Boundaries, Not Barriers


Don’t allow someone to subtract from your life!

Set a boundary and defend it!

It seems everywhere I turn I am hearing about boundaries. From the motivational speakers, relationship experts, and even the Sunday morning crowd. As I’ve listened, read books and pondered this issue, I’ve often felt that something was missing. After reading Unglued I realized why this teaching often seems  incomplete: the people who are encouraging us to “set boundaries” often fail to instruct  a person to consider more than his or her own desires. In fact, too often we are inadvertently told to place barriers in our lives instead of boundaries.

In her book Unglued, Lysa TerKeurst explains, “The difference between boundaries and barriers is honest transparency…When we establish boundaries, we are brave enough to be honest but also compassionate enough to wrap the boundary with grace by clearly communicating the parameters of the relationship. Barriers set the relationships on a regressive course that leads to isolation. Boundaries set relationships on a progressive course that leads to connection.”

There is a significant difference between a boundary and a barrier. I’m always very cautious with any teaching that does not take into account human nature, which is why I love Lysa’s description. We all love to think we need to set boundaries with other people. Nobody want to consider that maybe, just maybe they are “setting a boundary” due to selfishness or immaturity.  Or that the boundary is actually a barrier. Now please don’t misunderstand me. Not everyone setting a boundary is motivated by selfishness. But it is problamatic when a person who is very immature attempts to “set a boundary” while never considering any perspective but his or her own.

These kind of boundaries are not boundaries- they do not promote conversation, growth, empathy and relationship. Healthy boundaries are all about love, kindness and respect. While I have a responsibility to myself, it’s not just about me. I can realize my own worth without diminishing the worth of the person with whom I have conflict.

When a boundary may be needed there are several key things I think we need to carefully consider.

  • I need to make sure my heart is in the right place. Am I only focused on my needs or do I desire what is best for myself and the other person? Do I want to see reconciliation in the relationship or do I simply want to make a point?
  • Will setting this boundary move our relationship in a positive direction or could it create a barrier? Is it necessary? Often a boundary is simply a quiet changing of my own behavior. Not responding the way I used to. Choosing to interact differently.
  • Is this person annoying or evil? It’s important to distinguish between a person who is irritating and a person who is evil. Annoying people receive boundaries. Truly evil people should receive barriers.
  • Remember how much is actually communicated through tone and body language. People often react to how something is said more than they react to what is said.
  • Don’t use the phrase, “I am setting a boundary with you.” Unless, of course, your goals is to make the other person immediately feel defensive. I don’t want to make another person self-protective when my goals are to seek a peaceful solution to a problem and have a healthy relationship.
  • Is my sole focus on my rights or do I want to encourage personal responsibility and emotional health? If my only motivation in addressing an issue is because someone is annoying me, I need to take a step back.
  • Is my primary concern changing another person’s behavior or in changing my response? I can only control myself.
  • Enabling someone’s laziness, lack of respect or general poor behavior is hardly showing the love of Christ. But neither is focusing only on how another person’s behavior affects me. I need to stay focused on the bigger picture. This is a person for whom Christ died. Does my behavior reflect this truth?
  • Remember a little empathy goes a long way. Place myself in their shoes. Is this situation all about me and how my boundaries are being crossed? Or have I stopped long enough to consider the other person’s perspective? Is it possible that I do not have all of the facts?

It is easy to focus on clinging to my rights and insisting I am setting a “boundary” when in fact I am creating a barrier. Most scenarios where I need to distance myself from someone’s unhealthy behavior does not have to include a dramatic confrontation. I have to realize that I can’t make someone respect me, but I can choose respectful behavior toward them as I also choose to respect my values.

Simply instructing people to “set a boundary” is unwise. A selfish, immature person setting a “boundary” is often just as harmful as the person who allegedly needs the boundary. Because we want to “pursue peace” in our relationships, my hope is that more of us will take the time to carefully consider our motivation and the way we set our boundaries. May our boundaries – not barriers- be placed out of a heart of love.

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