Do you have a relationship at home or work, in which there often seems to be a level of tension present? The more significant the person is in our lives, the more aware we become when there is a strain in the relationship.
How do you determine the shifts you experience in certain relationships? Perhaps, the connection, at one point, was mutually beneficial, but now many times you may feel taken advantage of, even exploited? What’s the best way to handle such relationships?
A “yes” to any of these questions could be an indication that some personal boundaries are needed to protect yourself by reducing the stress and working to improve the relationship? What would this look like and how does one do it? If you’re willing, I’d like to coach you through this a bit by sharing my perspective on boundaries.1
Warning Signs: Resentment, frustration and anger.
Any one or all of these may arise when we position ourselves at the center of other people’s lives and begin to take responsibility for their issues, which is neither appropriate nor healthy. When this happens, others may not be aware that we are feeling overwhelmed or taken advantage of in the relationship. Prayerful review for a plan to engage them in a loving and honest conversation can be a good place to start. This would provide an opportunity for mutual feelings and concerns to be shared in an effort to clear up confusion, and help to get the relationship back on an even keel.
However, it is often the case that boundary issues are generally more complicated. People who regularly disregard others’ boundaries, often referred to as, boundary busters, have a hard time hearing “NO”. This is very difficult for us as Christians who may be struggling with the idea that we should avoid acting selfishly. We may find ourselves in this place as a result of having good motives to “esteem others greater than ourselves”. While this is Scripturally correct, I believe it is important here to recognize that Jesus modeled relationships built on mutual voluntary concern for others.
In the case where He approached the lame man by the pool of Bethesda, He didn’t run over this person’s option to remain in the state he was in. Jesus asked him if he desired to be healed. In speaking with the rich young ruler, Jesus gave him the “choice” to own responsibility for how he would live. In both situations, Jesus respected each one’s right to govern their lives by their personal limits. One man chose well, the other one did not. The Bible indicates that both men were aware of the responsibilities around their choices.
In declining to participate in a particular event or activity, a boundary buster may attempt several strategies to get you to change your ‘no’ to ‘yes’. You may feel bulldozed into doing what you had originally decided against, and later feel angry and resentful. Eventually, this anger can begin to create tension in the relationship. It erodes self-esteem by introducing the fear that acceptance is based on compliance.
I am a previous owner of a barbershop, where I worked for nearly two years before acquiring it from the original owner. One of the women who worked there since the beginning felt privileged around certain financial rewards because she was somewhat of a “star player” on the team. At the beginning of my ownership, accompanied by my CPA, I laid out the plan for compensation, which was based on commission in a manner that made the playing field level.
This particular lady, suspecting that she wasn’t getting preferential treatment, began discussing finances with others who worked there. Upon finding out that everyone was paid at the same rate, she was livid, to the point of reminding me what the previous owner had promised. After careful consideration, I called a meeting with her and politely laid down the guidelines, acutely aware that if she chose to walk I could very well expect a third of the clientele to follow her. Still I stuck to my guns. And, she walked. She had notified her customers and many followed. Those who didn’t called and I provided her contact information. In less than a year, I got word that she had retired, sold her house and moved out of state. I found out as a result of about 95% of her clientele coming back to the barbershop, and, many, to me personally. Many commented that they appreciated that I had given them her contact info and came back to the shop because they liked the atmosphere and felt comfortable.
This particular incident was a turning point in my life. My biggest learning curve around this was that when I choose to set boundaries, having good motives, I can trust that God will always work it out for good. To this day even though I no longer cut hair, I am in touch with many former customers. I didn’t rely on the world’s means of provision for my shop. I learned to believe in a God who has promised never to leave me or forsake me!
Boundaries are not a means of getting revenge. They are a means of applying self-control in our lives by giving every relationship we have the opportunity to grow and flourish. While they may seem harsh or inconsiderate, they are a visible means of communication to others. Boundaries, like fences, need to have gates. The gate serves to push the bad out and to receive the good in. A fence with no gate is nothing more than a wall.
In such situations, a relationship can be put back on track by calmly and assertively establishing limits around what we will or will not tolerate. This may be met with disbelief or disdain but over time, consistent limits will either draw the relationship back into healthy alignment or create distance. In either case, the level of respect that you are regarded with will usually increase.
The difficulty here is dealing with the fear that the relationship will be lost or damaged. A different perspective may be that we are setting it up to potentially improve the relationship over time. It really is loving-kindness toward oneself and the other person, to work to create a safe relationship of mutual regard for one another’s feelings, desires and values.
A sidebar to the barbershop story is that within several months from the time the former coworker left my shop to work at a different location a few miles away, she actually sent me a card to say “thank you” for directing her clients to her new location. Thus, respect comes into play around setting appropriate limits in a kind and considerate manner and with a level of consistency that allows the other person to regard you with an assurance that you do, in fact, keep your word. By establishing these limits early on, you can relax and enjoy more peaceful and loving relationships.
Becoming drawn to those who respect our boundaries, gives us the support we need to develop healthy limits. We can begin to develop the courage of evaluating our relationships and determining where or when boundaries may need to be placed. It is absolutely essential to have support as you begin the process of establishing safe limits in difficult relationships or situations. We also need to be respectful of others’ boundaries. Thus, setting an example of the way we desire to be treated.
Boundaries provide the structure for balance and success in our lives and work. When we learn to value what we are responsible for: such as our feelings, talents, thoughts, attitudes, behavior and personal wellbeing, we can take necessary steps to protect them. In protecting our treasures, i.e. guarding our hearts, we are able to allow the good to get in and the bad to stay out.
Guilty feelings are normal when we begin to establish boundaries. Setting limits in our lives may activate a critical internal judge. When we cease listening to the overactive conscience and respond according to values of love, kindness, responsibility and forgiveness, the feelings of guilt will diminish. It is okay for us to say no to things that God would not want for us either. The difficulty comes when we fear the reactions of others and / or the loss of relationship. This is why a support system made up of people who will respect our ‘no’ is so important.
Unless we are free to say “no” we are not truly free to say “yes” out of a heart of love and service. Anything short of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when we choose is out of obligation and not out of freedom.
If you recognize your need to establish safe and loving boundaries and are uncertain as to where you should begin, consider getting some coaching. Coaching will provide you the opportunity to express your concerns, receive an objective opinion around your motives, and the opportunity to do a little “role” play to be able to look at the view from both sides of the “fence”.
In addition to learning how to establish limits, coaching provides you with an opportunity to receive support to have those difficult conversations and encouragement as you wait and allow God to do the work in the heart of the other person.
Unfortunately, depending on the safety of the situation, boundaries may best be put in motion within the safety of a coach, pastor, counselor or mutual friend of those in the relationship. If your particular situation could become dangerous, seek the help of those who can offer you the safety that you need, prior to laying the foundation for the needed limits.2
Healthy, mature boundaries provide the freedom to establish goals based on personal values. Setting these goals helps us determine our God-given purpose and the balance to better navigate life. We make choices based on what we determine to be important and not out of fear of how others may react. When we are free to say no, we are then free to say yes. We can build better relationships by setting safe limits and truly be able to live at peace with others.
Sheri Geyer is a Christian Life Coach, Mentor, Writer, Wife & Mom