At times all of us experience feelings like “my life is out of control!” That is not a nice feeling, so naturally we want to take charge of our lives. But how do we do that? How do we know when to say “yes”, and when to say “no”?
We need to be able to exercise our own choices so that we have control of our life. However to exercise those choices and that control we need to have an understanding of what is ours to control, and what belongs to other people. That is what a boundary is.
A boundary is the dividing line between what is ours and what is not. Boundaries define who we are and what belongs to us. They are not brick walls but fences with gates. The job of the fence is to keep the bad out, and let the good in. We control the gate of our own boundaries – making decisions about what gets in and goes out.
There are different kind of boundaries:
- Physical Boundaries
At the base level are physical boundaries such as property lines and building walls. But on a more personal level there is skin. Skin is the external boundary of our bodies that defines us. It keeps the bad out and the good in.
Our words can create powerful boundaries. “Yes” and “no” are key boundary-setting words. “No” creates a dividing line between you and me, closing the gate to things or influences we don’t want in our lives. Conversely “yes” opens the gate and allows those things in. Words can also be used to describe our likes and dislikes, our feelings, and our thoughts. If we don’t use words to describe and define ourselves, it will be very difficult for others to know who we are and what we stand for.
- Geographical Distance
Putting distance between ourselves and someone (or something) else can be an effective way of creating a boundary. Physically removing ourselves from an unwanted situation or person can create a boundary that protects us.
The ways in which we choose to use our time can be a tool for creating healthy boundaries. Setting limits on the amount of time we spend with certain people, or working on a particular project, can be a way of expressing self control and defining what we are and what we are not.
The most powerful way that boundaries affect us is in the way we relate to other people. The way that we manage our boundaries will affect our relationships with our friends, bosses, family members, flatmates and others. So how do we know when to say “yes” and when to say “no”?
“Responsible to” vs. “Responsible for”
We are responsible to others, and are only responsible for ourselves. This means that I will be there for other people when they need me, offering help, love and support, but I am not responsible for them nor the choices they make.
In the bible we can see the difference between being responsible to others and for ourselves:
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”– Galatians 6:2
“…Each of you should carry your own load” –Galatians 6:5
At first glance these statements might seem to be opposed to one another, but when you look at the meanings of the words “burdens” and “load” the difference is evident. In the original Greek, “burdens” means something excessive or something out of the ordinary – something that weighs us down and that is beyond our ability to cope with by ourselves. On the other hand, “load” refers to a daily load – the everyday things for which we are responsible. We are each to carry our own daily load whilst helping carry the burdens of those around us as the need arises.
Boundary problems emerge when people mix these two up. When we help people who view their daily life as an “excessive burden” we simply end up owning their problems for them. Likewise, when we view “excessive burdens” as solely our own responsibility and won’t accept any help, we find ourselves in a difficult place. We need to be clear that we have a responsibility to others, and for ourselves.
How do we take control of our own lives?
In order to sort out these boundary issues we need a platform of love and acceptance from which to start – a stable relationship based on unconditional love. This is the kind of relationship that God offers us. God does not violate boundaries – He doesn’t disregard the personal boundaries that He created in us. He is willing to help us but He won’t make our choices for us. Neither does He allow us to put our responsibilities onto him.
With that base relationship in place, and hopefully some other supportive friends we need to:
- Identify where we are failing to take responsibility for what is within our own boundaries (thoughts, feelings, choices, behavior etc). We need to identify where we are letting others control us.
- Set limits that we are comfortable with.
- Communicate our boundaries appropriately (using our words, our time, and sometimes our geographical location to do so).
- Protect our boundaries. Recognise that boundary violations have natural consequences, and determine to keep within our own boundaries while ensuring we are not violating the boundaries of others.
If this article has hit a nerve, take a step in developing your boundaries by beginning a relationship with God.
All content for this post comes from “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No – To Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.