The Healthy Practice of Setting Boundaries
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”Personal boundaries seem to have been a taboo topic in churches and Christian circles in years past. Christians were taught to consider others as more important than themselves. This is still an important (and true) principle to live by, but many people have interpreted this to mean to serve and love others with complete disregard for oneself.
People tend to believe that God wants them to serve in their local church every Sunday even if they are experiencing burnout. They may think that he would want them to allow others to continue to hurt them because it is right to forgive. They may think that ministry in their church or community is more important than ministry to their families.
Or that they should drop everything that they are doing to help someone else, even when what they are doing is necessary for their own health. Or they may think that God wants them to love others, and setting boundaries is not loving.
In scripture, though, this extreme behavior is not what is intended for people as Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself. We are to love others in the same way that we already love ourselves by looking out for their best interests.
Jesus actually modeled this very well. He gave his life as the ultimate sacrifice for us in his death on the cross. But while on the earth, He took care of himself by going to secluded places to pray. He had an inner circle of his most trusted friends and disciples. He spoke hard truth to people when it was necessary. He allowed people the choice to follow him, and he let them go if they did not.
The extreme thinking is changing today, but there still seems to be a slight stigma about setting personal boundaries in one’s life. Cloud and Townsend mention in their book that there are a few questions that many Christians tend to have when it comes to having healthy boundaries.
They address each of these in more detail in the book, so that will not be done here. However, each one will be briefly discussed with examples that were not found in Boundaries. Cloud and Townsend also have quite a few books and resources about boundaries in various situations and relationships that would be helpful to browse through.
A number of questions often come up in Christian circles today that need to be discussed. The questions are as follows:
- Can I set limits and still be a loving person?
- What are legitimate boundaries?
- What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries?
- How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy or money?
- Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting boundaries?
- How do boundaries relate to submission?
- Aren’t boundaries selfish?
Here are some basic points about each question on boundaries in relationships for further consideration.
1. Boundaries can be one of the most loving things you can do for another person.
Example: your family member suffers from alcohol addiction, has been financially unstable, and has a history of having to go to rehab. Every time the family member is out, he asks you for money to help him get back on his feet.
You feel like you should be helpful and generous to him, but when you give him money, he spends it on alcohol again. Your lack of boundaries by giving him money is hindering him from moving forward in his recovery. It is not loving him well; it is enabling him to continue bad behavior. Saying “no” could help him more than saying “yes.”
2. Legitimate boundaries are “anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else or show you where you begin and end.”
The things that fall within your boundaries are the things that you are responsible for.Example: You are responsible for your feelings only. You are not responsible for the feelings of others. A staff person at church asks you to serve four times a month in the baby room because they are short on volunteers and really need you to serve more than twice a month. However, you feel sad when you cannot sit in the church service to hear the sermon and participate in worship.
You are worried this person will be angry or disappointed if you say, “No.” You are not in charge of how this person feels, though. You are only responsible for your feelings and how you manage them. You choose to say “no” and explain to this person that you really need to be in the church service sometimes for your own growth. They are angry with you, but you are comfortable with your choice.
3. People may be upset with the boundaries you set, but it will be okay.
Example: from the previous example, this staff member is upset with you. What does this communicate about them, though? It communicates that it is possible that this person does not respect others’ time or that this person is used to getting his way or even that this person does not handle his own emotions well.
It does not mean anything about you. Remember, their feelings or responses are not your responsibility. It is within your power to respond back with defensiveness or negativity, but it is also within your power to respond back with grace and understanding while maintaining the boundary that you set.
4. How you answer depends on many things: your stage of life or current season, your own areas of health (spiritual, social-emotional, mental, physical, occupational, etc.), and your beliefs about what God would want you to do.
Example: You are asked to be on a meal-train for a new mother. Most of the women around you have said “yes,” but you live farther away and are in your busiest season of the year. It seems unkind not to sign up to bring a meal, but you also are aware that it may be near impossible in this season. Because of this, you do not sign up, but you choose to give her a gift card to get takeout instead.
5. Guilt over boundary setting can be other-imposed, self-imposed, or based on what has traditionally been taught in your church, family, or community.
Example: Your community has taught you that family is over everything, that you always take care of family. However, your aunt continually corners you at family gatherings to ask you for money to help pay her electricity bill.
You know that many of the family members have helped her, but they are tired of it because she has not attempted to find a job to be able to pay her bills. You also do not really have the money to help her, but you feel you should because that is what family does. There is no reason to feel guilty if you cannot (or do not want to) help her, but you feel it regardless because it is expected in your family.
6. At times, in the church people think that they must submit blindly and not have boundaries.
However, it is still important to maintain personal boundaries while submitting to authority, especially if what the authority asks of you could harm yourself or someone else or goes against your values or moral code. At this point submitting blindly could make things worse.
Example: your pastor tells you that it is good to submit to your emotionally abusive husband, to pray for him and respect him. However, allowing him to mistreat you is causing you to feel isolated, afraid, and depressed. Setting boundaries can still be a form of healthy submission in appropriate ways, but blind submission is never a good way to maintain personal boundaries.
7. Boundaries that do not have a good reason or that are too strict based on the circumstance can be selfish, but boundaries with good reason are the opposite. Setting healthy boundaries can be a selfless act, too, because good boundaries always consider what is best for the other person, too, even if that means a “no.”
Example: Go back to the example in number one. You may feel a bit selfish if you do not give your alcoholic family member money when they need it, but you are helping to get them back on track by not giving it to them.
Setting healthy boundaries can be difficult and complicated, especially if you have not previously done it successfully. Living life without any boundaries can be harmful, create a lot of baggage, and bring a lot of hurt into your life because the line where you end and others begin is blurry.
However, if done in a balanced way, setting personal boundaries in relationships can bring healing, freedom, and more wholeness. If you struggle with this, it is a good idea to seek out a professional counselor who can help you walk through your specific situations to set appropriate boundaries when necessary. It is also helpful to read some of Cloud and Townsend’s material on this subject. Regardless, is good to commit yourself to growth in this area because it is vital for your health.
“Philippians 2:3-4.” In The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
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