Series 04: For the Love of Fall and Holidays | Episode 05
Wise Men [And Women] Bring Gifts Of Boundaries At The Holidays With Dr. Henry Cloud & John Townsend
It’s the most wonderful (and frenzied) time of the year and this fourth episode in our “For the Love of Fall & Holidays” series is a can’t-miss. If your holiday routine has become a pattern of stretching yourself too thin, tirelessly trying to please relatives and friends, taking care of others at the expense of your own sanity and, thus, turning the holidays into a season of dread, you’ll want to carve out some time for this episode. Before the whirlwind of travel, family gatherings and general holiday mayhem begin, come sit in on my chat with the experts behind the blockbuster Boundaries series of books, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. (You’ve heard so many of my guests mention them in other episodes; it’s because these guys are the best in this field.) They’ll tackle these all-too-common holiday pitfalls with humor, grace and very practical advice revolving around 3 key ideas you need to hear to keep from going bonkers this season. To a happy and healthy holiday season!
Narrator: Welcome to the “For the Love Podcast” with bestselling author Jen Hatmaker. Come on in, and join us for a chat with Jen and friends about all the things we love. Now, here’s Jen.
Jen: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. It’s me, Jen. Super glad to have you today. We are in the middle of a series that I’m loving: “For the Love of Fall and Holidays.” We’re tackling all sorts of ideas, but it occurred to me that a lot of us are heading into this season with some trepidation and dread because it comes with all this family togetherness and expectations, and one thing that we are chronically not great at in our culture, certainly in our generation, is boundaries.
I can’t even tell you how excited I am to have today’s guests on. In fact, I was so nervous getting ready for this interview because their work has been so meaningful to me, it’s mattered to the way that I parent, the way that I handled my marriage, and the way that I handled my career, and that’s not a joke.
Their research and counsel was super fundamental to me at a really important time, as I was trying to figure out how am I going to live my life, and so, I’m thrilled to have them on today.
On the podcast today, we have Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. These guys, they’re beyond. If you don’t already know who they are, they’re probably most well known for their book Boundaries. Boundaries was my first introduction to them and what literally set my feet on a completely different path. It’s an international best-seller. It’s sold over two million copies at this point, and in fact they just have a new version out right this minute that includes an expanded and updated portion on boundaries in the digital age. Because when it first came out, we didn’t even have cell phones and the Internet, and so they’ve added their expertise to that really important conversation. And so Dr. Cloud, let me talk about him first. He is just. He’s an acclaimed leadership expert. I don’t know how else to describe him. He’s a psychologist. Obviously, a New York Times best-selling author. His books alone have sold more than 10 million copies, you guys, so he’s doing all right.
In his leadership consulting practice, Dr. Cloud works with everybody. He works with Fortune 500 companies. He works with small private businesses. He works with churches. He works with individuals. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tori, and their two daughters, Olivia and Lucy.
Then, we also have Dr. John Townsend, who’s a business consultant and a leadership coach, and also a psychologist. He has written or co-written 30 books. Also selling over 10 million copies, and so this project together, Boundaries, absolutely put them on the map in permanent fashion. And so, Dr. Townsend is … he’s a co-host of a nationally syndicated talk show called New Life Live. I’m going to have a link to that in the transcript, and it’s heard in 180 different markets with over three million listeners and he’s also the founder of the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling, which might be a great resource for you.
I really want you to check out all of their work. They have a lot of online resources, and I’ll make sure that their websites are all up and you can find everything that you need. That specific Institute offers online graduate degrees–this might interest some of you–and credentialing in three different areas: Organizational Leadership, Executive Coaching, and Counseling.
That may be something you want to look into at the close of this episode, but you’re definitely going to want to listen in, because–oh, by the way, Dr. Townsend and his wife, Barbi, live in Newport Beach, California. They’ve got two sons, Ricky and Benny, who are 15 and 17, same age as two of my five kids.
We dig into all kinds of stuff in this episode, you guys. It’s so useful. It’s really really practical. You’re going to hear a lot of scripts and things that you can say and tools that you can use with family members who are difficult or family situations that are going to be complicated, and so, you’re for sure going to want to have pen and paper for this one. You’re going to want to take some notes, and then, of course, if you can’t, this entire interview will be transcribed, and it’ll be over on my website at jenhatmaker.com.
I need to just tell you in advance that toward the end of this interview, as we talked about off-brand humor, for what it’s like to raise teen sons, I actually told these doctors, these professional doctors that I’d like to get through one Christmas when we’re decorating our tree and my boys don’t talk about Christmas balls. I said that in this interview, so I apparently was not able to maintain my composure for the course of it, and I’m sorry in advance.
But this was a really really fascinating interview, and I learned so much more than I even knew from them before, and you’re going to love it. Plus, even if they weren’t so smart, they’re funny. They could go on the road with their sort of back-and-forth standup routine. They’re great. You’re going to love this. We’ve expanded this episode a little bit because they have so much to offer.
This one is a little bit longer than normal, and you are not even going to be mad about it. Thanks for joining us and without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
Gentlemen, welcome. Welcome to the podcast.
John: Hi, Jen.
Henry: Good to be here.
Jen: I’m trying to play it cool. I’m trying to be like a really professional, normal interviewer, but your work has been so important to me–it’s mattered to my life so much–that I feel like I have no chill, and I’m sorry in advance.
Can you tell my listeners by the sound of your voice which one of you is which so they can identify you for the rest of the podcast?
Henry: It’s not by the sound of the voice. If it makes sense, it’s me, Henry, if it’s crazy, it’s John. That’s the best way to tell.
Jen: That feels incredibly biased, but unless he’s going to offer a rebuttal, we’re going to have to go with that.
John: Most of my audience says that the way to hear the difference is that I’m the biblical one, Jen.
Jen: Super. Okay, that’s great. That clears everything up, you guys.
You know what’s interesting, you guys? I’ve had a lot of really smart and talented and powerful women on this podcast, and I can’t tell you how many times one of my guests has mentioned your work in just the course of something we’re discussing. You’ve been mentioned already on this podcast by Amena Brown, by Annie Downs, by Shauna Niequist. I know you’ve had contact with some of those girls.
Your reach is far. It really is. It’s gone, probably, well beyond what you ever expected. Obviously, in a few minutes, we really wanted to have you guys on today just to help us navigate boundaries around holidays–all this family togetherness we’re all about to face, but I did want to take just a hot minute to talk about your flagship book together, Boundaries, which by the way–and listeners we’re going to have all this link for you–you’ve got an updated and expanded version out right now which includes boundaries for the digital age, for the Internet. Listen, parents the worldwide over cannot thank you enough for that. This book is just bonkers. It’s just bonkers how many copies…it has sold over two million. It just continues to make the rounds. It continues to instruct us.
I just have to ask you if you ever imagined when you first sat down together and put this together, that Boundaries would be just as far reaching and is resonant as it has been? Can you even explain to us what it was like when you wrote it, and then what your response was to all of our response to it?
John: Henry, tell them the story about when we first thought what was going to happen when we wrote the book, what we expected. It’s illustrative.
Henry: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, Jen. We were out speaking a lot because we had a chain of treatment centers, and so we would do seminars, and we were in a planning day one day, and the consultant asked us, “When you all go speak, what are most of the questions about and the material that you deliver?” We started laughing. We said, “All the questions are about boundaries.” He said, “Well, why don’t you all write a book on boundaries?” And we started laughing.
Literally, because what we said was: “That would be awesome. If we wrote a book on it, then when people have questions, they can just read the book, and we’ll never have to talk about this again.”
We can work on the other stuff we care about. We just had no idea, but you know what, we should have an idea, because the basic issue is this: that loving and responsible people–people that are pretty kind and loving and they care, and they’re pretty responsible–all have the same problem. They tend to attract some people into their lives that aren’t so loving and aren’t so responsible.
Because they are, they try to be patient, giving, and sacrificial, and they get used and abused a lot of times. And because they’re loving, it’s hard for them to stand up and say, “No, that’s not okay,” and set limits, and say, “I’m not going to do that.” It really hit a chord, I think, because all of us can identify with it at some level.
Jen: No question. It’s interesting. What year did Boundaries first come out?
Jen: Yeah. Oh, my goodness! I was graduating from high school.
John: It’s so funny you’re saying that, Jen. Henry and I were 10 years old when we wrote that book.
Jen: Of course you were. You were prodigies. What did we expect?
It’s interesting; because since then, so many people have emulated your work and built upon it, but, at least from my perspective, you were the first. You were the first ones to come out and talk about this, so it was something that virtually every human being is affected by. We all have boundary issues with somebody, or we’re not even safe.
There wasn’t any instruction on that, so your work has now been the fertile soil for hundreds of other folks who have come upon and built on your shoulders. Can you tell us really quick before we move on a little bit about the portion that you added to Boundaries right now, the digital boundary section?
Henry: It’s funny. When we wrote the book, you actually could hide from people. You could not pick up the phone. You could go physically to another building. When you’re at work or at home, you had a professional life and a personal life. And then this Internet, when it went to the smartphone, there’s no place to hide. Basically, the boundaries of time and space got pierced because your boss, or your wacko extended family relative, or crazy friend, they can find you anytime, anywhere, and they expect to hear right back. And life just gets infected with instant access, and people can’t have family dinners or they can’t go on dates without the phones sitting there on the table and interrupting. It’s just a mess.
Jen: Absolutely, I mean, in 1992, of course, we didn’t have any of it. We didn’t have social media. We didn’t have cellphones. The most intrusive anybody could ever be with us was on call waiting. Like, “Oh, my goodness, you didn’t click over when I called you on your landline.” But I’m so grateful that you’ve added your expertise to this area because, for us, it’s not only about parenting our kids through it. We’re the first generation to have to parent teenagers through this unprecedented access to each other.
John: Jen, it’s not only the access, but it’s now the addictive part of it too that we’re noticing. You ever heard of FOMO?
Jen: I do and I experience it.
John: Yeah, and our kids experience it too: the fear of missing out. Because you have an entire world, and you have an entire high-powered computer in your back jeans pocket where you can get any information, not only about the world and politics, but about what sweater your friends wearing today and what they ate for lunch. And so the drive of that is “I don’t want to miss out on what’s happening.” We all have it, and so it controls.
I talk in the book about how I was having dinner with my wife, Barbi, and I had to go to the restroom. I excused myself, and picked up my phone and went to the restroom and checked my email for some stupid reason. I had no fire I was putting out. It’s just I had my phone, so I walked back.
John: And I sit down back at the table, and Barbi says, “Did you take your phone to the…?” I went, “Yeah.” She goes, “Were you reading email?” I went, “Yeah.” She goes, “You’re writing about this. It’s FOMO! You have it!”
Jen: It’s crazy. It’s like an infectious disease. I travel a lot. You guys do too. The phenomenon in airports is maybe where I notice it the most because at any point, in any airport, in any country, at any time of day.
John: They’re not talking to each other. They’re not laughing. They’re not smiling. What are they doing?
Jen: Everyone. The grandmas, the couples, the teenagers, the four year olds, everyone. It’s like, “Wow!” In less than one generation, our entire culture has changed, and so we don’t have enough people teaching us how to manage it right now. It’s just so new. We’re all just, I think, probably doing it wrong, and we’re awaiting for our kids to grow up and write books about how we did it so poorly.
John: Well, actually, that’s what that whole chapter is about, is that that horse has left the barn. Henry and I love tech. It’s never going to go away. That’s great. But now you have to have certain ground rules to deal with it because it must be managed.
Jen: That’s just it. So grateful that you applied your knowledge to that. Everybody listening, that is the latest addition of Boundaries, and it is out, and I love anybody who can come alongside of us and tell us how to live our lives. Thank you for being those people. Okay, you guys, listen.
Henry: Jen, can I say one thing about that chapter or that section of the book? I’ve done a lot of interviews on this, and one of the things we get a lot of questions about are the teens. And parents worrying about their teenagers, and social media, and their phones, and all of that. One of the things that is really, really, really important is parents–they want to make sure their kids are safe, and want to monitor them and this, that, and the other–one of the things that we see is we see an overreach by a lot of parents.
Jen: What do you mean?
Henry: Well, they think that they should be reading all their kid’s texts, and all their emails, and all those kind of stuff. Now, think back when you were in high school. If you could never have a conversation with a friend of yours that your mother was not in, that’s so crazy and unhealthy.
Jen: Good point.
Henry: And so, what we talk about in the book is look, privacy is something that everybody needs, but there’s a difference in privacy, and secrecy, and committing crimes. When your kids grow up in the real world, the cops are not going to be able to come in and search their house without probable cause. And so we try to get parents to look at the relationship you have with your child.
There’s not a technological answer to this. It’s a relational answer. That you have the kind of relationship where you have trust, and they have freedom, and they use that responsibly, and they don’t hurt themselves or anybody else, and you give that to them. But, if there’s probable cause, that’s when you get a search warrant. Make sure you’re using the teenagers and the digital world to enhance your kid’s maturity, not delay it.
Jen: I could listen to you talk about this for a hundred hours. We just aren’t sure. We don’t have a generation ahead of us to look to as an example here, so we’re making this up as we go.
John: We kind of polarize it. There’s the, “I want to be my child’s best friend Disney parent” that just wants to hang out and have fun, and their kids have no structure and are going crazy, and then there’s the anal-retentive, frightened, helicopter parent who wants to go through the chest of drawers every second, and that’s crazy too. Neither one of those prepare a child for what the Bible calls in Psalm 85, it says that “In God, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Righteousness is structure and honesty and liability and all that, and peace is love. They’re not being trained to be righteous, loving people. That’s where you got to be able to, like Henry said, you really validate freedom that’s earned. When they earn that freedom, you give them more, but when they don’t, you got to take them out of the pool.
Jen: That’s really good.
Henry: We talk about a formula in there that when my girls became teenagers–they’re 15 and 17 now–but when they first became teenagers, I sat down and said, “Look, guys, here’s the deal. You’re about to become teenagers, and you’re going to want to have a lot of freedom, and I could not be more for that. The last thing I want to do is control you. The last thing. I don’t want to have control of you. I want you to have something the Bible calls self-control.”
Jen: That’s good.
Henry: Here’s the formula. It’s a math equation. Freedom equals responsibility equals love. All three of those have got to be equal, so you’ll have as much freedom as you use responsibly, and here’s a way you can tell you’re using it responsibly: if you’re not doing anything destructive to you or somebody else.
Jen: Pretty simple.
Henry: If you can do that, hey, I’m the last person going to be policing you, but if you don’t use it responsibly, there’s something hurtful to you or somebody else then that freedom equation, part of the equation begins to go down too.
Jen: Listen, let me confess something to you. I wrote a study a few years ago. First of all, let me commend you for writing a book that has such a long tail, and it’s shelf life is so amazing, and you can still stand by it and be proud of it 25 years later because I wrote a Bible study over a decade ago, and it was unfortunately titled Girl Talk, and I’m sorry, please still try to respect me.
The point was: the study was specifically dialed into healthy relationships between women, and I essentially built the whole premise on your book Safe People. It was life changing for me, and I’ve got the exact book that I read back then on my shelf marked up to an inch of its life.
For my listeners who aren’t familiar with Safe People, This was an amazing, amazing piece of work that you gave us and that asked the question: “Why do we choose the wrong people to get involved with? And is it possible to change? And if so, how?” Obviously, millions of us are drawn to people who aren’t necessarily good for us, and we repeat these patterns over and over. We see them play out and play out.
In my feeling, you did a phenomenal job of outlining how we can learn to make safe choices in relationships from everything from friendships, to work relationships, to romantic relationships, and I really liked how you turn the mirror on the reader: “Are you a safe person?” Because a lot of us are unsafe, and we don’t even necessarily know it. We’re not self-aware enough to know, so you gave us a lot of freedom in that book to look at the people we choose and why and then how to choose better.
Can you tell us about how it’s not blaming other people for the relational dysfunction in our lives, but rather equipping us to love better, to be happier and more stable in our relationships, and to figure out what relationships are unsafe and which ones are safe?
John: The reason we wrote that is that after Boundaries became popular, people would come out to us and say, “I’ve been doing this boundaries thing since I read your book, and now I don’t have any friends, so can you help me.
Jen: An unfortunate side effect.
John: Yeah. Nothing could be further from the truth that boundaries are about all those bad people out there. Not only is it our fault, we’ve got to be the one that either gives the choice or takes the choice, but secondly, sometimes there are boundaries conflicts, Jen, where there’s no bad guy. Like, somebody wants to go and have dinner with you and you’ve already got a scheduled thing that night.
They just want to be with you and so to have to say, “No,” and say “Here’s why. Can I reschedule?” It’s not always about a toxic, controlling addict. Sometimes it’s just schedules don’t work out. Boundaries is about being the good guy all the time if you can be. The whole idea behind the Safe People thing was, in order to have really good boundaries, your first step is not to start to run out and say no all the time, because it can mess up relationships, and you got things in your head.
Now that we’re studying the neuroscience, Henry and I are spending most of our time studying neuroscience now and how boundaries are such a big part of that. If you’ve never set limits before, if you’re trained your family to be the enabler, and the glue to hold everybody together, and the yes person, the approval seeker, or the people-pleaser; while your brain’s been trained to do that, you just don’t walk out with a big stop sign that says “No.” You’re going to feel guilty, and you’re going to say it wrong, and you’re going to take your words back. It’s going to be bad.
The very first thing you’ve got to do, is you’ve got to get the right boundary-loving people around you because God built us for relationship, not only with Him, with each other. You got to have a few people, and you have to say something like, “I’m reading this book, and I’m learning that I don’t have these boundaries. That’s why I’m tired and burn out, and is it okay if I say no to you every now and then?”
Most sane people would go: “Goodness, gracious, yeah, you can do it to me, and I can do it to you. We can still be friends.” You’ve got to get that team in your head, in your life, in your heart, so that you can have the wherewithal to retrain yourself to have boundaries. That’s what Safe People was about.
Jen: It really is, and I feel like what Safe People did for me was to lay paver stones to that kind of life I wanted to experience. So much of your work made perfect sense to me, and I could see the end game: Those are the people I want in my life. I want to be that person. And I wasn’t sure how to unravel from habits or relationships where it was just way too tangled, and I didn’t know how to smooth that out, and Safe People really laid some pavement for that. Specifically, one thing that you said in that study that I quoted…
And just for the record, I gave you, of course, all the credit. Essentially, the entire bibliography for Girl Talk is Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend. The end. Just read their book and now you’ll know. One thing you wrote in there was: “Entitlement destroys safety because no normal human can fulfill our demands. It’s impossible to love an entitled person as some fault, some empathetic misstep, or insensitivity will send the entire relationship tumbling down. The entitled person must be listened to and understood perfectly at all times or she feels injured or wounded.” And that zinged me so incredibly hard because not only did I have relationships like that, but I think I was that person in a couple of relationship too. And so, I like this kind of “tough talk” that your books just give it to us straight.
If you would just for a second, that whole idea: “It’s impossible to love an entitled person.” Can you expand on that for just a second because we’re about to head into the holidays, and we–I don’t know—might possibly find ourselves in company with some entitled people?
Henry: No, that never happens at holidays.
Jen: Not in our families. I just mean other people’s.
Henry: Well, one of the biggest problems, if you just think of the world “entitled”, it means that somebody feels like they own the title to something of yours…like a deed, right? I’ve got the title to your home. I’m entitled to come to your house, and you owe me the right to do whatever I want. So if somebody has an entitled personality, they think that they are…they deserve and/or have the right to difference in kinds of treatment and loving them in the way they want to be love. When you don’t do it, in their head, you’ve committed a crime.
Now the reality is: in real relationships, freedom and love go together. And so, let’s say that you’re entitled, and you say “Hey, I want you to come for Thanksgiving and spend the night before and bring all the kids and this, that, and the other.” You’re my mom, and I have a separate family now. We “leaved and cleaved” as the Bible says. I say, “Well, we’d love to come over for Thanksgiving dinner, but we’re going to spend the night before at our house, because we’re building our own traditions there.”
Now, if you’re a non-entitled mom, you’ll go, “Oh, that’s great. Well, we’ll look forward to you. I wish you could come the whole time but I understand.” And life goes on. But if you are entitled to the attention that you want, then by our not coming and spending the night, we’ve actually done something bad. We’ve done something wrong. It’s not just a different choice. We’ve actually committed a crime. Every crime’s got to be punished.
Entitlement, it’s just … I can’t tell you how many business meetings I’ve been in where somebody will say something to somebody else or have a question about a deal, and the person bristles, and he goes, “So, are you questioning my integrity?” I just think “well, gosh, I wasn’t, but I am now.”
Who is above being questioned? Of course we want people to question us: “I saw you do this” or “It didn’t look right” or “I’m confused about this. Help me understand.” If we owe anybody anything, it’s we owe them an explanation to have their perceptions make sense. Entitlement is ugly.
Jen: It is, and I know for so many people listening–of course, their minds are automatically reaching for that person in their life that is incredibly entitled–but for most of us, just in order to avoid conflict, we’ve adapted our behaviors, of course, to keep that person happy, to appease what they feel like they deserve or what they’re entitled to. It feels like, initially, this will just simply be easier than setting boundaries.
John: It’s an exercise in futility, and the Bible teaches that, Jen, because there’s a proverb that says–I think it’s around chapter 29–talks about a bug and a leech, not a bug, an animal. It says, “The leech has two sisters. The first one, her name is “Give,” and the second one’s name is “Give.” You can sort of pacify that entitled person by trying to “Okay, I’ll make them happy now,” but you’re going to reap the whirlwind tomorrow. It never fixes things.
Jen: It doesn’t.
John: My book Entitlement Cure that came out a few months ago has all this stuff in there.
Jen: Okay. That’s a great resource because it really is … it only feels like a short-term solution to avoid conflict, but ultimately, we’ll end up resenting that person or destroying the relationships.
Henry: Also, like John said, it’s not going to end with that one demand that you gave into. There’s only going to be 64 million after that.
Jen: That’s right.
Henry: We think exactly what you said, Jen. You said, “It’s easier just to give into it.” It’s so much easier to not brush your teeth and just go to bed, but the root canal that ultimately you’re going to have to have is not a fun afternoon. It’s just not.
Jen: It’s so true. Obviously, I’m sure you’ve circled the wagons on this point a zillion times, but I think maybe what you taught that instructed me more than any other truth that you laid out, was the idea of reaping what you sow, and that when we are always reaping what somebody else is sowing, that is just simply not the way God wired His community to work. That’s not a healthy way.
The tricky thing is when you have been reaping what somebody else is sowing for so long, when you stop doing that, just as a sign of health and good boundaries, they’re going to lose it. They’re going to lose it because that’s the first time they’ve had to reap what they sow in a really long time. And so there’s just a little bit of inevitable chaos, right? In the real world, things might get a little rockier before they get better, would you say that’s true or is that your experience?
Henry: Has anybody ever had a toddler, you ever been around a toddler.
Jen: Yeah, so many of them.
Henry: Okay, yeah, so what happens? The first year, they’re used to you doing pretty much whatever they want. They get hungry, okay, here I’ll feed you. They get tired, you rock them. It’s all about them, but what happens is, they get to this next phase where life asks them to start. Life says, “We’re going to stop meeting all of your demands, and now you’re going to have to meet the demand of life.”
What that means is, life is going to demand for you to not go over there, not step over that line, not go step off the curb, or not pick up that hot stove thing or whatever it is, and we’re going to say “No” to you. When the toddler first hears that, they…go…crazy. Red faced, raged, all sorts of punishment. Well, that’s cute at 14, 15 months old, and we expect it, but at 40, it’s not cute anymore. The reason is: nobody’s ever said “No” to them. There’s a proverb. Proverbs 19:19 says, “If you rescue an angry man, you’ll only have to do it again tomorrow.”
Jen: Very good. Yes.
Henry: All you’re doing is putting off the root canal, so just go ahead and do it today and save yourself.
Jen: I love that courage. Let’s take that idea, and let’s point the arrow in the direction of the holidays because your work has so much, so many grips here in this season, so, obviously, a ton of us are going to be around difficult families in the next few weeks, difficult family members, or even just the demands on our schedule, on our time, on our calendar, on our families. It’s just a weird time of the year.
You’ve got some really, really good–plus, by the way, this is a weird year–so, some of us are walking into family environments that feel more volatile than they have in some time. It feels like to me we’re more polarized right now. We’re more entrenched. We’re more tribal. We’re more contentious.
Even in an already rocky situation, I think a lot of our listeners are thinking, “Oh, not this year. Please let the rapture happen before Thanksgiving.” I’d love to talk about boundaries in the holidays a little bit. You guys have outlined a way that we can enjoy this season, and you’ve given us some guidance, basically in three specific areas that I’d love to unpack with you.
You say three things. Number one: make decisions as an adult with our families. Number two: deal with awkward relatives or unpleasant behavior. And number three: set boundaries when your family gets too close for comfort. Let’s talk about that first one where we’re making decisions as an adult with our families. So we’re all adult children of adults, at this season in our lives and dependency.
Henry: We’re all adult children of adult children. You’ve got to remember that.
Jen: That’s true and as are they. Our dependency on our parents and our other elder relatives we hope has diminished, you know, in this just, sort of, very dependent space.
John: Might be not even dependent, vulnerable.
Jen: Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe that’s a better word.
John: The reason I like that word for the holidays is because the holidays are really emotional time where people have real sentimental vulnerable feelings about either the holidays that were, or sometimes, the wish for the holidays that never were that they wish could have been.
Jen: I’m telling you; you are singing so many people’s song right now.
John: That makes us vulnerable. It’s like, “If I put up with alcoholic Uncle Ernie’s behavior one more time, and I’m kind to him, maybe he’ll go to AA for once in 2018.” We walk into that. You got to understand how the brain works. You walk into the thoughts about the holidays from sort of a rose colored glass, and you’re just more vulnerable to this.
That’s what our first point is of the adult decision: you sit around the family and say, “Hey, we want a great Thanksgiving. We want a great holiday. We want a great Christmas and great New Year.” You know how it is. We love these folks, but there’s some things we want to make sure that we get done, and time-wise, you make really grown up decisions way before Black Friday happens with this sort of thing, so you’re objective.
And then you can control, not only–I know your second point is more about the awkward people. We’ll get to that because Henry’s got a lot of experience being an awkward person–but he’ll really help you there.
John: The first thing about the schedule. Just what are the good things we can do that we want to make sure? We want to go to our church and not miss that great thing we’re doing. We want to go to the domestic violence shelter and love on those people and go to the homeless shelter. We want to visit our friends. You schedule those things out not based on upsetting people, but based on what you feel like is the right thing to do. Get off the rose-colored glasses and say, “What’s really realistic about the holidays?”
Jen: I love that, because otherwise the tail is going to wag the dog. I think that’s a pretty simple step, but sitting down in advance together and saying, “What are our expectations out of this season? What do we really want?” A lot of us don’t do that at all, and all of a sudden, we’re mired in chaos and can’t figure out why we hate everybody. And it’s just…
Henry: You’ve got two choices though, or two options. One is that you can decide now what you want on January 2nd. What you want to be able to look back at, saying, “Wasn’t that a great holiday season? Or you want to wake up on January 2nd and go, “What happened to the holidays. I’m so tired and miserable, and all this.” Life either happens to us or yeah, obviously there’s bad things out of our control, but we’re supposed to live life intentionally.
What I like to encourage people do is sit down before the holidays hit and say “Okay, we’ve got this amount of time, how many parties are we going to go to? How many holidays?” Let’s say that you come up with the right number, and then you’re going to spend that number well. Or “How much family time you want to have?” Or “How much free time…where I don’t want to be last minute doing this…I want to be able to have some space.” And “What people do I want to not be around?”
You may have to call Uncle Ernie, and you may have to say, “Ernie, I love you, and I want you at the holiday gathering. But last year, what happened was you got over served, and then you started to get mean to the kids, and I don’t want that to happen again, so I need your promise right now that (A) if you come, that’s not going to happen and (B), if it does happen, let’s agree right now on what will happen then. That I’m going to ask you to leave, okay?”
You get the clear expectations ahead of time, and then you can be in control. And sometimes you have to go like John said and explain that to some people, but how much better to do it before than after.
Jen: Let’s talk about Uncle Ernie. Let’s say that we’ve done the really mature step of setting expectations in advance. We’ve head off as much unpleasant behavior at the pass as we possibly could, so what about when we’re in the middle of it, and Uncle Ernie acts a fool. Maybe we didn’t know he was going to. Maybe something went wrong. I’m not really sure what. When you say deal with that.
Henry: We already sat down and have a clear expectation for that occurrence, and we told Uncle Ernie, if that happens, here’s what I’m going to do.
Jen: In other words, “Uncle Ernie, you can drink way too much bourbon and take off your pants, but if you do that, what we’re going to do…is we’re going to drive you home.”
Henry: Actually I don’t want to miss the party, Jen. I’m not driving Ernie home. I’m going to call a paddy wagon or an Uber.
John: Yeah. I’m not sitting next to him with his pants off anyway.
Jen: It’s fair. That’s fair.
John: You started the conversation with “What if he surprises is?” With good boundaries, they’re not surprised. It’s not like he went ahead and went crazy. It’s like “Yeah, that’s the plan we do when he goes crazy,” so nobody’s ever in panic mode. He does all that awful stuff, and then you either say “Well, we’re going to go, we got a plan B, we’re going to be with our family, and we’ll have to leave or, yeah, we call the paddy wagon or something.”
But there’s a plan B. And remember, it’s not about controlling. It’s never about controlling Uncle Ernie. Galatians 5:23, all the fruit of the spirit, we love to talk about love, joy, peace, patience, and all this, but the one we always miss, Jen, is self-control. We’re not controlling him. He can take his pants off anywhere he wants, but we’re controlling what the family is going to do about that.
What if he goes crazy, and the whole family says, “We’re going to Suzie’s house next door, or a hotel conference room center, or a park.” Well, that’s what you do. You got to have the plan in place that just preserves you guys and controls what kind of Thanksgiving you’re going to have.
Jen: That’s probably, for me, the key pivot: that boundaries are never about manipulating somebody else to act right or to do what you want. It’s just simply about what am I going to put up with and what am I not? And there’s such a freedom in that. That just takes all the weight off of our shoulders because now it’s just in our hands.
Henry: I used to live on a cul de sac, at the end of the cul de sac, and I drove in one night, and I don’t know exactly what I did, but something…the lady was out in her front yard, four or five houses down, and she thought I came too close to her car, or dog, I don’t know what it was, but I go down and I park on the curb by my house, and she comes down just screaming at me, and she was wasted.
She was just drunk, and I can tell pretty quickly, this wasn’t going anywhere, and I just said, “You know, miss so and so, I have a policy that I don’t talk to people while they’re inebriated, so I just don’t do that. I’ll be glad to talk to you tomorrow. Just come knock on the door when you’re sober, and we’ll have this conversation” and went inside. See, I can’t control her. I’m not going to sit there and have three hours of arguing to a wet brain. It’s crazy, but I can’t control her. I can only control me.
Jen: That’s powerful.
Jen: Talk to us for just a minute about what do you mean when you say “Set boundaries when your family gets too close for comfort.” It is sometimes great to all be together, but sometimes it’s not. How do you think, I don’t know, what are some ideas? Can you give us some suggestions for protecting…
John: What do you mean by too close for comfort? What kind of things do you think about for your audience?
Jen: Well, I think it could be more than one thing. I think it could be too much time. Like: “We want all of your margin.” It could be too intrusive, just too much digging. Too much “We want to talk about these really complicated issues right now in front of all the kids and cousins.” Just too much. What are some ideas for when we need to say, “Family, we need space.” How do you suggest we handle protecting time, margin, and energy?
John: Well, it always begins with conversations with that family of what you will and won’t do and what you want before the event. The worst time you can make a decision is in the moment when somebody ask some awful, intrusive question or this sort of thing or hijacks you at the event. Then, you’re basically not functioning from your executive functions in your prefrontal cortex, you’re functioning from your amygdala which is firing going fight, flight, fight, flight, and you’re going to say something you don’t want to say or you’ll give in or whatever. So you got to be ahead of time. And little fun ground rules that the kids can remember and the parents can remember are going to be: “It’s okay to say if so-and-so hijacks you and want to be a close talker. Remember, Jerry Seinfeld, the “close talker?”
Jen: Yes. Of course.
John: The close talker wants to hijack you for two hours or whatever. It’s really okay for you to say, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go get a sandwich or whatever. I’ve got to go talk to Mom.” We give you guys permission to go do that. Because the kids don’t know since they’re kids that they can do that with their relatives, but they can. And that’s a little nice thing to give the kid a little bit of relief and freedom.
Jen: I like that. I like giving our kids a little script to use when they’re not sure what else to say.
Henry: Yeah. Like when my girls came home from pre-school one day, and they started singing this song and drawing these squares in front and they go, “Stop! Don’t touch me there. These are my no-no squares.” I think in some families, it’s totally smart to say, “I can’t wait to see you guys at Christmas, but I’m going to have one rule for myself: I’m not going to talk about politics, okay?”
If you all start talking about politics, that’s when I’ll go in the other room and read a book or whatever. You all have fun. Or “I’m not going to talk about religion.” Or, “I’m not going to talk about mixing politics and religion.” Or “I’m not going to talk about whether you think I ought to have my kids home-schooled or in public school. That’s not what I’m coming to Christmas.”
Jen: That’s so good.
Henry: Just say, there’s certain things that this isn’t the time or the place. You want to go talk about that, well, we’ll lock ourselves in a psych hospital and do it from there.
Jen: Thanks for giving us permission for saying that. We almost just try to not look at that conversation in the eye. Like if we don’t give it any attention, it will not present itself. But just like everything else you’re teaching us right now: do it in advance. Set this up in advance. Then you are safe.
Henry: Isn’t it kind of funny, though, that we’ll even use the phrase that you just used: “Thanks for giving me permission.” Because you don’t need permission. You’re the one that gets to choose what you’re going to talk about or not talk about.
The only time you would need permission would be from a judge that’s going to hold you in contempt to court if you don’t answer the question, and even then you could say, “I plead the fifth.”
Jen: It’s so true. We are so bound up here in other people’s feelings and expectations and take on such responsibility outside of our own control, that it’s almost like common vernacular that we need somebody else to tell us that we can prioritize our health and our sanity.
John: And yet Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart, for from it flow the well springs of life.” Nobody is going to guard my heart but me, or nobody is going to guard your heart but you. And our heart has all of our decisions and choices and passions and values and all that, and it’s kind of a command to be free to take care of yourself as opposed to asking permission.
Henry: Let me give you one example from our own family. My wife has three sisters, so there’s four adult kids, and all with families. Generally, most of the times at Christmas, we will go to her parents–to the grandparent’s house–and everybody spends the night and spends Christmas together, okay? Except for one of the sisters who their kids are at ages where some of them are starting to go off to college, this, that, and the other.
One of the sisters a few years ago said, “You know what…” It’s sort of the example I gave about Thanksgiving. “We’re not going to come for spending the night because we want the kids to wake up at our own house and have Christmas there, and then we’ll be over and join you all about 10 or 11 o’clock.” Okay, now that’s great. That’s fantastic, and I wish that every family would extend the emotional freedom to people to be able to do that. That’s perfectly normal.
But in some families, what you’re going to get, is either grandma or grandpa or somebody says, “Well, you don’t love us.” That’s where that bondage begins to happen. What boundaries are about is to realize: you can’t keep somebody from having those feelings or being controlling, but what you can do is say, “I’m really sorry that that’s hurtful to you. I really don’t want to hurt you. It’s not why we’re doing it. I’m sorry if it frustrates you, but we really do need this time, and we’re going to do it. I hope you understand.”
Jen: That’s it. That’s a really good script. I want to ask you two things. As I’m listening to you talk, I don’t even know how this is a question except that I would just like you to address the idea somehow that I know what happens when people hear your teaching: before they’ve even put any of it into practice, before they’ve had one hard conversation, or drawn some boundaries around anything at all, they already feel bad about it. They already feel guilty, they already feel like they’re the bad guy, and I would love for you if you could talk about how we navigate that a little bit.
Henry: Well, that shows them where the real problem is. The real problems are in their own heads. Like John was saying, they’ve got to guard their heart, and there’s some weeds inside of their heart. Some scripts, and some old tapes, and old messages, or bondage inside of them. That’s why the other person can actually have control of them because it taps into those “have-tos” inside their own heads. So that’s why it’s really, really important.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Galatians 5:1, and if you ask people, “Why did Jesus die?” They’ll give you a thousand reasons, but here’s what the verse says: “It is for freedom that Christ has died. Because where we have freedom then we can have love and self-control.” So they’ve got to deal with those voices inside their own head, so mom, or dad, or Uncle Ernie, or whoever won’t have the power to push those buttons because those buttons inside of them have been healed, and that’s the important boundaries work. It’s the internal work.
John: When we look at how the brain functions, Jen. There’s always a couple of things that make it permanently, really change. We’ve seen this happen so many times. One is you got to have the information. That’s why Bible verses like Galatians 5:1 and Proverbs 4:23 are important: studying those and praying over those. Because that data, your brain –especially left side of brain–just loves to have that in your head, so you can combat the crazy messages of “You’re being selfish” and “You’re letting everybody down.”
The second thing is you’ve got to have relational experiences because the brain also needs to have something to glue that list of verses or principles together to make sense. You’ve got to have people around you to say, “I know you’re going to go to Idaho to see so and so, and I know they’re kinda nuts, and hey, you can text me anytime because I love you, and you can say no, and all of this.”
Now you’ve gotten not only the data, but you’ve got relational experiences. So you come in armed and ready, and you know what, your brain begins to not go into that “I’m so bad” mode because you’re getting help from the outside.
Jen: That’s really good. I wonder if you’re experienced here, because you guys work with enormous companies, and you work with people both inside and outside of faith. So a lot of your work is with businesses and general market organizations. And when it comes to this idea that you’re talking about right now of guilt management and taking on that sense of emotional responsibility for somebody else’s reaction…and even to some degree, being an enabler and essentially preferring politeness and lack of conflict to what is actually a healthy relationship.
Do you guys think that this is–I don’t know if uniquely is the right word–but do you think Christians struggle with this more? Do you think something in our theology has embedded us to be so incredibly polite, to defer, to be selfless, and we’ve tangled those ideas up into something that’s really toxic?
Henry: Well, I think, certainly…first of all, I’d say it’s a human condition. Because everybody lost freedom. After Genesis 3, when we disconnected from the freedom and self-control that God gave us, we lost our freedom, and so since then, every relationship–whether relationships of faith or non-faith–there’s controlling relationships.
The question is…and in Christians, I would say this, the question is–and Jesus put it very clearly– the question is: “Are you operating according to the traditions of your elders or the oracles of God?” Now, that’s a key question that everybody’s going to ask. “Am I just saying yes because my family taught me, or my parents or my church or somebody taught me that it’s Christian to do everything everybody wants you to do and you can’t so no and that’s what being a servant means?” Or “Am I going to the Bible and saying what it says?”
When Jesus was asked, “What does love look like?” He said “The guy who’s walking down the road, and everybody passes this guy who got beat up, and this one guy, a Samaritan, Good Samaritan, he stopped. He said, ‘Look I’m going to put you up at this inn. I’m going to get some money.’” And then he says, “I got to go off for a while and do my own business, and I’ll be back.”
In other words, he said, “I’m going to give some to you, but there’s some time and energy I’m not going to give to you. I’m going to go do this thing.” Not too many years ago, they found, the codependent Good Samaritan. Did you hear about when the archaeologist just dug that up? He said, “I’m going to pay for your room here at the inn. I’m going to go off and do my business.” And then the other guy said, “What, I thought you were a Christian? How can you leave me here? I thought you were loving.”
Jen: Wow. I’ve never heard anybody say that before or take that angle on that story. That’s really fascinating. I never thought about him going on to the rest of his business.
Henry: Think about that.
Henry: Think about that. The Bible replete with verses like that. That says, “If you got two tunics, give one away, but it’s okay to keep one for yourself.”
Henry: Paul says, “Don’t merely look out for your own interest but also the interest of others.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Give as you’ve decided to give in your heart, not begrudgingly” meaning somebody pushes you into it and you grudgingly give in. Or it says, “under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” You shouldn’t feel compelled to have to say yes to everything, but you’re right…
I think that both people of faith and non-faith have the issue. That’s what we found in just businesses. These are issues that teams have to work out in secular companies. “What’s your role? What’s my role? You come ask me to do your job, and look, we already sat down and decided, that’s really not in my role, that’s in yours. I can’t help you with that.”
Jen: I like that. I would love to talk about that for the next two hours. Let me ask you this question. A lot of our listeners are heading into a scenario where they’ve got their sister and her kids or their brother and his kids–all the cousins. Anytime you have a lot of different kinds of families come together, there can be some really weird moments in terms of how everybody parents.
Some of the kids are just like feral. They’re just jumping off the roof. Those would be the Hatmaker kids. I’m serious. And some are just they’re going to come in the seersucker suit. They’re just neat and tidy as a pin. So can you give us any advice, how do we approach this? This can be a tricky issue of explaining to our kids or even to another family member if there’s an issue around discipline or behavior or expectations for our kids who are all now in one big Thanksgiving pool.
John: Remember how we established that when we’re getting ready to go in the holidays, Jen, you should never be surprised. Okay? That’s another part of the family conversation a couple weeks before you hit the road or fly or drive. It’s how your Aunt Sally’s kids are just nuts, and they crash into furniture, and your Aunt Sally says, “Well, isn’t that cute, they’re so creative.” And we don’t think so. Or then the other one is sort of rigid and got toilet trained when he was three weeks old, and he can’t even have a steak.
What you have is you’ve got to convey to them Joshua 24 which says, “Choose this day who you’re going to serve. If it doesn’t seem pleasant to you to serve the Lord, that’s your choice, but it’s for me and my household…” And you say, “Guys, we’re probably not as cool as a lot of families, and I wish we were cooler, but we just have these rules we feel are right. But also we want to have lots of fun, but, however your cousins act, here’s how we’re going to act, and here’s our ground rules of behavior: you’re respectful to grownups, you help, you ask. When our kids were that age, and you go to those things, one of the rules was to say the five words, “‘How can I help?’ Instead of sitting there and watching the game, it’s ‘How do I go help to wash dishes and how do I help clean them off’ and that sort of thing. If something happens, and we think you’re getting out of control, we’ll just pull you aside, take you to the backyard, and say that’s a little inappropriate. We’re not going to shame you in front of everybody.”
You just let them know that the Smith family, which is our family, acts a certain way, whether we’re at our home or wherever, so that they know that the rules don’t change.
Jen: That’s good. What about if we have to step in like when grandma is like just, “Ahh, just let them be kids. Boys will be boys.” Do you suggest that that is also a private conversation? Do you think that’s better handled offline out of the view of the rest of the family or what do you think about that?
John: This is the funny thing. Henry and I’ve been talking to people about holidays for a million years, and everybody wants to have the transformational talk over Thanksgiving dinner. As if people can do that. You’re sitting there. There’s ten of you are sitting there, and the turkey is there, and all that stuff, and somebody wants to turn to the other person to say, “Aunt Susan, I’ve been reading Boundaries. You’ve been really abusive to me.”
That’s just going to be a Hallelujah Chorus. It’s just stupid. No, you don’t have “The Talk” or “The Shaming Thing,” but you just take her aside, and say, “just come to me when they’re acting goofy, and I’ll take care of it,” or “Come to me if you want to talk about how they need more freedom, but let me be the mom here and just have it in a nice sidebar away.”
Jen: I feel so empowered when I talk to you guys like I could handle anything. I feel like I could handle anyone. I’m hoping that I have something really tumultuous in a relationship within the next three hours because I feel really prepared for it.
Henry: I can introduce you to somebody. Let me give the other side of that as well. I think it’s really important. We always tell our kids, “Look, if your grandparents or your uncle or aunt, if they see you misbehaving, we want them to tell you. And so if they see you out of line, we want you to respect them and listen to them.”
But, there’s some other ways, we talk to different parents. We all sit down and say, “We let our kids do this, and you all don’t, so how about in those areas, we just respect each other’s different rules.” But in things of character…I used to like the phrase, “Look, both God and the Beverly Hillbillies would agree to that.”
John: If you’re going to make that sound, don’t do that at the table.
Henry: There’s some things in our preference and some things that are values.
Jen: Good point.
Henry: It’s just about the conversation. Now, you can have some wackos that think that they’re going to tell you how you’re misparenting your kids and all of that. That’s where that conversation…that’s a limit. You say, “You know what, I appreciate your perspective. I’ll be glad to hear it, but I also want you to appreciate that I’m the parent. Okay?” So, ultimately, I’m going to set the rules here.
Jen: I’d love to hear your counsel real quick as we start to land this plane together. Let’s just say, hypothetically, I’m positive this would be exactly zero of my listeners. But let’s just say that in ways–big or small, or intentional or not–that we are the person who is unsafe in some way. That we bring some havoc into the holidays, that we are entitled. Can you counsel us just a little bit on best practices? If somebody that we love–a family member or a friend–comes to use and pushes on a space of entitlement that we have exercised freely and with their permission, but they’ve decided “No more.” And they say, “I’m not going to have this anymore.” Because, of course, people have said this to me too, fairly and rightly.
My instinct is to be incredibly defensive and tell them all the reasons they are wrong, and they’ve misinterpreted this. Can you talk to us a little bit about when people push back on us, on our entitlement?
John: There are so, so many Bible verses about how we’re supposed to appreciate and welcome good feedback all the way from: “If my friend smites me, it is a favor to me,” to “speaking the truth in love.” “You are that man,” from Nathan to David. So we know that there’s a really, really important thing when somebody tells us something that we’re being yucky about is supposed to be a good thing.
Now, that doesn’t change the feelings. Like you said, we do get defensive, and I think the best thing you can do–especially when you’re caught off guard by it, and you weren’t ready for it. They told you, “This hurt my feelings when you did so and so or whatever,”–I think there’s two things going on. There’s the what’s called the persona, that’s the social you. That’s the one that you’re at Starbucks, and they’re talking, and you’re sitting there talking. And that’s the inter-relational piece, and then there’s the internal you.
Those two yous are having two different experiences. I think that the internal you, you just can’t control if you feel hurt. You’re going to feel hurt, and you’ve got to go later and write down stuff and pray about it and ask some friends if I was wrong about this and just say “That hurt my feelings even though they’re right.”
John: That’s the internal voice. It’s just “That was an owie, and they’re probably right. I’ve got to go deal with that later.” But their persona is vulnerable and welcoming, even if you don’t feel it. You might say, “Yeah, okay, that was new information. Tell me more about that.” And then people feel like, “Oh, okay. I can talk to you like an adult about this, and you go take care of the hurt later.”
Unless it’s a very deep, safe relationship where you could say it right then because we’re so safe with each other. “Look, I know it was right, but honestly, it hurt my feelings, and I just want to let you know that.” There’s the level A thing, like that with those very special people, but the level B is: appreciate it, welcome it, tell me how I’m going to do it better, and then go feel the hurt and deal with that secondarily.
Henry: The other part of this is that we might instantly think, “Well they’re crazy. I didn’t do that to hurt you.” And we judge ourselves largely by our intentions. We’re not trying to be this or that. We’re not trying to hurt somebody. But other people judge us by our behaviors and the effect and the experiences that they have about how we’re coming across or how we’re behaving.
I think it’s really, really important to just initially begin to tell yourself, “Okay.” And this is John’s inside voice: “Gosh, I didn’t mean it that way, but something I did at least made it seem that way to them.” It’s very, very helpful, I think, to say, “I don’t want to make you feel that way. Tell me what I did that made you feel that way. I certainly don’t want you to feel that way.”
Jen: That’s good.
Henry: You haven’t given up anything at that point. You’re just saying something that’s true. “I’m not trying to hurt you, but I sure do want to know what I did that it is hurtful to you because I don’t want to do that.” And that can just go a long way, and the Bible says, “A soft answer turns away wrath,” and just empathize with them. “Sorry, you felt that way.” And listen.
This isn’t court. There’s no judge that’s going to render a settlement so you got to write a check. You just listen to each other. Understand each other and say, “What’s a way that we can do this where it’s not hurtful?”
Jen: That’s so good. I’m going to ask you in a second just two, real quick, off the top of your head questions. Just that we’re asking during this series, but I just have one last thought for you both. One, really–I think this is just some of your gold material, almost your thesis material to me–just dealing with life in general, is when you say, “If someone is able to cause havoc by doing or saying something, she is in control of you at that point, and your boundaries are lost. When you respond, you remain in control with options and choices.” Just as we finish it up here. Can you talk to us about the difference between reacting and responding and why that makes all the difference?
John: Well, let’s go back to the brain again. One reason Henry and I love this stuff is because all the great neuroscience that comes out affirms that the Bible was right every…single…time. All the stuff we’re finding out about relationships, about success, about challenge, about obstacles, mental healthy thinking, etc. It just says, “Okay, there’s this big canvass of how people live and relate.” And God finally gets the credit for how it works.
Jen: I love it.
John: When you look at it, react is about the amygdala, the lizard brain. Fight, flight, freeze, fold. The prefrontal cortex is the response. Now we need the amygdala because we need to have feelings and we need to protect ourselves if a train is coming at us. We need all that stuff. But that’s not where you can take measured adult responses that are like, “What’s the long-term consequence of this or sort of this way?” That’s the difference between the two. Now on a practical level, what that means is…wait.
So somebody triggers you and they hurt your feelings or they sound like an idiot or whatever. Give yourself that three or four seconds so that the information goes from the amygdala where you’re getting ready to punch them out or scream or yell or say “You remind me of my abusive father.” That’s not a good thing to say at a party, right?
What’ll happen is you’ll think about it, and then the adult function–the executive function–will take over and say, “Hey, soft answer turns away wrath” or “I’d better be firm about this right now, but not in a crazy way.” Give yourself a few seconds for that information to transfer from one side to the other.
Jen: For a real hot head like me, I have long said this. I have a rule that I employ on the daily that is: When I feel attacked or embarrassed or shamed or whatever the thing is–that somebody says something to me, and I burn like a hot fire, really, really fast–I’ve got to go 24 hours. Mine is longer. I just have a rule. I’m not going to respond to this, and 100% of the time, it feels different the next day.
I feel different. I feel more rational. I can find the nuance even that I couldn’t see initially. I can find my own fault that I couldn’t necessarily locate immediately, and so neuroscience to me is very, very fascinating just to watch God’s design for humanity be discovered scientifically. It’s amazing.
I just had Brené Brown on the podcast a few weeks ago, and she did similar research, and it never ends. Science and faith just back each other up.
Henry: One more thing about that is that when John is talking about take a few minutes there, and you’re talking about take 24 hours…what we see in science and in the Bible, is that there’s no one right way to respond all the time. What you’ll see is that it takes something called wisdom because there are verses in the Bible that say, “It is a glory to a person to overlook an offense.”
You want to let that go because there’s something bigger. There’s a bigger outcome you’re after. On the other hand, you can find a verse like Matthew 18 that says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, then go to them in private.” You don’t overlook it. There’s other ones that say, “Don’t talk to that person about an offense by yourself because they’re not listening. Get two or three other people to go with you.”
If we’re just reacting in the moment, what we’re doing is we’re not choosing the wisest response to get the eventual outcome that we wanted. One of the–John is talking about the executive functions of the brain–one of the things that is difference in us and the German Shepherd is a German Shepherd barks, but they never stop and say, “I wonder if that was helpful.” They’re not going, “Did I bark loud enough? Was it the right time?
They never ask, “What’s my ultimate goal for this afternoon? Did barking get me closer to that or farther away?” Part of what being in the created in the image of God, that we have the capacity to do, is we have the capacity to say, “Okay, here’s where I’m right now. Here’s what I’m feeling right now. If I look a week down the road with my relationship with this person, is saying that right now going to get me closer to that or is it going to get me farther away?”
One of the key things that the emotional intelligence research taught us is the most successful people in life have the capacity for self-awareness where they can instantly tune in and say, “What am I feeling and what’s the best way to handle that?” That would just solve a lot of problems.
Jen: That would heal our world right now. Really, if more adults could employ that kind of self-awareness and measured response. I just can’t even imagine what our civil discourse would look like now, instead of what it looks like at present day. Really, this is life-changing, culture-changing stuff.
Henry: We have to help each other with that. I have two teenager girls who’ll be sitting around the table at dinner. One of them will say something to the other, and I’ll say, “Do you want to try again and say that in a better way?”
Henry: Just give them a moment. “I understand you want to say something. There’s a better way to say it. See if you can find it. We’re waiting.” We need that capacity inside of our own head. That voice inside of us says, “I think that thought should remain there. My inside voice.”
Jen: You guys…so great. Let me ask you two quick questions. This can just be off the top of your head and then we’re finished here. Obviously, you guys are experts, clearly, and your holidays are certainly always flawless because of how wise and intelligent you are, and you’ve trained all your people to be.
Henry: And we never have interviews with sarcastic hosts.
John: And we never invite our wives to be on these interviews either.
Jen: Notably absent are your people on this podcast. This will obviously be a hard question, but can you tell the listeners–maybe if you could just remember–either the funniest or the craziest holiday miss or mishap or embarrassing moment that you can recall at some point in the holiday season in your life.
Henry: In my life…
Henry: That’s going to take a minute. There’s so many.
John: I got one. It has zero to do with boundaries.
Jen: Good. No, it doesn’t have to. I’m just saying ever.
John: Well, Barbi and I raised boys, and so there’s just a little more of the low-brow humor that we–Barbi always say I’m around aliens–we’re just different. For one Christmas, the boys are in, I don’t know…like first and third grade. This is when the Razors were a big deal. Not the ones…like the high end scooter. Everybody had to get Razors, and so I knew that every kid in the block was going to want one.
I got ours early so we had it, but when we hid them–I feel bad about it now, but I don’t feel that bad. So when it came to open the presents under the tree, Barbi and I had them packed up somewhere else, and so what the boys got was like sweaters and ties and nice socks and stuff, and the whole time, right outside the house, in the front yard, up and down the sidewalk…
Guess who’s going up and down, and up and down, and up and down. All of their 20 friends on their cool Razors, and the boys are trying to be good about it. “Hey! A tie! Wow!” They keep looking out the window, and they’re just trying to manage their feelings. Then we pull it out, and they go psycho, but that was my sadistic parent joke, I guess.
Jen: That’s giving me such anxiety. I always want to manage everybody’s feelings around their presents. Brandon always wants to pull this stuff. He always wants to pretend like the presents are all over but their big presents. I will never have it. This is our constant war.
John: The good part about that is after the hospital stay for depression, the boys are just fine. It’s just fine. Don’t worry about your anxiety.
Jen: Exactly. I have three of my five kids are boys too, and so when you talk about low brow humor around the holidays…I’m still waiting to enjoy one year when we decorate our Christmas tree together–which is one of our big time family traditions–and I don’t have to hear around 25 references to Christmas balls. You know what I’m saying? I’m sorry that I’ve just said that to you, but I just understand your life.
Henry: Did you ever see the Alec Baldwin “Schweaty Balls” sketch?
Jen: Yes. Classic.
Henry: Yes. It’s on YouTube. That was the best.
Jen: I probably watched that 30 times.
Okay. Last question. Just quick, quick, quick. What’s your favorite holiday tradition with your families?
John: We have a couple things we like. One is we like the service aspect of what’s going on either with…
Henry: Now what am I going to say now?
Jen: Exactly. You’re going to say something low brow like, “We see a Christmas movie.”
John: This is the point of the interview when Henry says, “And I am that service.” That’s how it always go. It’s just when we’re all together, it’s just a fun thing to go help out in either stuff that the church sponsors or people we know. The other thing is yeah, we do like–I was going to say it–we do like the movie stuff.
Jen: Do you have a favorite?
John: The one we’re into now is the old Will FerrellElf. We obsess on that one.
Jen: That’s one of ours. Same. In fact, in Austin, what we do, one of our Christmas traditions is we have a movie theater here called The Alamo Drafthouse, and it’s just quirky, and it’s interesting. And they do every year an Elf quote along and sing-along. We get our tickets as early as we can, and we all wear costumes, and we go to the Elf quote alone, and we sing along with the whole movie, and do all the quotes, and we throw beach balls all over the theater, and it’s just the most fun. That is honorable and noble. No one is going to shame you for that. What about you?
Henry: Well, mine’s not quite as lofty as John with the service thing. Our girls are 15 and 17, and years ago, when they were little, Tori and I started thinking about a five or six-day window right in the Christmas holidays to get out of the hustle and bustle and go somewhere, and just take a little vacation, and get away from it all, and watch everybody else shop and be hairy.
That was our tradition for the two of us, and when the girls got old enough to be aware that they were getting left on these days, they started saying, “We want to go.” And probably since they’re about 10 or 12, we’ll take five or six days right before Christmas actually, and we’ll take our vacation then. We’ll save up our money and go to New York or something. You do it with family, and we cordon that time off to not be hurried, to not be working, to not be running around going crazy, and it’s a great tradition.
Jen: That sounds like a dream. Where are you going to go this year?
Henry: Well, this year we have a little bit of a problem because their Christmas vacations are in different schools, so we’re still trying to figure. We may come to your house.
Especially if I tell them you have three teenage boys.
Jen: I’m familiar with that kind of low-hanging fruit, that will get teenagers out the door.
Henry: If we can do an arranged marriage, etc. I’ve been trying with one of John’s, but they’re a little older.
Jen: I’m willing to marry our kids off at any moment. You just let me know if you need to exchange some texts.
Henry: I’m ready to sign a deal and I can help them with their in-law boundaries.
Jen: On that note, hey, thank you both, just times a million, for your time today and for being on the podcast. I’m telling you, our listeners probably sat with pen and paper in hand. You’re both great, you’re both smart, you’re both funny. You’re welcome at the Hatmaker house anytime you want.
John: Thanks, Jen.
Henry: Thank you—John and I both—if we can give a little plug here—in terms of boundaries, we have designed some online coaching paths. So for mine they go to:
Boundaries.me, and I’ll come along and take you through taking a better boundaries path. And John, what’s the URL for yours?
John: TownsendNow.com. There’s a lot of digital experiences about growth and boundaries. TownsendNow.com.
Jen: Got it. Perfect. And listeners, we’ll have all those links for you. So, just go to my website–if you didn’t have time to write all that down, we’ll have everything in hand for you—links to all the guys’ books, their studies, and all their projects and where to find them.
Okay guys, thanks for being on. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you both—appreciate you so much.
John: Thank you, Take care Jen.
Henry: Thank you, Jen, it’s good to be with you.
Jen: Those two are so great. Nothing makes me happier than really smart, intelligent thought leaders who are also hilarious. That’s my absolute favorite combination in a human being.
I just enjoyed that conversation so much. Hope it was useful to you. I hope you you heard something that was helpful or that you’ll be able to take with you into this season. Believe me, if you have not read their stuff; if you’ve not really done a deep dive with Boundaries and some of that the work that they’ve done, you’re going to want to. I am not trying to overstate it, but their research, and counsel, and advice is just invaluable and it’s really changed my life.
As I’ve mentioned, every link, every book, all their stuff, all their digital content–it’ll all be over on my Web site at JenHatmaker.com plus the transcription of this whole interview will be over there just for those of you who like to read it, or you want to come back through and pull out quotes that you want to remember, or notes that you don’t want to have to take. We basically take notes for you.
So anyway, we’ve got some other great guests in this series and really want to help you make that Thanksgiving and Christmas season strong, and healthy, and fun, and positive–filled with meaningful traditions, and meaningful relationships. So tune back in next week for even more in this series, for sure you guys.
Thank you for listening, week in and week out. This is such a great time with you. We love, love, love having you in this space. Thanks for leaving reviews. Thank you for leaving your comments and your ratings. All that’s really helpful for a podcast, and we’re paying attention. We’re listening to everything that you say, and what you’d love to hear about, and how we can better serve you. So believe me, we are listening to your responses. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for sharing the podcast with your friends too. Looking forward to spending time with you next week. Bye guys!
Narrator: Thanks for joining us today on the For the Love Podcast. Tune in next week, when we sit down again with Jen and friends to chat about all the things we love.
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