Effective Relationships: Part 3 (Healthy Boundaries)

If there is one area of relationships that I have struggled more than any other, it is in establishing healthy boundaries. And that goes for personal boundaries as well as boundaries for people in my life. Establishing guidelines for the people in my life without feeling guilty or questioning my motives  was a long-standing challenge.

The relational problems that resulted from this were not fair to my friends, my family or to me. In the end we were all short-changed and, unfortunately, some relationships were lost in the process.  

The first boundary that comes to mind as lacking in past relationships is mind control. It is not wrong to have strong beliefs. However, it is wrong to impose them on others through mind games and manipulation. God asked us to love truth and present truth, not to destroy people and relationships with our perceptions of it. Even when it is spelled out in the Bible, we have no right or responsibility to force another human being to accept or believe it. Coming from a culture that used extreme measures to ‘enforce’ truth, I learned at a young age to do the same. This cost me some friendships—some that to this day are only gradually being healed and rebuilt.

To end this destructive behaviour, there were two things that had to change. I claimed my mind as my responsibility–accountable to God and not controlled by man–and I extended the same liberty to the people around me. This meant learning that my friends and I could ‘agree to disagree’ and not let it destroy friendships.

The second boundary issue was based on my need for constant approval. I had no self-confidence to speak of—therefore everything had to go through an approval process with other people in my life. Some of these people had my best interest at heart but that didn’t make it healthy. For years I thought it was the fault of these other people—that they wanted to control me and made me feel obligated to run everything past them. It wasn’t one person, or two, or even three. And they didn’t necessarily agree, which left me in a state of constant confusion and frustration. I was never certain who was right and worried about disappointing someone because of conflicting advice. 

It was a gradual process to discover that I was the problem.  If any of these people ‘needed’ me to rely on them that was not my problem but my need for approval–I owned that!  There was only one way to change and it was by redefining boundaries. On my own I had neither the will nor the ability to establish these boundaries—I had to rediscover my value as a child of God.

The final boundary I want to share with you is about the voices we allow to speak into our lives. Whether intentionally or otherwise, there are a lot of negative voices out there and we have the right and authority to choose what voices we accept.

Have you ever been in a friendship for a time and then suddenly you realize that it has developed into something very unhealthy?  That’s what happened with a lady I met some years ago.

When I started sharing ideas, dreams or thoughts with her, she always questioned them. At first I thought it was her way of encouraging me to look at all the angles, cover all my bases. I had one dream in particular that meant the world to me. I had carried that dream for years, waiting, praying, growing and preparing. As that dream grew, so did the negativity from my friend.  The thoughts she shared were no longer just questioning my dreams, they were condescending and stifling.

As I shared one of our conversations with Tim one day, I felt hopeless and frustrated. My instinct told me to close her out, walk away and end the friendship. I had taken the easy way out before with other people, but it is seldom, if ever, the best way. To redefine boundaries and reshape a friendship is hard work and takes time. I chose not to run like I had in the past, however, I put some very clear boundaries in place.

Jesus knew when to ‘draw a line in the sand’, so to speak, and address boundary issues but He never abandoned relationships. We think of Him as ‘poured out wine’ in every situation and in every way, however, at a closer look we see that Jesus knew how to take care of Himself. There were times when He had very distinct boundaries and there were certain things that no one could touch.

One of the things that Jesus guarded carefully was His ministry. He was very focused on the purpose of His life and no one could stand in the way of that call.

Matthew 16:21-24

 21 … Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must … suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

To know when a friend is standing in the way of what God has called you to be or do, requires great discernment. And even more so when it is well-meaning friends or family that we love.

It isn’t easy to create these boundaries—it’s risky and sometimes relationships end. Other times these relationships go through a season of lying dormant. This is okay. We don’t need to feel badly or guilty if this happens. If you’re like me, the first few times you create healthy boundaries, you will feel tension, anxiety, guilt and even regret, especially if you lose a relationship with someone you love and a friend is only interested in relationship on his or her terms. These feelings don’t mean that we have made a wrong decision.

If you find yourself creating boundaries out of control, inner ‘revenge’ or  to wound and attack, that’s an indication of control issues that need to be dealt with. In some cases these control issues require counselling but often prayer, accountability and repentance is all it takes. Pray for the other person, make yourself accountable to a trusted friend or mentor who is not involved in the other person’s life and ask God to give you a tender heart with the best interest of the other person in mind.

We are human. We want control. We want to be safe. But the reality is that to truly set healthy boundaries we must first surrender ourselves totally to Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will begin to recognize when someone is holding us back from God’s call on our life, stopping us from the ministry we are to do, or otherwise speaking negative influences into our life.

Boundaries will not likely become second nature to us quickly but with practice and by keeping our own motives in check it does get easier. Contrary to popular belief, rather than destroying relationships, healthy boundaries will serve to protect and build strong relationships.

One thought on “Effective Relationships: Part 3 (Healthy Boundaries)

  1. Elaine Gerber February 23, 2011 / 12:18 pm

    This is so true. Some of the hardest boundaries I ever had to make were with my family, community, and lifelong friends when I began making different choices to follow God. I made a lot of mistakes in learning how to practice boundaries, both in learning to not depend on others for my approval, and learning that I have the right to have my own beliefs and allow others to have theirs.

    One thing that happened for me is that most of my entire family & community could not understand this change in boundaries, and to them it felt like I was rejecting them and God by not “being one of them”. All they knew how to do was follow the dysfunctional pattern and close off the relationship with me. And so I learned that part of the challenge with learning to have healthy boundaries is not only on my side to learn and change, but also it greatly affects the other people who are used to something different, and cannot understand something they have never seen before. There are going to be hard spots on both sides of the relationship.

    I struggled with feeling like I had hopelessly lost my entire set of relationships. I felt like I was plunged into a living death. The same people all around me, but no longer in relationship with me. But God in his goodness provided new healthy friends and community as a safe place to first of all experience what healthy boundaries & relationships look like, then learn to practice them, then learn to rebuild the broken ones as much as possible. And bit by bit, some of the walls are coming down. One day last year God showed me that I am not responsible for how my parents, family & friends choose to relate to me because of the boundaries I have made. It is their choice, even if it causes them pain, and I need to allow them the right to make this choice. I need to allow them the right to hurt.

    That really freed me from feeling guilt for causing them the pain. When I am freed from that false guilt & responsibility, I am freed to be who I really am made to be without reserve. This is such true life. This is where I can really receive and give the unique gift of life that God created in me. This is where I can actually be a more and better friend to these dear ones of mine, than in the state where we all “need” to have dysfunctional boundaries in order to “be” there for each other. What a total paradigm shift.

    Even though my heart still aches at the separation that has happened, I have hope, because God’s heart is to restore these relationships, and I am free to be who I am and love them with the love God has given me, as well as love myself with the love God has for me. This is when I can actually be the best friend for them anyway, in relationship. This is when I am really freed to love.

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