Meet Shelly*. Shelly is a 55-year-old woman, married for 25 years to
the same man, mother of a 23-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.
She is the grandmother of two adorable grandbabies, ages 3 and 1.
Here is a typical day in Shelly’s life: Wake up and grab a quick cup
of coffee before the chaos starts. A short time later, her youngest
grandchild begins crying. She goes in to get her up. This wakes up the
3-year-old, and she works at changing them, dressing them, and getting
them breakfast. Meanwhile, she keeps prompting her son to get out of bed
and checks her daughter’s room to see if she even came home last night.
Shelly’s husband walks into the kitchen and starts off the morning
with, “Isn’t the coffee made yet!? You know I need coffee first thing!
After all I do for you the least you could do for me is get the coffee
going!” She sighs to herself but apologizes profusely out loud to him
for not having it going yet. This isn’t going to be one of her husband’s
Eventually her husband leaves for work and her son stumbles out the
door, calling his mother a stupid ***** when she apologetically and
almost fearfully reminds him to be home on time later that night because
he’s currently being grounded for violating curfew the night before.
The house now relatively quiet, Shelly settles down to a morning of
cleaning up the messes her husband, son, and daughter left behind and
playing with her grandkids.
Shortly before noon, her daughter stumbles in, alcohol oozing from
her pores, bleary-eyed, and screaming at her mother that she needs
coffee. Shelly quietly gets it for her and apologizes profusely, again,
for not having it ready on time. She then attempts to smooth down her
daughter’s hair, rub her back, and ask her if there is anything she can
do for her. “Yeah, make sure my brats stay quiet so I can get some
sleep!” her daughter bellows at her. She then turns and begins screaming
at the kids that they better be quiet and if she so much hears a peep
out of them, she’ll beat them within an inch of their life. Eventually
her daughter disappears into her bedroom -– to sleep away her day until
she disappears for the night again.
Shelly’s son returns home after school, surprisingly enough, but it’s
only a matter of time before Shelly almost wishes he hadn’t. Before
supper he’s bent his mother’s arm behind her back, demanding $20 for a
“field trip”, and slapped her on the face when she half-heartedly
attempts to tell him to “not treat her like that.”
Supper has been on the stove for almost three hours when Shelly’s
husband stomps in a little before 9:00, and the flies into a rage when
he discovers the meat is dried out from sitting out. Shelly, yet again,
apologizes for the inconvenience, and offers to cook him a second meal
that is fresher. He yells that it’s too late to wait for that, he’ll
have to eat the “crap” she already made, and then proceeds to ignore
Shelly for the rest of the night — until he demands that she come to bed
Shelly cries herself to sleep, wondering how her life became like
this and wondering if there is a way out. She daydreams of being able to
speak up to her family members and wishes she knew when it was right to
say “yes” to them, and ponders how she could possibly say “no”. She
determines to find a counselor in the morning as she decides once and
for all that she cannot go on living like this.
True to her determination, Shelly finds that counselor and begins the
long process of learning when to say yes, and how to say no, to all of
her troubled family members. Her counselor helps her do this by teaching
her all about boundaries and the top ten laws of them.
A boundary, as Shelly’s counselor teaches her, defines who you are.
It defines what your personal responsibilities are, your thoughts,
emotions, opinions, and even your physical being. Many of us have lost
our boundaries for various reasons. An example of this is taking
responsibility for someone else’s actions. Not only does that cause us
to lose our own boundary, it has caused the other person to lose a
boundary they need to claim for themselves.
Shelly quickly caught on to what the counselor was saying. She could
see how she no longer even knew what her boundaries were and she began
to catch a glimpse of how her family members’ boundaries were undefined
as well. The counselor pointed out that Shelly would never be able to
stop from crossing boundary lines with her family members until she knew
clearly what her own boundaries were and were not.
In order to achieve this, Shelly needed to come up with who she was.
She also needed to come up with who she wasn’t. In addition, she needed
to figure out what she needed to own as hers, and what was not hers to
own. This was a hard task for Shelly at first. For years now she had
been taking on other people’s emotions and failures as her own and
couldn’t remember the last time she was her own person. But as time went
on, she began to get a sense of her own unique identity as a woman.
Once Shelly found herself, it was time to start enforcing some ground
rules with her family. Before this could take place, however, one more
thing needed to happen. Shelly had to gather up a strong, healthy
support system — a group of people that would encourage her and support
her when she felt she was too weak to stand up to her family members,
who were using her (and abusing her even); friends who’s homes were
open, should she need to get away for a day or two; confidants who would
have steel traps for mouths and say nothing about her situation, except
in prayer for her. Without this support system, it would be almost
impossible for Shelly to take the following steps with her family
members. Once her system was in place it was time for the real work to
begin. It was time to start working through the Ten Laws of Boundaries.
Law One: Law of sowing and reaping. There needs to be
responsibility for bad choices that are made. It is inevitable that
someone will reap from bad choices. The problem in Shelly’s case was,
she was the one reaping the consequences of her family’s bad choices.
When her husband came in late, she reaped the consequence of verbal
abuse and sometimes cooking another meal, just to pacify him. When her
daughter drank and used up her money, Shelly was reaping the
consequences of taking care of her daughter’s children but having no
financial help in doing so.
No one in Shelly’s home was reaping their own consequences because
Shelly was doing it for them! Her counselor had to ask her if she wanted
to be the one to continue to reap the consequences for everyone’s
behavior, or start letting them reap the consequences.
A person won’t change until they begin reaping their own
consequences. That is truth, plain and simple. As long as Shelly reaped
her husband’s, her son’s, and her daughter’s consequences, and they got
off scot-free; they had no motivation to do what they needed to, to
change their behavior. It was on this point that so much of her entire
situation hinged. This key point led into the second law.
Law two: Law of responsibility. We are all responsible for
our own stuff and our only job is to take responsibility for ourselves.
“Own your own stuff” was the saying Shelly heard repeatedly from her
We can be so fed up with our situation at hand that the pendulum can
begin to swing the other way, until we are demanding everyone take
responsibility for themselves, but then deny where we have been wrong.
There is a balance.
Shelly actually had to take responsibility for taking on too much
responsibility. She had to verbalize to her daughter and to her husband
that she had been wrong to take on the responsibility for their wrong
Shelly also had to take responsibility that her struggles with anger,
resentment, and resulting depression were the result of her own
inability to be firm with her family members. They couldn’t make her
angry. It was her own choices making her angry. This was hard to admit.
It seemed more fair somehow to blame them for her depression. She began
to find that her own wrong choices were resulting in her depression.
Law Three: Law of power. As hard as it was for Shelly to own
her own stuff, she began to find a freedom in doing so. Why? Because
she was able to change what she owned! She couldn’t change the things
that didn’t belong to her, but she could change what did belong to her.
Shelly learned that she did not have to take on false guilt when her
husband accused her of being a bad wife for not having coffee made first
thing. She learned how to tell herself that he was a grown man, capable
of making his own coffee, and the fact that she was caring for her
grandchildren each morning was a valid reason the coffee wasn’t started
most mornings. Shelly learned to change her thought patterns (i.e. “I’m a
bad wife” to “I’m a busy woman and my husband is capable of doing…”)
which then helped change her emotional responses.
Law four: Law of respect. Everyone needs to respect another
person’s boundaries, while at the same time, respecting their own
boundaries. Shelly’s husband was not respecting Shelly’s emotional
boundaries (he was beating her down with demeaning comments) or her
physical boundaries (he wasn’t realizing that she could only do so much
in a day and was demanding sex at night, despite his emotional treatment
of her during the day). Her son wasn’t respecting her boundaries
physically (beating her up) or her boundary as his mother (telling her
she was stupid instead of treating her with respect).
Shelly needed to begin respecting her own boundaries before she could
begin to expect others to respect them. Once she did, however, she
began enforcing those boundaries with her family members. She told her
son that if he continued slapping her around she would call the police
on him and file a report.
She told her husband that if he continued to demean her she would
walk away from him until he could learn to speak to her respectfully.
She added that if he came after her and hit her as she walked away, she
would take the grandchildren and go to a safe place. She also told him
that until he got help for his anger problem and began treating her
properly, she would not be sleeping in the same bedroom anymore, being
at his sexual demand whenever he wanted fulfillment.
She told her daughter that her home was no longer a place for her to
sleep off her drunken stupor, but instead, her daughter was going to
find the locks changed and the doors not opened to her if she came home
By now, Shelly had been in counseling for almost a year. The work was
exhausting but she could look over the past months and see that it was
accomplishing something — she was finding self-confidence and wasn’t
feeling so hopeless at the end of every day. She knew there was more
work to do, but she was confident that if she had gotten this far, she
would be able to go all the way.
This article is adapted from principles found in Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
*All characters are fictional as are specific circumstances. However,
the story has been created based on the countless scenarios I was
presented with while running my private counseling practice.