Setting Healthy Boundaries
My mother is mentally ill. (Full disclosure: I was in my twenties before I was able to say this sentence aloud).
She suffers from a personality disorder that cannot be treated medically and that makes it near impossible for her to see the root cause of many issues in her life. To place years of drama into a nutshell, my mother sees a vastly different reality than I do.
Once I accepted this, I had a choice to make. I could continue living in her reality that made no sense on the mentally sound side of things, costing me an existence in the world of normally functioning. Or I could establish boundaries in our relationship that allowed me to grow from the struggling daughter of a mentally ill parent into a fully present and mentally healthy wife and a mother.
While the decision seems clear cut, the fact of the matter is that it was anything but. Enforcing strong boundaries can inevitably hurt people we love. Likewise, watching people we love be seemingly hurt by the boundaries we put in place can hurt us. This hurt may tempt us to feel regret that we decided on such boundaries. And this is when it is so important to understand the concept of setting boundaries from a Biblical perspective.
True, you will not find the words “personal boundary” in the Bible. But the Bible does discuss personal boundaries in principle. In fact, each time the Bible talks about areas of your life that you are solely responsible for, or instructs that you say “yes” to something good and “no” to something bad, or when the Bible reminds us that our true identity in Christ is separate than our identity in the world – this is touching on the importance of personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are what define our identity. Imagine them as property boundaries around your home. They exist so that we have a safe space that is clearly designated: this is who I am, what I value, what I need, what I believe, what I feel.
In my case, I set boundaries with my mother so that I could separate myself from an unhealthy relationship in order to heal, but there are numerous reasons why boundaries can be a good idea. Sometimes we need to set boundaries with people who are engaged in a sinning lifestyle. This keeps us from becoming a party to acts that do not please God, and it also allows those who are being disobedient to suffer the full consequence of their actions. As it says in Proverbs 19:19, “A hot-tempered person must pay the penalty; rescue them, and you will have to do it again.” Other times, we set boundaries as simple as declining invitations or saying no to requests for help, so that we do not become overworked or overextended, and so that we can continue to serve in joy.
What are some ways we can tell if a relationship needs boundaries?
• When the relationship includes any kind of abuse, be it mental, physical, sexual, verbal or emotional.
• When the majority of contact in the relationship is negative. If communication with the person serves to bring you down, put you down and/or make you feel you are not good enough, boundaries are needed.
• When the relationship creates so much stress that it affects the important areas of your life at work, home or both.
• If the relationship is one-sided. When you realize there is never going to be “enough” room for you in the relationship, you need to set boundaries on how much you allow it to take from you.
• When and whether the relationship is only about borrowing or needing money.
Once you have established that a relationship needs boundaries, you must decide what these boundaries should look like. Remember, your personal boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective and might be totally different than someone else’s. This means that you do not have to explain or defend your boundaries – you just need to set them. If someone does not want to abide by them or refuses to accept them, question how much involvement to give that person in your life.
Boundaries can vary from relationship to relationship. The key thing to remember are your basic rights in any relationship. You should aim to set whatever boundaries in a relationship that protect these rights:
• You have a right to say no without being made to feel guilty.
• You have a right to be treated with respect.
• You have a right to make your needs as important as others’ needs.
• You have a right to make mistakes and experience failures without fear of punishment.
• You have a right to not meet others’ unrealistic expectations.
The Bible is full of examples of Jesus setting boundaries – in His relationships and for his own soul care. Jesus understood that good boundaries help you care for others by creating a greater capacity for empathy and love. Good boundaries protect us from becoming misused, depleted, and losing track of what we need to be at our spiritual best. Good boundaries ultimately allow us to guard our hearts: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Psalm 4:23).
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