By Amy Simon
I grew up watching the consequences of unhealthy boundaries in my family. I’ve had my own boundary issues, along the lines of trying to please everyone and not saying no when I need to. That has its own consequences of feeling overwhelmed, used, and walked over.
Have you ever felt like someone always wants something from you? You don’t mind helping out when people need it, but too often it gets out of control. As Christians, we’re supposed to give to everyone who asks, right? But it’s a struggle not to get bitter and frustrated that you never have any time for yourself to do what you need to get done.
Or perhaps your life feels out of control. You have habits, health issues, or addictions that keep eluding your ability to manage. You tend to blame other people, past experiences, and other things for your problems.
Either way, you could have a problem with unhealthy boundaries. Think of boundaries as being an invisible fence surrounding your life, complete with a gate that you control. Inside your fence are the things that you are responsible for, such as your body, health, time, emotions, actions, thoughts, money, and faith. You can open the gate and let people use your resources within your yard or you can keep the gate closed.
Problem #1—The People Pleaser
There are two main problems that can arise. The first problem is when you allow other people to push too many of their things into your yard. You say yes, even when you want to say no. You are, like me, the classic people pleaser. The problem is not that you are serving others, but rather that you do too much until you become bitter and resentful. You help others so much that you’re not able to take responsibility for what is already in your yard.
In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul said, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The context is talking about giving financially, but I think it can be applied to giving of our time and resources as well.
There is a man in our church I’ll call Ted. He has some mental health issues as well as alcohol and drug problems. He had burned out many of the men in the church who tried to help him. He’d call them constantly and demand a lot of attention that they just didn’t have the time to give. They had their own families and jobs to be responsible for.
A couple years ago, my husband, Joe, decided to start working with him. Joe was very clear with Ted from the beginning and explained that he had Wednesday evenings available to work with him. He would gladly give Ted that time for Bible study, mentoring, or just talking through life’s issues. Ted couldn’t call all the time or expect Joe to be available all hours of the day and night. Ted needed to understand that Joe had his own responsibilities to take care of. Joe was clear about what he was freely giving to Ted and where that ended. The result was a very healthy, respectful relationship.
It’s OK to be available to someone at a certain time and not available at other times. Imagine how ministers must handle it. If they allowed themselves to be available to their entire congregation all the time, how would they ever get anything else done? Mow the lawn? Spend time with their families? They have to draw boundaries. It’s OK for the rest of us to do the same.
Loads and Burdens
In Galatians 6, there are two verses that also deal with this issue. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2). A little later verse 5 says, “For each one should carry their own load.” Obviously burdens and loads are two different things, if one we’re supposed to help others with and the other we’re not. I believe loads are the everyday responsibilities of life. Going to work, making dinner, doing the laundry, and things like that. It’s our own stuff of life that we should each be responsible for. Burdens are the crises, the things that are above and beyond the normal in life.
My friend Christine and I have kids the same age and both homeschool, so we call each other almost every day to offer support and encouragement and share our frustrations. We rarely talk in the evenings because we know that our husbands are home and that’s generally family time.
When she was pregnant with her third child, Christine called me at 12:30 a.m. to say that she was going into labor six weeks early and asked if I could come over to watch her older two kids. I had no problem with any of it. I had agreed beforehand to watch her kids when she went into labor (and she had done the same for me). It didn’t matter that she called after I had gone to bed because this was a burden that she couldn’t be expected to bear alone. I was happy to be there for her and help her.
Putting our own families first in everyday circumstances is part of our loads that we carry ourselves. But significant life issues and needs beyond our ability to handle are burdens that we are called to help others bear.
Just Say No
What’s the solution if you struggle with letting others push their responsibilities into your yard? A polite but firm no. No, I can’t answer the phone or texts at 3:00 a.m. if it’s not an emergency. No, I can’t watch your kids at a moment’s notice for the 85th time just because you want to go out to lunch with a friend. I’m busy with my own children. No, I won’t do what you want me to, even if you tell me how upset you are about it.
Emotions can make this whole thing tricky. Sometimes we tend to say yes when we really mean no because we’re worried the other person will be upset or disappointed with us. We should be considerate of others’ feelings, but that’s no way to make a decision. If you know you’re making the right decision and communicate it tactfully, other people’s emotions are their responsibility. There’s no need to be rude, just firm. Decide what you will do to help in a given situation, and stick to it.
Problem #2—The Helpless Victim
The second kind of boundary problem involves someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their own stuff but pushes it into other people’s yards. They tend to blame others for things they really do have control over. When we fail to take responsibility for our lives, we end up staying stuck in destructive, unhealthy ruts. If you feel like your life is in constant crisis, take a look and see if there’s something you’re not taking responsibility for. Don’t blame others for things that you can fix.
Sometimes we are legitimate victims of one kind or another and there are situations that are out of our control. I would encourage you to figure out what you can take responsibility for. Forgive those who have hurt you and take ownership of whatever you can change or how you can heal. Don’t stay stuck.
Resolving issues with unhealthy boundaries can free you up to get a handle on your own life responsibilities as well as enable you to serve others joyfully, not out of guilt or coercion. Improving my own boundaries has made a huge impact on my life. I hope it helps you too!
Amy Simon is a freelance writer in Jackson, Wisconsin.
Set Your Time Rules
God designed each of us for a balance of work and rest. Our hours and energy are finite—and can become depleted easily.
• Sketch out your typical weekly schedule on a piece of paper, perhaps using an hour-by-hour, day-by-day grid. Schedule in everything you must do (work, sleep, etc.) and everything that’s important to you (date night, exercise, Bible study)—and make sure there’s time for rest, fun, and unstructured down time.
• From here you can see what is working well and what guidelines you can establish for invitations and requests. Such as: “Friday is family night” and “Read the Bible every morning.” Or ”Don’t eat lunch at my desk” and “Leave work no later than 5:15.” These principles will help you make room for what’s important and confidently say no to things that you don’t have time or energy for.
• You can work through a similar process with your kids, setting aside time for homework, sports, friends, family, and rest. As a family, you can make sure your time is balanced and sane and your priorities are clear.