Setting Healthy Boundaries
I remember the first time I heard the word boundaries in relation to psychology and relationships. The word sounded cold. It sounded like a barrier or a wall that you put up between yourself and someone else, and I didn’t think there should be any walls between me and the people I love. I thought that saying “no” meant that I wasn’t putting others ahead of myself, and that not being available 24/7 meant that I didn’t care about my friends or my significant other. I thought that if I asked someone for what I needed, I was being selfish. I had a distorted view of healthy relationships, and a distorted view of the biblical command of “love your neighbor as yourself.” I thought I needed to put others first in every situation and deny my own needs if they didn’t coexist with meeting the needs of another.
Do you see yourself in this description? Perhaps when you reflect on your relationships, you see someone who gives until they have nothing left. Someone who never says no, and then resents the people they are helping. Someone who gives so much at work or in ministry that by the time they get home to their families, they’re exhausted and shut down, impatient with their children and emotionally distant from their spouse. You end up frustrated with yourself for not being able to fill everyone else with what they need, resent others for not meeting your needs, or believe that you are a bad Christian because you aren’t giving with a joyful heart.
The truth is that you’re trying to pour into people from an empty container. It’s not sustainable. Maybe you feel like a car that is out of gas and trying to run on fumes. You can’t fathom why the vehicle has sputtered out and stopped running, why the fuel pump has broken down, or why there is smoke coming from the engine. Internal combustion seems imminent. You keep going on despite these obvious red flags, neglecting the signs that you’re falling apart.
The problem is that you haven’t taken time to refill your tank or repair the damage that running on empty has caused. And the reason this hasn’t happened is because you haven’t figured out how to set boundaries with yourself or in your relationships.
I’ll be honest. It took me a long time to learn how to do this in my own life. I don’t do it perfectly, nor do I expect myself to be able to. It started improving once I learned about healthy boundaries, identified my personal boundaries, and practiced setting them in my life.
What are boundaries?
At a basic level, boundaries tell us and others what is OK and what is not OK. Boundaries tell us what we need, and how to ask for it. They are guidelines that help us maintain healthy relationships with others and ourselves. We often have different boundaries for different people and different settings in our lives. For example, it is OK for my husband or friends to hug me, but it is not OK for a stranger to hug me. It is OK for me to volunteer at church two weekends per month, but it is not OK for me to volunteer every weekend.
How do I figure out my personal boundaries?
In order to figure out your personal boundaries, you need to increase your self-awareness. Reflect on your wants and needs. If you’re having trouble identifying those, it might be helpful to consider times you’ve felt resentful, angry, or fearful toward another person, or times you’ve felt loved and supported. It is also important to reflect on your limits. How much time do you want to spend in particular activities, such as alone, with a spouse or partner, with friends, with family, volunteering at church, at work? When determining your boundaries, it is helpful to consider your values. What are your top values? Family? Faith? Productivity? Health? Financial security? Success? Helping others? Learn your limits. Maybe you are OK with staying late at work one day per week, but not more than that. Tune into that limit. There are many other areas that you can consider when determining your boundaries, but these are a few helpful places to start as you begin to increase your self-awareness.
How do I set boundaries?
After you figure out what your boundaries are, it is important to communicate them to others. Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if this is a new concept and you struggle with assertiveness. The good news is that the more you practice and the more you set them, the easier it gets. It is important to be specific and clear about what your needs are. Here is an example: perhaps you told your spouse that you would like him to help out more around the house. You come home from work and then get angry that he didn’t do something specific, such as washing the dishes. Is that fair? Not exactly. Instead, it would be better if you were more specific on the front end. “Honey, it would really help reduce some of my stress if you could wash the dishes tomorrow. Would you please do that? I would appreciate it so much.”
Another important piece of setting boundaries is to be respectful, kind, and firm. It is important to have a calm and neutral tone when setting boundaries. Communicating in this way increases the likelihood that your partner will be more open to hearing and understanding your boundary. Using an angry or accusatory tone will be more likely to cause your partner to become defensive, angry, and closed off to hearing your boundary. If you’ve tried setting the boundary in a kind and calm way, and find that your partner isn’t responding to it, you can gradually increase the firmness of the request or the intensity of the “no.” It is also important to adjust the style of communication to match the audience. You may want to have more love and kindness in your voice when setting boundaries with a spouse, but more respect and neutrality when setting boundaries with your boss or co-workers.
A pattern that can be helpful when setting boundaries is this: compliment, boundary, compliment. Using this pattern can help open up your partner, co-worker, friend, or family member to hearing the boundary or criticism. I can’t guarantee the response you’ll get, but this helps increase the likelihood of a positive response. It may look something like this: “I respect you and how hard you work throughout the day. I know that you’re often tired when you get home. I have been wishing that we could connect and spend more time together lately. Can we figure out a time in the evening that we can spend together? I know how much you value our relationship, and I love that about you.”
Identifying barriers to setting boundaries is another important step. One of the barriers to setting boundaries is feelings of guilt or feeling as if we don’t deserve to have our needs met. You may feel guilty when you set a boundary with your mother, and she feels hurt. If you set the boundary in a respectful way, and communicated your love for her, then you did the best you could. You are not responsible for your mother’s feelings, and you deserve to have your own needs and limits. Identify what gets in the way of you setting your boundaries, and do what you can to minimize them.
Finally, give yourself permission to have needs, limits, and boundaries. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to ask for what you want or need. You are a valuable individual. Your thoughts and feelings matter. And most importantly, you are God’s precious child—treasured beyond measure by the King of heaven.