Working on the relationships in your life inevitably leads to understanding how you feel about yourself (what you might call your “relationship with yourself”) and the fundamental rules you developed about how you relate to other people. Primarily, we learn these from our families as we grow up, drawing from them our first ideas about who we are. As we mature into adulthood, we learn to negotiate our own ideas about who we are and how we will fit in to and with the world. Though the term “boundaries” has been assigned to this discussion and is bantered around quite a bit, these vitally important concepts are far from new creations of pop psychology. Boundaries rest at the core of who we are as individuals and have driven the ideals of ethics, religion, philosophy and civil society. In Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life, Jan Black and Greg Enns define boundaries in this way:
A personal boundary is a line you draw to protect all or a part of your life from being controlled, manipulated, “fixed,” misunderstood, abused, discounted, demeaned, diffused, or wrongly judged. Personal boundaries protect your life and preserve your highest potential so that your “ultimate purpose” can be joyfully and effectively fulfilled (pg 13).
Viewed in this way, boundaries serve a critical role in the discussion of forgiveness when it comes to negotiating and navigating the problems created by offense. Boundaries preserve and protect us from harm, what many call external boundaries – that which we allow into our lives and our relationships. Boundaries also present us to the world, determined by the way we behave through our own actions – something called internal boundaries. (Read more about boundary development HERE.) Part of the work of forgiveness involves striking the healthiest balance between the treatment we expect from others with respecting the feelings, needs, and wants of others. These principles of boundaries govern forgiveness, and what often makes the process difficult is the fact that the best boundaries are dynamic ones. Flexible, dynamic boundaries allow for the balance of “give and take” in relationships and facilitate connection to others, allowing us to extend compassion and empathy. The boundary of a wall blocks communication and interaction, limiting love and mutual care. Walls may be much less work because they shield us from ambiguity and having to think about how we will relate to others, but they drastically limit our growth and work against the ideal of forgiveness.
It's important to note what boundaries do not give us liberty to do. Boundaries should never become a way of justifying selfishness, irresponsibility, arrogance, superiority, judgmentalism, or brash rudeness. Boundaries don't give a Christian liberty to make an end run around love and consideration for others. The authors Black and Enns explain that “Boundaries don't mean you will never bend over backwards to help someone, even when it means you will become overtired doing it. Boundaries do not mean you'll never take a risk and let someone or something into your life that you're unsure about.” (pp 19-20). To the contrary, boundaries allow you to be in control of your life as opposed to allowing someone else to control you and your decisions and when you will make those decisions concerning how you will relate to the world. They also preserve you from becoming a “victim of circumstance” because they afford you a degree of healthy self-governance and initiative. Boundaries are central to that discussion about “locus of control” and how optimistic and realistic you are about what happens to you in life as discussed in this previous post.
Boundaries help us take appropriate responsibility for ourselves, as responsibility always requires a certain level of autonomy and authority. Boundaries allow us the authority to become the author of our own lives as opposed to allowing other human beings or something else in our lives to define who we are and what we will become. Good boundaries allow us to strike a good balance between freedom and responsibility.
Offense and forgiveness challenge boundaries when we encounter fundamental misunderstandings about one another within our relationships This becomes especially apparent when we find that the person we're working at forgiveness with has poorly defined boundaries of their own, if they desire to control us, or when they lack respect for us. As we mature, our own development may also challenge others as forgiveness progresses, because they have to accommodate the consideration that our new personal growth demands. We may find that we do fine with forgiveness, up until the point that our growth and interests require another party to make adjustments for us within our relationship with them. (They can forgive until they have to accommodate your feelings, needs, and wants – until it costs them something.) When we encounter problems in forgiveness, these boundary challenges usually play some role in the process.
Boundaries in the Bible
Again, the discussion of boundaries has been central to the Christian belief system from its beginnings in Judaism. Forgiveness is all about violating, repairing and restoring boundaries, as well as respecting individuality in concert with loving connection with others. Jesus prayed for this unity for the Church in Gethsemane, and Paul wrote many times about the necessity of remaining members of one another in love. Boiled down to the basics, the Second Greatest Commandment was a statement about how to have a healthy boundary, half of the sum of the Law and the Prophets. It speaks of that balance of love between self and others, in esteem and care out of love for self and for them – love that flows from God's love for us and our love for Him.
The other central aspect of the Christian life in terms of boundaries flows from life in the Spirit and walking in the spirit of love. The Book of Galatians talks about the negotiation of boundaries by both bearing one another's heavy burdens and walking in love while caring for self, too. We cannot let our feelings, convictions, needs, and wants override someone else's, yet we are also entitled to have them ourselves. The matter of dispute at Galatia came about because of the need to balance convictions and truth in consideration for others and how to properly work out a loving response to others in the face of conflict over zealous matters. The accounts of the disagreements over the Judaisers and how everyone worked together to resolve matters of both doctrine and behavior become something of an instruction book in boundaries – nothing of a new concept, even though the language we use to define it today can't be found in Elizabethan English in the King James Bible. We learn boundaries to be protected enough to allow our love to grow and our relationships with one another to deepen.
At the Basis of Boundaries:
Learning to Treat Yourself as a Best Friend
Boundaries may seem to start with the discussion of others, but it really begins with self-awareness, self-respect, and self-love. The best way to develop healthy boundaries comes through learning to be your own best friend. Central to this is the way that you feel about yourself as a person and the thoughts that you have about yourself and your capabilities – the opinions that you hold about yourself and whether you even know how you feel and think about yourself. Here again, we see the vital importance of Sandra Wilson's radical realism, because to forgive well, we must be keenly aware of the reality of the situation involving offense. If we don't know who we are and the opinions we have about ourselves, how can we negotiate forgiveness within our relationships? We end up signing the definition of who we are over to someone else to decide by living out the consequences of what others decide for us. We have to “own who we are” if we are to set boundaries which determine who we are and how we will relate to the world.
Here also, the concept of false beliefs comes to the forefront – what the Christian might consider the spiritual warfare within one's own mind about how we are to define ourselves as Christians and whether or not our feelings about ourselves line up with Scripture. All people experience some distortions of thought which necessitates the process of renewing our minds to the truth. To establish healthy boundaries, we must examine the degree of truth or falsehood of that which we believe about ourselves. Hindrances present through ignorance, errors in our thinking, distortions and misunderstandings in our assumptions, immature defense mechanisms, shame, false (toxic, undeserved) guilt, entitlement, and scapegoating. We can struggle with these hindrances within our own minds, or they can be projected or transferred on to us by the significant other people in our lives. They definitely hinder forgiveness as well.
By adjusting the way we think about ourselves by renewing our minds to truth, we not only facilitate forgiveness, we shore up our understanding of who we are. For the Christian, we have a wealth of help in knowing that we are “in Christ,” what I've heard noted as the phrase used most frequently by the Apostle Paul in his writings to encourage the early Church. And as I sing like a broken record, I love Chris Thurman's The Lies We Believe book and journaling to help with the process of renewing the thoughts we think about ourselves. (More resources about overcoming the problems of false belief and shame can be found HERE.) We also further refine and develop better boundaries when we discover and define our purpose in life and what we want to accomplish. Self awareness as we determine what our personal boundaries involves not only our opinions about ourselves but what we want our lives to accomplish. Self-forgiveness also plays a primary role in the opinions we hold about ourselves and what we believe our behavior should be, the subject of an important post or two to come. Forgiving ourselves can be the most difficult forgiveness to master.
Better Boundaries with Others
Offense and forgiveness teach us the important lessons of life by challenging our boundaries, the zone where we learn how to set boundaries and how to best defend and protect them. If we follow the Path of Denial in forgiveness, we allow your boundaries to collapse. An undefended boundary becomes nothing more than a nice idea which impedes our growth and disappoints us by deferring hope of healing. When we follow the Path of Bitterness, we build walls instead of establishing a dynamic connection of love with others. We stop growing when we build walls. These lofty things sound great in principle, but how to we move beyond that into our relationships?
Borrowing from Townsend and Cloud's book about Boundaries, I offer these ideas:
- Listen and seek to understand others before seeking to be understood (James 1:19, 1. Peter 3:8–9,17, 1. Corinthians 13:4–5). Try to understand the feelings, needs, and wants (desires) of others first before trying to defend your own immediately. Be patient, and give people time to think and respond emotionally so that they can be thoughtful.
- Use reflective listening to help others know that you hear and respect them, even if you don't understand their perspective. Active listening involves asking for feedback to clarify that you understand what others say and mean – if they even know themselves. Often, people know that they feel distress but may not have thought through what rests at the root of their discomfort. They may not know how they feel beyond pain, and fewer people tend to think about why they feel the way that they do. You can show them Christian love through patiently listening to them which may help them sort through their own sense of boundaries.
- Never ever devalue or explain away what others express about their thoughts or feelings. Even if it is difficult to let negative statements stand for a while – do not defend yourself or others right away. Just listen and make sure you understand the whole picture. You can voice your opinion later.
- Clarify to make sure that you understand. Don’t jump to conclusions if what you hear is unfamiliar to you. Ask questions to fill in details that help you understand what your spouse really tries to tell you.
- Use “I” statements to express that you are taking responsibility for what you feel or want. “You” statements often come across as blaming, which closes the communication channel . If you want to communicate is what is going on inside you, stick to your perceptions and feelings without commentary about what your responses to what the other person has to say. Love them and be gracious so that you can really take in what they are trying to express.
- Expect others to offer you these same considerations. If both parties commit to following the basic rules of communication, there is a good chance that you will understand each other much better. You may need to defend the boundary of these basic rules of communication to establish a place of mutual care and respect with others. They may not know how to relate to people respectfully – even more reason to be patient and loving.
- Check your own attitude towards others. Understanding can only grow in an environment of respect. Otherwise all communication is meaningless.
- Do not be afraid of conflict. Conflict is necessary to initiate growth (Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–3) and results in deeper, more trusting relationships if you go through the process lovingly.
More to come about
resisting manipulation through healthy boundaries
as part of the Path of Healing and Forgiveness.