Karen R. Trifiletti
In relationships, some of us lose our sense of who we are, either under stepping or overstepping relational bounds. When we fail to share our voice or when we overtake someone else’s agency, we feel the results, don’t we? And we don’t usually like them a lot. But often, we can’t pinpoint what caused the feelings and residual we’re left with. We don’t always connect the dots. Often, I think, it’s that we forget that setting healthy boundaries is important—not boundaries of isolation and exclusion, not dictating other’s behavior in the name of boundary-setting, but boundaries that separate us from hurtful behavior, or boundaries that allow someone else to take responsibility for their own. Let’s explore this a little bit together. Kick up your feet. Think with me. And please share your comments afterwards.
What Are Boundaries Then?
Boundaries more or less define who we are and who we are not. I think they’re meant to help us be true to our identity, grow, serve, and to keep us safe—physically, emotionally, financially, and otherwise. Boundaries can be in place simply to create a space for our own self-care and others, as Adam Moore of Utah Valley Counseling once said. A boundary can describe behaviors that are not healthy for our relationships.
To know ourselves and be secure that we are loved is essential to all relationships and activities, isn’t it? The better our understanding of self, our self-definition, the greater our capacity to offer empathy and love to others. Maybe we should say that again! Really, though. Our aim is to reach out to the widow, the wounded, the lame, and the halt, and to lift, right? But to do so means we ourselves need to be on stable, healthy ground. Good boundaries help us to care for others because we have a stable foundation to operate from and are not distracted or depleted as much by personal insecurities or external expectations.
I like this quote. It seems to capture that and more:
“How can we give if there is nothing there? Food for the hungry cannot come from empty shelves. Money to assist the needy cannot come from an empty purse. Support and understanding cannot come from the emotionally starved. Teaching cannot come from the unlearned. And most important of all, spiritual guidance cannot come from the spiritually weak. There is an interdependence between those who have and those who have not. Once a person has been made whole or self-reliant, he reaches out to aid others, and the cycle repeats itself” (The Celestial Nature of Self Reliance).
We strive to take care of ourselves—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—in order to help and serve those around us.
Are you taking care for yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually? Give it some thought. Don’t just rush past this :).
What Does It Look Like to Set Healthy Boundaries?
Establishing healthy boundaries means finding a place where we can be fully who we are, do what God has asked of us, and be sensitive to the needs of others and try to meet their needs in a reasonable manner. I tried to delineate what that looks like. Here are a few thoughts.
- We see and address the needs of others; yet, we acknowledge the reality of our own.
- We see the needs of our spouses; yet, we do not pretend that we have no needs ourselves.
- We see the needs of our children; yet we do not give in to their every whim.
- We respect the rights of others; yet we do not ignore our right to a healthy, faithful relationship and proper home environment.
- We neither ignore others’ reckless or irresponsible behaviors nor do we assume responsibility for them. We assume responsibility for our own responses and our own healing, if necessary.
- We work on our growth, and support others’ in theirs.
I started looking for God’s boundaries to learn more about them. And if you don’t believe in God, these principles may still apply in a secular way. So I’ll share from my perspective, and you can filter and also share yours. Together, we’ll grow.
When I realize that God Himself is my model and sets boundaries with me and each of us, I find it easier to understand how important they are to our growth and healing. God sets limits and boundaries for us through the Ten Commandments and other scriptural directives. He also gave us the greatest example of setting boundaries well—Jesus Christ. Here are some of the ways I discovered that He sets healthy boundaries.
- In Luke 4:22Jesus refused to allow others to define his ministry for him.
- In Mark 6:31He leaves the multitude behind so he and the disciples can have some privacy. He also sees the needs of the multitude that come after Him and proceeds to feed the five thousand.
- When He helped people, He expected them to do their part. The boy brought his lunch to Jesus, the blind man was asked to wash his eyes in mud. (See John 6:9; John 9:7).
- He sometimes said no. He refused Herod’s request for a sign; He told the rich man that he had to do something before He could help him. (See Matthew 2; Luke 18:22)
- He exercised self-care. He ate healthy, got sleep, sought company of friends. (See Matthew 26:36-38)
- God defined limits for who could enter the temple. His House was not to be defiled. Likewise, we should have some guidelines to keep our homes free from unsafe and defiling influences. (See Ezekiel 11; 43).
- The Savior took responsibility to fill His mission. He was selfless in that mission. But to accomplish that mission, He needed time with the Father, time to teach and train the disciples, time to serve, time to sleep. He balanced that as He set boundaries by the Spirit.
It seems to me that our Higher Power calls us to set limits that protect ourselves from being controlled by the demands of others, but to also make certain that those limits do not ignore the needs or hurts of others. When confronted with the demands of His family, the disciples, His friends, the religious community of the day and the government He made choices that were consistent with what He understood God’s will to be in keeping with that ministry.
One great spiritual leader, Russell M Nelson, taught that genuine love for others “may compel courageous confrontation—not acquiescence! Real love does not support self-destructing behavior” (“Teach Us Tolerance and Love,” Ensign, May 1994, 71). The Lord has told us that setting limits and holding people responsible will save lives (see Proverbs 13:18, 24)
Myth about Boundaries
Some Christian women or leaders who hear the word “boundaries” for the first time may form a misperception of what righteous boundaries are, and may think that the partner setting a boundary is doing something unkind. Creating firm boundaries, for the right reasons, and which do not manipulate other’s agency but respect it and your own, are the most loving thing you can do in many instances, as mentioned above. Boundaries allow for one to create a safe space for our families or ourselves, and/or a space for someone else to heal. If you discover that your spouse is acting out sexually, for example, and are just beginning to reckon with the trauma of discovering those secret behaviors, you may choose to set some boundaries around sexual intimacy, even closing the door to physical intimacy until you have the information you need and the conviction that things are resolved or safe for you. A leader or advisor, not having the full picture about his addiction, perhaps, may tell you that you just need to give him ‘more sex’ in order to solve his intimacy disorder or addictive disorder. In such cases, you may educate around that, and share the truth around boundaries and sexual addiction. There is a time and place to say ‘no’ and to wait until you are emotionally and physically safe to be physically intimate. Withholding intimacy when a spouse is loving and faithful, on the other hand, as a ploy or out of selfishness, is, inappropriate. That is not what happens when righteous boundaries are set in circumstances that call for it. You and your spouse should converse around the reasons for these kind of boundaries, if needed, and agree to resolve issues around the problem behaviors leading to them. It’s up to the offending spouse to rebuild trust and show signs of genuine recovery before he can expect a spouse to feel safe in sharing herself physically and emotionally with him in sexual relations.
A Reminder: What Boundaries Are Not
It’s important to understand that boundaries should be inspired by a sense of what’s best for you, your spouse, and your family, your friends, co-workers, rather than by anger or punishment. You don’t use boundaries to force a person to feel something or have a specific experience. What we can do is to set limits on our own exposure to those who may cause us harm; we can’t and don’t want to try to make them behave differently.
Learning to set non-manipulative, healthy boundaries is a process you learn over time.
We also can create boundaries around our desires to help others.
Our friends or loved ones often make poor choices and may suffer significant consequences. It is hard to watch this happen and to feel helpless to prevent it. We might believe that things won’t get better unless we step in and fix it. We may try to persuade, reason, bargain, punish, manipulate, or shame our loved one into getting help. These attempts may seem effective for a time, but in the end they are not enough. We learn from experience that trying to exercise control only creates a climate of tension, fear, and resentment. Moreover, if we try to save them from the consequences of their poor choices, we are wrongfully attempting to usurp the role of our Savior and Redeemer.
“Do not attempt to override agency. The Lord himself would not do that. Forced obedience yields no blessings.” (Elder Richard G. Scott, “To Help a Loved One in Need,” Ensign, May 1988, 60).
Share in comments how you are learning about boundaries. You might even try some of these exercises…and let me know the results!
- Write down boundaries you might set for yourself (e.g. I will take care of myself by setting aside time to read daily, exercise, and eat well.)
- Write down boundaries you might set around supporting others (e.g. I will listen more and not try to fix others. I will accept responsibility for my part in relationships.)
- Write down boundaries you might set around your time. (I will say “yes” to things I feel prompted to do, and say “no” to things that I feel pressured to do but that are not the areas I should focus on.)