, relationships, and boun­daries can add unnecessary burdens to our already busy lives.

Jan Dravecky is married to Dave Dravecky, a former major league baseball pitcher. Along with her numerous other responsibilities, Jan is a busy mom. A few years ago, she reflected on her addictive desire to be needed. Does the following quote from Jan sound familiar to you and your life?

I was saying yes to my kids and yes to my husband and yes to my friends, but I rarely said yes to myself. My set of rules dictated that if a need existed, I needed to fill it.

Actress Jennifer Garner, a mother of two young daughters, shared a similar sentiment, “I understood how to take care of people, but I didn’t know how to ask for anything I needed. It was important to balance it out.”

Do you often struggle with finding the balance between work, play, and self-nourishment? What are your biggest problem areas? How have poor boundaries affected your life?

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Boundary Setting: A Practical Guide. To learn more, please click here.

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Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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