This past week, I had the privilege of a "live and in person" lunch date with a friend.
With all the social distancing and closures these past months (boo to the 'rona), we had previously been relegated to phone conversations and Zoom meetings. It was a precious gift to be able to spend some time together in real life.
As we often do when there has been a gap in our togetherness, we spent our time sharing the good, bad and slightly ugly of what has been going on in our respective worlds.
My wise friend, who has done some incredible work in her own story, shared that she was grieving over a relationship with a family member that she feared she needed to end. While she loves this person very much, their constant violations of her boundaries were making it difficult to feel safe in continuing the relationship.
“Boundaries are hard for me,” she sighed. “I feel strong when I make them, but I have a difficult time holding them firm for the long haul...” She paused, looking at me with a question in her eyes.
“Growing up, I’m not sure anyone really had any in my family,” my friend offered with a shrug. “Or maybe they were changing all the time, so I never recognized them. It felt like what we could and could not do was contingent on the mood of the day or who was in the most trouble.”
Boundaries, or lack of, can be generational
My friend shared that when she discussed her family's history with her therapist, together uncovered the lack of boundaries and boundary violations was a familial problem, experienced by at least two generations before her. Those patterns that reached deep into the past; so painfully obvious for her in the present.
There is something else I know about this brave friend. A part of her story (and much of the work she has done to heal) is related to her own boundaries being violated as a child.
Her story hits very close to home.
I also grew up in a family where boundaries were conditional and inconsistent. I did not have permission to make boundaries nor have them respected. And, like my friend, a lot of the work I have done in my own story relates to my emotional and physical boundaries being violated.
Later in life, the events of my childhood created the perfect storm for me to find myself in a string of unhealthy, unboundaried relationships. Just like in my friend’s story, this was a generational pattern in my family as well. The road to learn how to live differently was long and bumpy. And occasionally, still is.
Experiences early in life can make boundaries a challenge
Perhaps you were raised in a home without boundaries between family members. Maybe you watched people’s boundaries being violated or learned that if you made or attempted to hold a boundary, the consequence was punishment. When this is our experience early in life, our ability to create and hold healthy boundaries in adulthood a challenge.
And when it comes to having our own boundaries violated early in life, the result is often a tremendous sense of shame- which in turn will close us off to the truth that we are valuable and worthy of the protection that boundaries afford.
When you meet someone who lives an unboundaried life, it is likely they are a person living with deeply seated shame.
Shame is not your identity
In the groundbreaking book Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, Allison Cook, PhD. calls out the foundation necessary to build healthy boundaries: “Burdens of shame do not define you. Whereas these lies say you are unimportant, God says you are decidedly well-known and deeply loved. And you can be real because you are his. You are the light of the world—and shame has no place in the light.”
Put another way, psychologist Tara Brach states, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”
I believe these point us to a crucial fact: if we are to make the best boundaries with others, we must first get very clear about the boundaries we will have with ourselves; with what we will and will not allow in our lives. And we must do this from a place of recognizing our value as image bearers of God.
Still, while the idea of it all sounds inviting, what is the practical side of it? How do we learn to make boundaries for ourselves and with others that help us build a life of freedom, that reflect the Light in our lives? Boundaries that offer us true freedom for the present and the future?
Defining boundaries in your own words
It might be helpful to create a working definition of boundaries within ourselves that we can hold our choices up against. These are boundaries based on our values. Once we establish this, it becomes easier to develop a definition of boundaries with others. (And remember, if this is new territory because of early life experiences, the help of a qualified therapist would be a wonderful asset to you.)
For your internal boundaries, you can try something like: My internal boundaries protect me and others. They are my filter-- my key to emotional balance and self-discipline. These boundaries are the guardrails that prevent me from living a life that is counter to my integrity and worth, and consider my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
For your external boundaries, you might want something like this: My external boundaries allow me to choose my distance (relationally and physically) from others and enable me to give or refuse permission for them to engage with me up to a certain level. These boundaries are for the protection of my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, and that of others as well.
(These are merely suggestions. Feel free to create your own definitions. The more of your own words, the better!)
Values and Boundaries
When deciding on your boundaries (both internally and externally), it will be important to get very clear on what you value. Boundaries help our relationships stay true to our values.
Something I discovered along my journey (completely counter to how I was raised) is not to make boundaries from a place of fear, anger or emotional intensity. Doing so will ultimately create weak and unstable boundaries, in part because we no longer feel the need to hold them firm when we aren’t mad or hurt anymore.
Remember, boundaries are meant to help us build a healthy life; emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. They are meant for the healthful protection of ourselves, our loved ones and those in our care. They are not about avoidance or trying to harm someone else or “get back” at someone for hurting us.
Boundaries prevent chaos
In the Psalm 74, the writer speaks of the boundaries of the seasons, and in the book of Job (specifically chapter 38) an interesting conversation takes place between God and Job, as God reminds him of all the boundaries in nature. While some of the language is poetic, it does illustrate the boundaries God set in place in nature. Why? Because without those boundaries there is chaos and destruction.
Just think about the last report you heard on the news of waters violating their boundaries in a hurricane or tsunami. The devastation and loss are tragic.
And so it is with our lives. Boundaries, when constructed well and held firmly, free us from chaos and confusion. They prevent destruction and disaster that seek to rob us of our light, our freedom and our worth.
How about you? What are the foundational definitions for your boundaries? How do they align with your values? Are they guiding you to a life of light, freedom and purpose? Why not take some time to reflect on your boundaries today?
Boundaries work is TOUGH! Don’t worry, we’re here to help! Check out some powerful resources to help you build your best boundaries at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources. You can also contact me personally for help with selecting resources at firstname.lastname@example.org.