Healthy relational boundaries are kindness in action. Enablers and approval addicts often think they are being kind, but enabling patterns are deceptively destructive. We are not being kind when we inadvertently encourage others to form ingrained habits that are harmful to themselves and others. When we do not tell the truth because we are afraid of conflict, we lack the courage God calls us to exhibit. If we become puppets to someone’s tyrannical demanding, we lose ourselves and become who another person wants us to be instead of who God wants us to be. If we carry the responsibility for other people that they should carry themselves, we enable them to be irresponsible. If we interrupt natural consequences, we are inadvertently encouraging poor character, which keeps another person from close fellowship with God. Genuine kindness speaks the truth with grace and love.
Being deceived into believing I was being kind, I became an enabler with certain difficult people in my life. People-pleasing behavior and approval addiction seemed to be ingrained into my DNA and thought patterns. Addictions, including approval addictions, cause misery. My anxiety, caused by trying to make critical and demanding people happy, created physical ailments. I was losing emotional stability and physical health because I had poor boundaries in these relationships.
My journey to healthy boundaries has required intense reading of wise Christian counselors, a solid support group of deeply grounded Christian women, consistent prayer and Holy-Spirit leading as I searched Scripture to understand how to deal with difficult relationships. After much soul searching, I realized that in order to be true to who God had created me to be, I had to cut the people-pleasing puppet strings that demanded unrealistic expectations. God’s gentle whisper from Galatians 1:10 was both convicting and freeing, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” When we have a disordered response, we react out of fear of people instead of responding to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Boundaries Delineate us as Individuals
Boundary issues are often with our closest relationships: parents, spouses, children, co-workers, or friends. They arise when one person takes too much responsibility for another person (enabler) or a person does not take enough responsibility for their own life, expecting others to meet all their needs including being responsible for their happiness. Often people who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives find enablers who are deceived into believing they are helping. This is not healthy for either of them. With God’s guidance, we run our own lives and let other people run their own lives. Emotionally healthy people do not give control of their life to another person or desire to control other people.
God has designed us to seek him in our decisions and choices. We take responsibility for our own lives and actions. We separate our own thoughts, feelings, and opinions from the thoughts, feelings and opinions of other people. Seeking God’s wisdom, we live where we desire, choose our own friends, decide on our own career, pursue our own social activities, and decide where and how we serve God and others. We are motivated by loving God and others instead of fear of reaction, loss of relationship, material gain or anything else that is a poor but sometimes strong motivator.
Boundaries Allow us to Say “No”
It may be as simple as saying “no” to social media or as difficult as walking away from an abusive relationship. We give ourselves enough space to breathe and be present with God and others. Boundaries keep us from being frantic, exhausted, and over-extended, which can lead to depression, anxiety and resentment. “Do not give reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). If we don’t say “no” when we need to, we passively comply but inwardly resent. One of the character qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Know when to say “no.” There is no need to defend, justify or argue your “no.” Be empathetic, but consistent and firm.
Beware of becoming like the person you are confronting. Refuse to scream, manipulate, or aim guilt messages at the other person. Make your statements. Hold your boundaries.
Kindly accept another person’s “no.” None of us loves being told “no,” but healthy people accept a “no” without cajoling or manipulating circumstances or emotions into a “yes.” Ask yourself, “Are the people in relationship with me really making a free choice? Are people responding to me out of obligation and fear or love and choice?” Accepting “no” shows respect. We allow others to make their own decisions.
Boundaries Keep us in Relationship
A common misconception about boundaries is that they are designed to end relationships. Healthy boundaries keep people in relationship when they are respected and honored by both parties. Boundaries help us create genuine peace. We confront with grace and truth and respond with repentance and forgiveness. Poor boundaries promote fake peace by pretending harm never happened. This builds resentment and deception.
Boundaries Protect us, Not Control Others
Boundaries are not designed to help you change another person. We cannot change people; only the Holy Spirit can do that. Boundaries help us respond instead of react. Usually, when difficult relationships are faced with healthy boundaries, loving people will want to learn and respect their loved one. Less healthy people; however, may withdraw as payback, throw temper tantrums, tell deceptive stories, or even leave if they don’t get their own way. When that happens, it is essential to hold strong boundaries and remember we are pleasers of God not people.
Boundaries Foster Forgiveness
Forgiveness is essential for your soul! Healthy boundaries actually aid forgiveness by preventing resentment, anger and bitterness. Confrontation that speaks the truth in love releases anger in healthy ways when addressing how someone has sinned against us. (It is important to distinguish sin from someone not doing what we want them to do.) Without forgiveness we are enslaved to our past and its control over us. Boundaries protect us from selfish, abusive, or sinful behavior aimed at us. Forgiveness lets go of the past. Trust, however, takes time to be rebuilt. We need to experience a track record of changed behavior in order to trust someone who has consistently and habitually hurt us. When trust is rebuilt, reconciliation is possible.
8 Practical Boundary-setting Suggestions
- Begin each hard conversation with grace. Reassure the person you are speaking with that they are loved. Mention a few things you appreciate about them first.
- Consider writing a letter. If the person you are addressing is intimidating, rarely takes responsibility, seldom if ever apologizes, talks over or yells, or deceives and lies about what was said, consider writing to them instead of having a face-to-face confrontation. This gives you a record of what was said. Have trusted friends read what you write first to make sure your words are not attacks or vindictive. This is also an accountability record. If you are freely comfortable with having others read it, it is probably written with grace and truth.
- Gather a strong support group to help you process your hard relationships or your tendency to enable another. Encourage them to tell you the hard truth and hold you accountable to holding firm but loving boundaries. Realize keeping boundaries is like building muscles. It takes time to get good at it.
- Step back. If you are in a relationship that is verbally or emotionally abusive, consistently controlling, or the person is intentionally lying about you, you probably need to back away for a while. When we distance ourselves emotionally or physically for protection and emotional or physical health, we set our boundaries and learn to speak the truth in love. In cases of physical, emotional or mental abuse, we need to keep distance until we see change “in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
- Confront sin issues. Examples of sin issues are verbal attacks, critical spirits, manipulation, deceit/lying, or the selfishness of a strong sense of entitlement. If we are upset because someone won’t do what we want, we are the one with the sin issue.
- Remember that enabling is harmful. Keeping this in mind helps us keep a godly perspective when we say “no” to another person’s unhealthy demands. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to help another person recognize the consequences of their destructive behaviors.
- Endure the tension. Don’t comply to avoid tension. Remember, you are not responsible for controlling other people’s moods. If we comply due to pressure, we are only prolonging the frustrations and resentment because they will reappear. “The person who has great anger must pay the consequences, because if you rescue him, you will have to do it again” (Proverbs 19:19).
- Have self-control; don’t attempt to control another person. Make statements that say what you will do instead of demanding that they do something. For example, say, “If you yell, I will leave the room.” The statement “Stop yelling” is demanding that they do something instead of stating what you will do to be responsible for your own actions and choices.
Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries. They allow people to live their own lives and make their own choices. They speak truth with grace and respond with repentance and forgiveness. They are not motivated by selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider the needs of others as important as their own (Philippians 2:3).
Resources that have assisted my journey to healthy relational boundaries include:
Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud
When Pleasing You Is Killing Me by Les Carter, Ph.D.
The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick
Boundaries.me Dr. Henry Cloud Coaching for Your Mental Health and Relationships