Setting Boundaries

"Setting Boundaries" is the topic of many discussions I've had with people over the last year. Lots of people ask me how I've come to set boundaries. They want to know if it is easy, how to do it, what to expect in response, etc. It seems, from what I hear, that no one is practicing healthy boundaries and limits in their relationships. If everyone is asking me how I do it and what it's like, it would appear that I'm the only person do this. But I know I'm not.

In every interpersonal relationship, a boundary exists. Some boundaries are healthy, some are lax, and some seem invisible. We "set" boundaries in those relationships where the lines are too lax, too harsh, or invisible. It's easy to think that we don't set them in other relationships, but they are there.

In healthy relationships, a line exists that marks what is safe and acceptable, and what isn't; both parties know where the line is. That's not to say that we don't have moments and occasionally cross the line--making a joke that is too harsh or off-color, speaking the truth in love and deeply wounding the other person. The healthy relationship has tools to use when the boundaries are crossed.

But what about the rest of the relationships? "Setting boundaries" sounds like some psychobabble scheme--fancy and difficult. It is and it isn't. It can be very difficult, but I am learning why and how to work through the struggle.

Why is the act of establishing healthy boundaries so terrifying and complex? For me, it was because I didn't believe on some level--deep down in that hollow cave at the bottom of the sea, off to the right where no one ever looks--I didn't believe that I had the right to have safe and healthy relationships. I didn't believe I was good enough to stand up to others and say, "Wait a second. You cannot hurt me or invalidate me. I have desires and dislikes. I can bend, but I shouldn't have to sell me out to be in a relationship with you. Accept me for who I am, respect me with my differences, or don't be around me. I have that right."

And being in healthy relationships is a right. It's not optional, unless of course you enjoy living in the shadows of your own self-pity.

Another thing I found in my own life that made it difficult for me to set boundaries was the fear of not being able to change the other person's behavior. I was terrified that if I told someone what was okay and what was not, they'd just blow me off. And lots of times they do. But that doesn't change the boundary. If I have chosen to highlight the lines of my relationship with someone, it's ALWAYS because there is history of them practicing unhealthy behaviors. And more times than not, in return I have practiced more unhealthy responses.

When I have established the boundary, one of two things is going to happen: 1. My friend/co-worker/family member is going to hear me and respect the line; or 2. They are going to blow me off undercutting my feelings and trying to tell me how I should feel or respond. I cannot control the other person's response to the new focus on the boundary. But I CAN determine how I respond.

I'm not always good at this. The same voice that told me for years that I was not good enough to expect healthy relationships, love, or respect often rears its ugly head when I attempt to draw out my "space". If the other person ignores or belittles me for the boundary, I often want to run and hide, agreeing that I am being irrational, over-emotional, or just plain silly. But other times, and this is true more and more, I simply stop.

I stop and look at the situation. Why did I want a boundary? Do I still want it? What can I do in response to the other's actions? I cannot change them, but I can change my response to them. It might mean that I have to hang up on a client at work (actually been there and done that), that I might change the topic of conversation with a friend to avoid topics that will lead to judgment, or that I may avoid contact altogether with a family member until they can do so in a non-threatening manner (I've done these too).

It is so simple to look at a problem and blame the other person. I've said it myself: "Things would be so much better if he/she acted this way instead." I rarely, if ever, say: "You know, I can choose not to respond or to respond differently next time." I have to own only what I am culpable for: ME, and my actions.

I am going to make a brash statement here, and it is not intended to ruffle feathers so much as it is to restate what I've found to be true in my life:

I can only set boundaries in relationships where I am willing to change how I interact with the other person. PERIOD. When I attempt to set boundaries and expect the other person to be the first to change, I have "set" nothing. I've built my house on the sand, and not on stone.

Setting boundaries is so hard to do because it means that I must CHANGE ME, and to do so I must take a long hard look at my fallacies as well as my needs. I have to be brutally honest with myself--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Jesus warned:

"Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye." --Matthew 7:5 NLT

Father, give me the strength to exercise healthy relationships, especially with those who don't respect my comfort zone or who expect too much of me. As you give me the strength, help me look at my role and determine what I can do and keep my focus on my response alone. Change my relationships until they reflect the fellowship, communion and pleasure that you have modeled for us in Your Son's life. Make me strong enough to stand up for myself, yet meek enough to admit my own faults. And encourage and remind me that I am worthy of respect, honor, love, and healthy relationships. In Jesus' name, AMEN.


Cheri said…
Still here and still praying for you. :)

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