Boundaries are boundaries, and the same rules apply whether you’re setting them with children, schedules, or relationships. I recently read this analogy somewhere, and it seems to be the perfect word picture for boundary setting. Imagine you’re walking along one day, minding your own business on a sunny day. You cross a bridge over a river, and a person approaches you. Kindly and gently, they say, “Would you hold this rope for me?”
Being the kind, gentle person you are, you assess the situation and see no harm in saying yes. Sure, you can do this person the quick favor of holding the rope. They hand you the rope, and then the person proceeds to tie the other end of the rope around their waist and jump off the bridge. They leave you holding not only the rope but a greater dilemma: If you let go of the rope, that person will crash to the ground.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like you simply said yes to something small, and now the problem has been transferred and you’re left holding the rope? I have. And it’s a horrible place to stand. If you’re not careful, you can feel hopelessly in charge of somebody else’s mess.
Boundaries give you the ability to pull the cell phone from your pocket, call 9-1-1, hand the rope to the professionals when they arrive, and then quietly leave the scene. Boundaries give you the option to say, “This problem is bigger than me, and I can’t fix this.” Boundaries give you the clarity to know you can set something down carefully and walk away; if it crashes, it’s not because you dropped it. Boundaries give you the courage to say, “My job here is done.”
The tricky thing is this: It’s not only the draining relationships that get us mixed up. The unhealthy ones, the ones that have hurt us deeply, are just as complicated. Somehow, a lot of us have gotten a confusing list of expectations when it comes to relational boundaries. We somehow think that forgiveness means reconciliation and a restoration of the old ways of doing things. My friends, it’s just not true. It is entirely possible and completely okay to forgive someone and yet still not want to spend time with them. Some friendships may be so damaged by sin and hurt that they cannot be restored this side of heaven. Pay attention when people react with anger or hostility to your boundaries. Sometimes the end of someone else’s respect for you can become the beginning of your respect for yourself. Anyone who truly wants to be in your life for the right reasons will respect your boundaries.
Boundaries with people are the hardest boundaries to set, and you may not even know yet if you have a problem setting them. Here are a few symptoms that perhaps the boundaries in your life are blurry:
- Your relationships are difficult or overly dramatic. When you struggle to set boundaries, you send a signal to other people that you cannot take care of yourself. This leaves you susceptible to relationships with people who want to control you, and control is only ever dramatic and manipulative. Healthy relationships exist between people who have a healthy and mutual give and take in their friendship.
- You find it difficult to make decisions. When you don’t have healthy boundaries in place, you spend a lot of time doing what other people want you to do. You don’t know what you want or don’t want, and you might not have a strong sense of who you are, what you like, and what matters most to you.
- You really, really, really hate to let other people down. We all like to maintain a positive scorecard in our relationships, so it’s nice when the people in your life are happy. But people without boundaries worry excessively about letting other people down, so they hate to say no. If you’ve ever been called a “people pleaser,” you might need to set some boundaries in your life.
- You often feel guilt, fear, or anxiety. People with boundary issues feel responsible if others are unhappy, and they feel guilty for small and insignificant things. They apologize often for things far beyond their control, and they carry a self-imposed responsibility for the world’s happiness.
- You feel inexplicably tired for no reason. Always doing what other people want you to do leaves little time for you to take care of yourself and your own needs. This pattern is flat-out exhausting.
The confident girl loves herself enough to set boundaries. Your time and your energy belong to you first, so you get to decide how to use them. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept. At first you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed for setting a boundary. Do it anyway.
I’ve spent a lot of years learning about boundaries, so here are a few dozen therapy hours boiled down into a paragraph: Clearly identify your boundary, and understand why you need it. Be straightforward about your boundary, but don’t apologize or give long explanations. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” Remember that a boundary isn’t about telling someone else what to do; it’s about deciding what you will do—so no need to deal with self-made drama, tears, or arguments. Start with tighter boundaries, and then loosen up if it’s appropriate (but know that you never have to change your mind). Learn the art of saying no: you don’t have to lie, apologize, or over-explain. Just decline. Finally and always, trust your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right.
Tricia Lott Williford is a remarried widow, a writer, teacher, reader, and thinker, and the author of three books. This excerpt is from her newest book, You Can Do This, this week’s #1 New Release on Amazon and now available everywhere books are sold. Click and enter to WIN a copy of You Can Do This.