Boundaries from the Inside Out – Part 1 (of 4)

» Posted in Abuse, Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Personal Growth | 0 comments


Mary sat stiffly in my office, fuming and embarrassed after an argument with her husband, Joe, who had just stormed out of my office and slammed the door forcefully.  We could hear him muttering and swearing as he made his way out of the waiting room area.  After a moment of tense silence, Mary sighed and told me that this was their usual pattern.  Not only that, but on more than one occasion, their conflict would escalate to the point where there was pushing and shoving, and a lot of name calling and blaming.  Mostly on his part.  After several days of silence, things would go back to “normal” once Mary pursued Joe and placated him with apologies and coddling.  But she was getting tired of having to do this all the time, so she had dragged him into my office to “fix” his anger problem.

While it was true that Joe had problems with his anger, Mary had a bigger problem.  She had a problem with her boundaries.  Because she didn’t understand her responsibility to herself to set and maintain healthy boundaries with others, she had allowed the ongoing abuse from her husband.  She had also taken responsibility to manage his moods and anger, seeing that as something a loving wife is supposed to do.  Isn’t that what God meant when he said to submit to her husband?

For many of you reading this post, you count yourself lucky because you don’t have this problem in your life and you are certain you would NEVER let someone treat you the way Mary has let Joe treat her.  While this may seem like an obvious case of boundary problems, for many of us, we unknowingly struggle with boundary issues that cause us unnecessary suffering.

How do we know?  Here are some signs of unhealthy boundaries:

  • Having a hard time saying no so you end up doing something you don’t want to do, or feeing bad or guilty when you say no.
  • Being a people pleaser, even going against your personal values or rights to please others.
  • Having to do something a certain way or change your behaviour so that someone else can continue an unproductive or unsafe behaviour.
  • Not speaking up when you are treated poorly.
  • Ignoring your own discomfort, anger or anxiety so that someone else can be happy and comfortable.
  • Sacrificing your own goals, responsibilities, projects and self-care to give to or help others.
  • Falling apart so someone can take care of you.
  • Falling “in love” with someone you barely know or who reaches out to you.
  • Telling your life’s story to the first person who shows a listening ear, even strangers.
  • Accepting advances, touching and sex that you don’t want.
  • Taking as much as you can and manipulating others to get what you want.
  • Pushing a person to do what you want, even after they’ve said no.
  • Trying to control what your loved ones do or with whom they spend time.
  • Using your anger or disapproval (even in indirect or passive-aggressive ways) to get your way with others.
  • Neglecting to express your concerns or wishes and then getting upset when others don’t meet them.
  • Taking up someone’s time, without asking them and being careless with others’ schedules or timelines.
  • Regularly being late with your work assignments, expecting that others will step in to rescue the project.
  • Inserting yourself into someone else’s space and expecting immediate attention.
  • Expecting others to fulfill your needs automatically.
  • Touching a person without asking, or stepping into their personal space.
  • Dominating a conversation, situation or relationship with a disregard for others.

So what are boundaries?  I especially like the definition that Cloud and Townsend give in their best-selling book, Boundaries:

A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us, mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts, emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and spiritual boundaries help us to distinguish God’s will from our own.

In other words, personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that we create to identify for ourselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around us and how we will respond when someone steps outside those limits. They define us as individuals, outlining our likes and dislikes, and setting the distances we allow others to approach. And as Cloud and Townsend said, they include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries.

Learning to set healthy personal boundaries is essential for maintaining a positive self-image. It is our way of communicating to others that we have self-respect and self-worth, and that we will not allow others to define us.  They are the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others.

Without personal boundaries and our willingness to communicate and enforce those limits directly and honestly with others, it would not be possible to enjoy healthy relationships.  We need to recognize that God has created each of us as unique individuals with distinct emotions, needs and preferences.  Respecting ourselves in this way is honouring the worth that God places in each one of us, and our integrity as individuals of equal worth to God.  To set personal boundaries means to preserve your God-given identity, to take responsibility for who you are, and to take control of your life.

If you want to learn more about boundaries, be sure to follow this four-part series that will be posted over the next four weeks in Parts 2, 3 and 4.  In the meanwhile, feel free to comment or ask questions!


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