Helping People To Have Problems


Wait… what??? Yes, you read the title correctly and it will make more sense by the end, I promise.  The subject of Boundaries is huge and very important, so I am sure there will be many more articles I write about this.  But I will start with a story that really introduced me to this topic and it is paraphrased from the book, “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend. 

The parents of a 25 year old came in to see the Psychologist with a common request: they wanted him to “fix” their son, Bill.  They explained that their son did not join them because he did not believe he had a problem.

To their surprise the doctor replied,  “Maybe he’s right.  Tell me about it.”

It was apparent they loved their son very much and were heartbroken over the way he was living.  They told the doctor 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.  They had tried everything they knew to get him to change and live a responsible life, but all had failed. 

He was  using drugs, flunking school, avoiding responsibility, and keeping questionable company.

The doctor finally responded “I think your son is right.  He doesn’t have a problem.”

The parents looked like they turned to statues.  The stunned father asked, “Did I hear you right?  You don’t think he has a problem?”

“That’s correct,” the doctor 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 stands now, they are yours.  Would you like for me to help you help him to have some problems?”

Completely confused, the mother asked,  “What do you mean, ‘help him to have some problems’?”

“Well,” the doctor 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.”

The doctor went on to explain, “It’s as if your son is your neighbor, who never waters his lawn.  But whenever you turn on your sprinkler system, the water falls on his lawn and not yours.  Your grass is turning brown and dying, but he looks down at his green grass and thinks to himself ‘My yard is doing just 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 fix the sprinkler system so the water would fall on your own lawn, he would be living in dirt and he might not like that after a while and eventually he would need to do something to change to live a better life.”

“But isn’t that cruel?” asked the mother.

“Has ‘helping him’ actually helped?” the doctor asked.


Now I love this story.  You could replace the “son” in this story with anyone who you feel is taking advantage of you.  Whether it’s children, parents, friends, colleagues, boss, strangers, etc.  It’s great to help people but it’s important for you to realize what is your true responsibility and for them to realize what is really theirs.  These are the people who could manage by themselves but choose not to and you help because you feel sorry for them, guilty, or outright mistrust their judgments.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying never help anyone!  But there comes a point when you realize you are a crutch for someone and they have no problem making their responsibilities yours.  Sometimes loving them the most means putting up those boundaries so that they handle their own responsibilities.  If they get angry, give you a guilt trip, or remove their love (and no doubt they will in the beginning), you need to hold to your guns.  Your life is no less important than anyone else and it is time for the manipulation to stop. 




P.S. - Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have many different books on the subject of Boundaries.  Just note, there is a very religious undertone and if you are not religious you can just overlook those bits and still get very good advice.  

Here is the link:







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