By Anh Lin
The first time I was explicitly taught about boundaries was by my Christian therapist. While it seemed that everyone I knew took pity on my mother, my therapist was the first to suggest I might benefit from moving out of my mother’s house and finding a different church. At the time, I thought that leaving my mother’s house was an act of disobedience, and leaving church an act of disloyalty (and perhaps even blasphemy).
Still, I became more open to her advice as I grew to trust her little by little. I still remember her reaction when I told her I saved enough money to properly move out of my mother’s house. She let out a faint smile of relief, straightened up in her chair, exhaled, and proceeded to teach me the most important lesson about boundaries.
“Imagine you’re a mouse and your mother is a cat,” she said. My cheeks reddened with shame at the thought of framing my mother as a predator, but I just said, “Okay.” She continued, “Up until now, she’s been chasing you around a pole. What do you think would happen if you suddenly halted?” I stared at her blankly. “The cat would slam right into you, right?” she asked. “Yep,” I answered, still not understanding where this was going.
She said, “You and your mom have been in a frustrating pattern of disconnection and abuse for years, so now that you’re putting a stop to it once and for all, she probably won’t accept it quietly. There might be some real pushback, but if you don’t stop it now, you’ll always be stuck in the same loop with her.”
I nodded and kept this metaphor in the back of my mind. Sure enough, my mother wailed and threw a tantrum when I gently told her I would be moving out. Though it was uncomfortable to refrain from apologizing profusely or giving in to her tantrum, I kept reminding myself of the cat-and-mouse metaphor and stuck with my decision.
To this day, this remains the healthiest decision I’ve made on behalf of both of us. It was the first time I had drawn a clear boundary with my mother and upheld it consistently. No matter how many family members guilt-tripped me for letting my single mother live alone or how many phone calls I received about my mother’s attention-seeking crises, I maintained my boundary and never moved back.
I found other ways to accommodate her needs and fulfill my duties as a loving daughter, such as surprising her with an early retirement years later and helping her out with her bills, but I kept my word to maintain a healthy physical distance between us.
Because of this clear boundary, we are now the healthiest we’ve ever been as individuals and as mother and daughter. Despite her initial protest, my mother now loves the peace of having her own space and the new routine she has established.
She no longer has to worry about working for her survival, but actually makes time to take care of herself daily. Her unexplained body aches dissipated and her stress-induced migraines went away. She looks years younger than before and has a much more positive outlook on life.
Likewise, I’ve been able to thrive without the constant relational stress holding me back. I can create a home that truly feels safe and stable, all the while growing into my own person and discovering my likes and dislikes outside of my mother’s influence. I discovered that I’m quite the introvert rather than the extroverted loudmouth I thought I was my entire life. I discovered that it was okay to genuinely like being feminine, and that leaning into my femininity does not make me vain or shameful. Most importantly, I learned that what my mother thinks about me does not have to dictate what I think about myself. I learned to love the person I’ve grown to become, despite the critical voices of others.
People tend to believe that the more comfortable you are with someone, the fewer boundaries should be drawn, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The closer you are with someone, the more you should be intentional about maintaining proper boundaries so that the relationship can continue to thrive in love and respect. Boundaries can help us salvage our mental health and the health of our most important relationships.
The Essence of Good Boundaries
One of my favorite books on this topic is Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. The authors explain that healthy boundaries are not walls, but rather fences. Walls tend to trap everything on the inside, whereas fences can be opened and closed based on your discernment.
Like fences, healthy boundaries can let the good in and keep the bad out. Creating boundaries allows you to know where you end and another person begins.
Think of property lines—they define what belongs to us and what belongs to another person. We are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. These are the things within our property line. How another person thinks, feels, or acts is within their property line and is therefore their responsibility.
Without distinct boundary lines, we’ll experience resentment, confusion, and a lack of ownership over our lives. At their core, boundaries create the infrastructure for a sustainable relationship with ourselves and the people around us.
While I was living with my mother, no clear boundaries were ever drawn between us. She could slam my door open during all hours of the day, rip open my mail before giving it to me, and generally be as intrusive as she pleased. Likewise, I was free to behave rudely in return, stay out with my friends for days, and bring home whomever I wanted without checking in with her first.
There were no rules, only unspoken bitterness and resentment. We didn’t know how to communicate when our boundaries were crossed because we weren’t aware that such a thing existed. We also didn’t know how to clearly communicate our needs, only how to react explosively when our unspoken needs weren’t met. Rather than owning our reactions and toxic behaviors, we were owned by them.
Thankfully, the repetitive pain and stress of our dysfunctional relationship finally pushed me to seek professional help, and I was able to draw the proverbial line in the sand. As Cloud and Townsend explain, “We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.” In my case, the pain really was a blessing because it pushed me to acknowledge my limits.
Setting that first boundary with my mother was heartbreaking, but the cat-and-mouse chase was truly unbearable. We should not judge or ignore the stress we experience around certain people; rather, it should make us curious about our feelings. Lean into them. The anxiety you feel around certain people may very well be a signal that your limits are being pushed or that a boundary is being crossed.
In a way, your feelings of anger and resentment can be helpful because they mean that your “boundaries radar” is working. Your brain is alerting you that someone is crossing your property line without your permission, and it’s causing you pain and discomfort. Now, it is your responsibility to speak up, communicate your boundaries clearly, and commit to a consequence you are willing to live with.
For me, the consequences I had to accept when I moved out of my mother’s house included a possible tantrum from her, gossip from my family members, and years of guilting and shaming from my loved ones thereafter. Sure enough, all of these things happened, but I had already built the mental and emotional fortitude to accept them. Seeing my predictions come true actually gave me a sense of relief because it confirmed that real change was coming. And it eventually did.
Adapted from Forever Home: Moving Beyond Brokenness to Build a Strong and Beautiful Life by Anh Lin. Click here to learn more about this book.
From the creator of The Abundant Life Devotional Journal and the popular YouTube channel Girl and The Word, Anh Lin's unique blend of biblical teaching and personal storytelling helps you build the strong, peaceful, abundant life you've always dreamed of—inside and out.
Many of us long for lasting peace and stability, whether we are healing from painful memories, grieving a recent loss, or simply trying to find a quiet path in a chaotic world. In Forever Home, you can get to the root of "why does this keep happening to me?" by learning the truth behind your thoughts and the role they play in your current reality. As Anh vulnerably shares how she rebuilt her own "safe house" after the trauma of her early life, you will discover the five powerful steps to rebuilding your forever home:
- How to remove the unsafe patterns of your past
- How to renew the foundation of your life
- How to rebuild the framework of your resilience
- How to reinforce the integrity of your boundaries
- How to restore the beauty that God promised you
It's time to uproot the things from your past, live free from the pain that's holding you back, and experience the abundant life that God designed just for you. Welcome home.
Anh Lin is an interior stylist and the founder of TheHoogaShop.com. She created the faith and lifestyle blog Girl and The Word in 2014 while studying English at UC Berkeley. Anh lives with her husband and corgi in a renovated 1940s fixer-upper.