What Are Personal Boundaries?
Think of personal boundaries as those things that fall within your property line, what you are responsible for. They help you avoid situations where you end up feeling pressured, manipulated, or resentful after interacting with someone. They also help you avoid pressuring others until they give in. You need to take responsibility for what’s inside you property lines. (Read What Are Healthy Boundaries? for more information.)
Feelings should neither be ignored nor placed in charge. The Bible says to “own” your feelings and be aware of them. They can often motivate you to do much good. The good Samaritan’s pity moved him to go to the injured Israelite (Luke 10:33). The father was filled with compassion for his lost son and threw his arms around him (Luke 15:20). Many times Jesus “had compassion” for the people to whom he ministered (Matt. 9:36; 15:32).
Feelings come from your heart and can tell you the state of your relationships. They can tell you if things are going well or if there is a problem. If you feel close and loving, things are probably going well. If you feel angry, you have a problem that needs to be addressed. But the point is, your feelings are your responsibility and you must own them and see them as your problem so you can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing to.
Attitudes and Beliefs
Attitudes have to do with your orientation toward something, the stance you take toward others, God, life, work, and relationships. Beliefs are anything that you accept as true. Often we do not see an attitude, or belief, as the source of discomfort in our life. We blame other people as did our first parents, Adam and Eve. We need to own our attitudes and convictions because they fall within our property line. We are the ones who feel their effect, and the only ones who can change them.
People with boundary problems usually have distorted attitudes about responsibility. They feel that to hold people responsible for their feelings, choices, and behaviors is mean. However, Proverbs repeatedly says that setting limits and accepting responsibility will save lives (Prov. 13:18, 24).
Behaviors have consequences. As Paul says, “A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). If we study, we will reap good grades. If we go to work, we will get a paycheck. If we exercise, we will be in better health. If we act lovingly toward others, we will have closer relationships. On the negative side, if we sow idleness, irresponsibility, or out-of-control behavior, we can expect to reap poverty, failure, and the effects of loose living. These are natural consequences of our behavior.
The problem comes when someone interrupts the law of sowing and reaping in another’s life. A person’s drinking or abuse should have consequences for the drinker or the abuser. “Stern discipline awaits anyone who leaves the path” (Prov. 15:10). To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless.
We need to take responsibility for our choices. This leads to the fruit of “self-control” (Gal. 5:23). A common boundary problem is disowning our choices and trying to lay the responsibility for them on someone else. Think for a moment of how often we use the phrases “I had to” or “She (he) made me” when explaining why we did or did not do something. These phrases betray our basic illusion that we are not active agents in many of our dealings. We think someone else is in control, thus relieving us of our basic responsibility. We need to realize that we are in control of our choices, no matter how we feel.
Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.
What we value is what we love and assign importance to. When we take responsibility for out-of-control behavior caused by loving the wrong things or valuing things that have no lasting value, when we confess that we have a heart that values things that will not satisfy, we can receive help from God and his people to “create a new heart” within us. Boundaries help us not to deny but to own our old hurtful values so God can change them.
Two aspects of limits stand out when it comes to creating better boundaries. The first is setting limits on others. This is the component that we most often hear about when we talk about boundaries. In reality, setting limits on others is a misnomer. We can’t do that. What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right.
The other aspect of limits that is helpful when talking about boundaries is setting our own internal limits. We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire without acting it out. We need self-control without repression. We need to be able to say no to ourselves. This includes both our destructive desires and some good ones that are not wise to pursue at a given time.
Talents and Resources
Our talents and resources are clearly within our boundaries and are our responsibility. Yet taking ownership of them is often frightening and always risky. Yet we are being accountable—not to mention much happier—when we are exercising our gifts and being productive. It takes work, practice, learning, prayer, and grace to overcome the fear of failure, but not confronting our fear denies the grace of God and insults both his giving of the gift and his grace to sustain us as we are learning.
We must own our own thoughts. Many people have not taken ownership of their own thinking processes. They are mechanically thinking the thoughts of others without ever examining them. They swallow others’ opinions and reasonings, never questioning and “thinking about their thinking.” Taking ownership of our thinking in relationships requires being active in checking out where we may be wrong. As we assimilate new information, our thinking adapts and grows closer to reality.
Also we need to make sure that we are communicating our thoughts to others. Many people think that others should be able to read their minds and know what they want. This leads to frustration. We have our own thoughts, and if we want others to know them, we must tell them.
God loves to give gifts to his children, but he is a wise parent. He wants to make sure his gifts are right for us. To know what to ask for, we have to be in touch with who we really are and our real motives. If we are wanting something to feed our pride or to enhance our ego, it’s doubtful that God is interested in giving it to us. But if it would be good for us, he’s very interested.
We are also commanded to play an active role in seeking our desires (Phil. 2:12–13; Eccl. 11:9; Matt. 7:7–11). We need to own our desires and pursue them to find fulfillment in life. “The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul” (Prov. 13:19 KJV), but it sure is a lot of work!
Our ability to give and respond to love is our greatest gift. The heart that God has fashioned in his image is the center of our being. Its abilities to open up to love and to allow love to flow outward are crucial to life.
Our loving heart, like our physical one, needs an inflow as well as an outflow of lifeblood. And like its physical counterpart, our heart is a muscle, a trust muscle. This trust muscle needs to be used and exercised; if it is injured, it will slow down or weaken. We need to take responsibility for this loving function of ourselves and use it. Both love concealed and love rejected can kill us.
We need to take responsibility for all of the above areas of our souls. These lie within our boundaries. But taking care of what lies within our boundaries isn’t easy; neither is allowing other people to take care of what lies within their boundaries. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is hard work, but it is essential for us to be healthy adults. To learn more about boundaries, get The New York Times bestseller Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
Adapted from the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.