There is a lot of talk about boundaries – about how they must be in place to have healthy relationships. But there’s a lot of confusion around what exactly is meant by “boundary” and how it functions, and what it’s purpose is. So let’s talk about it.
#1. Boundaries Communicate, not Isolate.
Boundaries tell others what you need, what you want and what your limits are.
If you feel disrespected, taken advantage of, if you feel unheard, if you are consistently feeling pushed and prodded into things even when you say no, if you feel you are not allowed space to think and choose for yourself, if you feel responsible for other’s feelings and happiness, and if you feel that you can’t take the space you need to heal and recover – then you have a boundary problem. Either you lack boundaries or they are being violated. Either way it always feels bad. It’s hard to know how to navigate your way out of this place and establish and hold your boundaries. It’s tricky because setting a boundary isn’t the first step, and when we jump straight in without starting at the beginning, we are setting ourselves up to fail.
#2. Boundaries are the end result of believing the truth.
The rub is, you can’t start by setting a boundary. Boundaries are the result of what you believe. When I believe that I am worth protecting. I am worth keeping safe. I am valuable and others don’t get to take whatever they want from me, or put on me what is not my responsibility. If I don’t believe these things are true I will never take the steps to establish or be able to keep a healthy boundary.
If you’re having trouble setting boundaries, then you need to back up a little and start at the beginning.
You can’t start with boundaries, but that’s what I tried to do back in 2008. I read the book “Boundaries” all about how you have to set healthy boundaries to have a healthy life – but I lived in a framework constructed of guilt and shame, and nothing healthy can be built on that foundation. Needless to say my efforts did not result in connected relationships. Rather, I stumbled all over myself, hurting everyone in the process. I recognized my need for boundaries, but I was conflicted because shame and guilt tell you boundaries are bad and not allowed.
For years I lived in a horribly confusing cycle; I would throw the gates of my heart wide open (thinking this is how you get intimacy), I would get hurt, put up a boundary with someone, feel their anger that I set a limit, then the oceanic guilt and shame backlash would wash over me. In frustration, confused about why it wasn’t working, I would think I was wrong, recant my boundary, feel like an idiot, and the cycle would start all over again. It pretty much sucked.
I concluded that boundaries were bad, and my failure merely revealed that I was weak and didn’t have enough faith. Because Jesus wouldn’t have put up a boundary, would He? He would have loved everyone no matter what, right? He was strong enough to love even if it meant getting stabbed through the heart over and over again. I mean, come on they betrayed and killed him, after-all. And He was so holy that he just let them do it. Right?
Enter the swirl of shame and condemnation.
“If you had more faith you could give that person grace.
You just need to have more compassion.
If you really loved them you wouldn’t hurt them by making a boundary.
What’s wrong with you that you keep getting hurt?
Do you like that everyone has to walk on eggshells around you?
The fact that you’re getting hurt proves that you’re messed up somewhere.”
This is the voice of shame, which really translates into: let people do whatever they want to you, you should be strong enough and have deep enough faith to just take it. If it hurts you, just “let it go”, never speak of it again, and just be ok with the fact that it will never change. If you have a problem with that, then it just reveals that there is something wrong with YOU. So, since shame told me that the problem was clearly my issue, I let others make all the choices. This meant that I allowed others to determine my boundaries. I didn’t understand that the result of allowing others to draw my boundary lines caused confusion, anger, self loathing, loss of faith, and ultimately withdrawal and hiding. Somehow I lived my whole life in this shame trap, accepting it as truth. There is no way to live in shame and not hide. Sometimes we do have to hide to survive trauma. But we were not made to live in survival mode, and eventually the pain outweighed the benefit and I wanted out.
How I escaped the shame trap
When I lost my sister, grief became the great clarifier in my life. I simply lacked the capacity to keep living with my heart wide open to the world, allowing any and everyone total access, regardless of how badly it hurt, which is what lacking boundaries does. I got really honest about how frustrated and afraid I was, how the rules were always changing (because they were determined by whoever was in front of me at the time). Everyone seemed to understand the rules but me. I didn’t feel safe anywhere, and I believed I had no choice in the matter. This is just life, right?
Why did I believe I didn’t have any say so in my own life? Why didn’t I get to choose something different?
Buried under all the truth and grace I have received in my life, I believed a lie that told me I didn’t get to be safe, I didn’t get to say what I need or what I want, or tell someone that their behavior was unacceptable to me. I didn’t get to speak up and make my own choices, but that they would instead be made for me by those more qualified. At the core of it, I believed I could not be trusted to choose. This evil thing was masquerading as holiness, as living a “surrendered life”, as what it looks like to walk the walk and be a good Christian girl. This could not be further from Christ.
I was wrung out, empty, finished – done. In the ocean of loss and grief on a flimsy life raft, I found that I could no longer keep my head above the water. This raft was full of holes, and to stay on it required all my strength, constantly paddling, gasping for breath as my face broke the surface of the water, only to be pulled under again. I lived this way till all my strength was gone. I was drowning. In that desperate place, I screamed out for help and God answered me. He showed me a life raft that would never sink, that would give me time and space to dry out and get my wits about me. That life raft was built of Truth, and the longer I sat there with Him, safe above those dark waters, the deeper the Truth went down into me. The Truth is:
I am seen, I am known and I am loved.
If this was true – if I could dare to believe that I can be seen as who I really am, be truly known, and I would be loved anyway?! – then there had to be a way to live that didn’t involve either hiding myself away or having my heart crushed over and over.
Holy Spirit whispered deep into my shattered heart and told me the way to come out of hiding and into intimacy was to – Tell the truth. Say it out loud – which was utterly terrifying. I wasn’t even aware of how silent I had become. I had simply stopped saying what I really thought about much of anything. I had stopped saying how I felt. It never seemed worth the backlash, judgement, or the dismissal I would get in response. But between the choice of living the rest of my life hidden away in shame, and taking the risk of getting real and telling the truth, I chose Truth.
I began to tell myself the truth about what was going on inside of me and take stock of the fruit in my life. The truth was, I hated my life; the disconnected and broken relationships, the pain of loneliness, the frustration of feeling misunderstood and never good enough, the endless swirl of rumination. Under all that pain, the lie of shame was uncovered. The Holy Spirit showed me the lie, spoke to me about it, and I understood that –
This is my life because I have allowed it.
I allowed it because of what I have believed.
Each person is ultimately responsible for what he or she believes. We choose it. The good news is that we can choose freedom by rejecting the lie we bought into (whatever that lie is) and choosing the Truth. The Truth really does make us free. And don’t worry, the Holy Spirit IS Truth, and is able to tell you the Truth about every single thing. You were created to hear His voice.
Are you stuck in a shame spiral? Then you need to get honest about it. First admit that you are in pain, that you feel stuck and angry, isolated and hopeless or however it is you feel. If you won’t be honest with yourself about how you feel, you can never be honest with anyone else, and shame will always have its way with you. If you can’t tell anyone where you are, they have no hope of meeting you there in empathy. Look, I get it. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have it all together, and sometimes the person we choose to tell ends up not being safe and it hurts. The instinct to self protect is strong, and has served us well at times. But that is no way to live. Setting boundaries actually helps us identify who is and who is not a safe place to tell our shame story. Brene Brown has some great things to say about who has earned the right to hear and bear the weight of your story.
#3 Boundaries are not walls of self defense.
Even when we have identified the safe people in our lives, we often hesitate to set boundaries because we don’t understand them and how they function. Many of us, in an attempt to establish boundaries, harden ourselves instead, creating walls of self protection. But the truth is, hiding and building walls does not make us safe. Walls always bring isolation. This can lead us to believe that boundaries are bad. But boundaries are not walls. Here is the break down on a few things about boundaries.
- Boundaries do not isolate.
- Boundaries communicate your needs, desires, and limits.
- Boundaries define where you end and others begin so you know what is your responsibility and what is not.
- Boundaries kill codependency.
- Sharing your boundaries makes deep connection possible. You can’t have intimacy without it.
We will struggle to create healthy boundaries in our lives unless the issue of shame is settled. Shame is not overcome by trying harder to be good or do right. Shame is overcome inside of us by the Love of God, and shame is overcome outside of us through empathy in community.
#4 Be brave. Take stock.
If you are experiencing isolation, chances are you have built walls instead of creating boundaries. (easy mistake – been there) If you’re having trouble establishing boundaries, don’t panic, it just means you need to back up a little and start at the beginning.
For today, I encourage you to be brave – take stock. Look at your life and if you don’t like what you see, tell the truth – be honest about how you feel and what you want and what you don’t want in your life anymore. Then say it out loud to a safe person in your life (a pastor, life coach, spouse, best friend or therapist) or journal it, just get it out. Shame says you’d better not speak up, you’d better hide, that you don’t get to say things out loud, it says you don’t get to desire good things because you’re not worth it. But don’t believe it.
One step at a time is how we get to where we want to be: in connected, loving relationships. We can choose to establish for ourselves what we need, what we desire, and what our limits are. We can leave shame behind us, finding ourselves at long last safe and at home in our lives, moving ever further into intimacy.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”― C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle