Boundaries are basically about structure, and structure is essential in building anything that thrives --Henry Cloud
Boundaries can sometimes sound like an ugly word, seen as lines of yellow caution tape meant to keep people out. The boundaries word we're talking about is one that doesn't keep others out, but defining lines that keep you, you. Your boundaries speak to who you are, what you stand for, and are an essential component of a healthy lifestyle.
Why Defining Lines is Tough
It's safe to say that boundaries exist in basically all areas of life. We work from 9-5, have an "end time" for social events, set household rules, (mostly) follow speed limits. Parents as authority figures have boundaries set in place for the safety and well-being of their children. Couples expect fidelity and honestly in their union. A friend whispers a secret to another counting on their confidentiality.
Boundaries are everywhere.
So why do we struggle with defining and maintaining them so often?
Establishing boundaries can be hard because we so often connect them with hurt feelings. Setting limits and voicing expectations can be interpreted as rejection or result in offense (more on this later.) Some have that gift of assertiveness, but my own gnawing desire to please people loudly reminds me that defining expectations is not always pleasing. And that can be tough.
We have this misconception that we need to say "yes" to contribute to our careers, relationships, and social calendar when in reality it's the boundaries that enrich these things. They keep these things enjoyable for us and allow us to live with quality, not just quantity. And chances are, the people in your life will grow to appreciate and admire your ability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. It's a coveted quality.
We worry that setting certain boundaries is unloving and causes damage to relationships. The church can sometimes be the worst in this department. Signing up for every service project was never commanded of us, nor is overstepping boundaries in the name of loving your neighbor. Let's not forget the slightly comical but appropriate Proverb, "Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house— too much of you, and they will hate you" (25:17, NIV). Boundaries, church.
Assess and Adjust As Needed
I was once challenged to ask myself, "is _____ adding value to my life?" Now, not everything is going to look valuable on the outside. Doing the dishes daily may seem like a literal drain on our time and a pointless task sometimes. But in general, when a relationship, activity, project, or other commitment is a constant drain emotionally and physically, it's time to re-evaluate. It's not your personal responsibility to make others happy or be the sole icon of peace and harmony.
Transitioning to parenthood is a huge adjustment by itself, but has also been a call to restructure some of my boundaries in other ares of life. There are certain things you simply can't do with a newborn. I couldn't be as available in relationships with friends. I had to say no to Bible Study for a time. For myself, I put things I once prioritized- like a daily workout- on hold while my body healed and adjusted to motherhood. It's not easy, and the guilt will come knocking when you start to say no to things. But the reward is rich when you stand firm.
Be prayerful and patient as you learn to establish boundaries. Nobody is doing it perfectly, though it may appear otherwise. In her blog, Equipping Godly Women, Gina shares four questions when determining boundaries:
Clear and Effective Communication
This goes without saying, but we're saying it away- which brings me to the first rule of thumb: Don't assume everyone is on the same page. You may be soulmates who read each other's minds, but as my husband has reminded me, over-communicate anyway.
If done intentionally and with care, you can confidently communicate your boundaries both clearly and compassionately to the people you care about. Here are a few tips regarding conversations about boundaries:
If you're worried about stepping on toes, accept and expect that yes, you might ruffle some feathers. That's okay.
Don't beat around the bush. Don't drag out the conversation or shelve it for later, which can prolong a situation and make things worse.
When setting boundaries in place, bring it back to yourself. Use "I feel" and be honest in your conversation.
Avoid accusations. Pointing fingers and casting blame triggers defense and that clouds the conversation and halts any headway.
Be firm but gentle, maybe jotting down a few key points you want to share before the conversation begins.
Allow the other person (or people) to respond. It's hard to be angry in the face of empathy so if you're willing to listen that shows you genuinely care about another perspective.
Set consequences. This may sound parent-y, but even with adult relationships or situations at work, there needs to be action to reinforce words.
Don't have these conversations over text! It seems easier and more comfortable, but a phone call or in-person contact is the only way inflection transfers. And that's important.
Dealing with Offense
We live in an easily-offended culture. There is middle ground between setting firm boundaries in your life and blocking out anything that grinds your gears. When that internal twinge alerts you to something that is not okay, whether that be workplace gossip, a negative comment toward you or someone you love, or a harmful trend in a relationship, it is important to confront this. But like with anything, the goal is to do so in love with grace, especially if this is a first offense.
When you do find yourself sitting in that uncomfortable irritated feeling of offense, that is unfortunate. First, it's certainly okay to acknowledge the hurt or anger, however unintentional it was. In fact- it's important to do so! Even though it's hard, avoid immediately turning around and sharing this thing with your Bible Study group. Exercise self-control (2 Timothy 1:7,) seek wise counsel which usually means one or possibly two people (Proverbs 19:20), and when you are ready, confront the offender (Matthew 18:15). They may not react well or be willing to listen, and that's the hardest part. But all you can do is know your own role and fulfill that responsibility. Seek peace for yourself and forgiveness in your relationship, but reject a spirit of offense which only robs you of joy and sews seeds of resentment.
Creating safe and healthy boundaries, like many things, would seem to be yet another life-long process. As we learn and grow and seasons change, so do these dynamic margins we craft as a means of living life to the fullest. Be willing to put in some of the hard work in setting healthy boundaries and reap the reward of the freedom you enjoy as a result.
For helpful worksheets and other resources visit Positive Psychology.