I don’t like being told I can’t do something. However, there are times that I must acknowledge that I am limited and cannot do everything I want to do. For example, I can’t fly. My body simply isn’t made for it. While this physical example seems extreme, in our work and home lives, we are often trying to emotionally and mentally “fly.” It just isn’t possible. It would be amazing, but we have limits.
In order for us to have boundaries, we must acknowledge that we cannot and should not do everything. We must embrace our limits and operate inside them. There may be brief, taxing scenarios that take us beyond our limits. But when these extensions become patterns of behavior, then we begin to rapidly lose our health in all areas (emotional, mental, physical and spiritual).
Boundaries are what we use to define who we are and what we value. While most people think of boundaries with a negative connotation, evoking limitations, the truth is that boundaries are also freeing. When we have healthy boundaries, we remain true to ourselves in the midst of the tension of daily life.
Boundary lines are constructed differently for different people. Boundaries are determined not only by our capacities but also by what we value, and they reflect who or what has our hearts and attention. You may be influenced by your surroundings to shift a boundary, but ultimately, you get to determine if a matter in question is of value to you and where to draw the line.
Our boundaries solidify as we transition from adolescence to adulthood. In adolescence, we are under the care and influence of our parents. We see the modeling of their values and learn to draw our boundaries based on their influence, whether positive or negative. When we transition into adulthood, the defining and enforcing of those boundaries becomes our responsibility.
In his 2010 TedTalk on Work-Life Balance, Nigel Marsh boldly states that we should never entrust our lives to any organization. We often have hopes that the organization will care for and shepherd us. The organization may be known for having a great employee satisfaction rate. However, many times this desire for our workplace to maintain our balance is just adolescence in disguise. We surrender our position as the adult in our work relationship and allow our employer to become our parent.
Simply put, an employer’s main focus is not the employees’ overall well-being. They are, after all, in business for another purpose. We must embrace our need to be adults, take responsibility for our lives, and respect the power of a healthy “No”. We must also honor the values of others and not infringe upon their boundaries. This doesn’t mean there won’t be tension or give and take, but it does mean that after the negotiating is finished, there is a respect for the boundaries drawn. An example is respecting the decision of a co-worker to invest in their relationships at home and trusting that as an adult, they will meet the work demands that have been discussed. As we better understand our own boundaries and differing values, we may discover that some jobs and roles will always be at odds. There can be healthy functioning even in difference, but all parties involved will have to communicate clearly and function as adults.
Boundaries acknowledge limits yet also grant freedom. We may have to revisit them throughout our lives, and in that process, give ourselves grace to learn and embrace the truth of our limits.
I have heard it said “you are what you love,” and as adults we must see what we love and care for it.
So how do we draw a healthy boundary?
One of the keys to drawing a healthy, functioning boundary is awareness. Awareness allows us to see the reality of our environments and relationships. If we are drawing boundaries that are not mindful of the differences in relationships, individuals and situations, then we are setting ourselves up for struggle. In the area of relationships, I propose that we consider three main areas of relationship.
First, we must honestly look at our relationship with God. As followers of Christ, our relationship with God is at the center of all we do; therefore, it must be both protected and cultivated. We must have a clear picture of where we are starting when we enter into new environments so that we can enter them maturely and not out of naivety.
The second area is our relationship with self. If we disconnect from ourselves, then we can quickly find ourselves living for others, performing and burning out. If we are unaware of God’s call for our life and how He has gifted us, then we run the risk of replacing God’s call with other’s opinion. God has created each of us uniquely; therefore, His call on our lives and for our development will be different from person to person. Although similarities will be present, we must not fall prey to the Christian Factory ideal that runs on comparison. In order to have healthy boundaries, we must be aware of how God has made us and how he longs to grow us individually for His glory.
The last area of relationship to consider is our relationship with others. How are our current relationships with spouses, family and friends? Can they take the weight of demands of a new responsibility or proposed schedule? It would be wise to acknowledge in this area key relationships that must be prioritized. Yes, we may have some emotional capital that we can use to maintain a relationship over a short period; however, in prolonged times of struggle, your relationships must receive cultivation and investment in order to remain healthy. Throughout scripture we see God calling us to encourage, exhort and connect daily. We must not take our relationships with others for granted because they are often the lifeline that God will use to draw us back to Him.
For many of us, the drawing of boundaries is not the issue, the act of enforcing them is our struggle.
In scripture, we are given several different tools for use in the application of boundaries. One of those is the practice of discipline. I once heard spiritual discipline described as when we “practice to do naturally, what does not come naturally now.” Boundaries are encouraged in the command to observe the Sabbath and the call to rest. Observing the Sabbath helps establish a rhythm for us to be reminded that 1) we are human and 2) we are not God. The application of boundaries must become a discipline, and, like all disciplines, we can’t expect to be perfect. However, over time any new boundaries will strengthen and become a more routine part of our lives.
The second tool we can use in applying boundaries is faith. When you draw a line and have a “healthy no” then what often follows is sacrifice. We must have faith that God’s call and plan is better for us than what is being offered. This means that we may “miss out” on some things. However, if those “things” come at the cost of going against who God has called us to be and how He has called us to live, then they aren’t worth it.
We see both discipline and faith on display in the life of the prophet Daniel. His awareness of self leads him in initially drawing boundaries, and we see his discipline and faith when he sacrifices his safety in going against the king’s rule not to pray. Although Daniel could have compromised to be safer and more comfortable, he chose instead to focus on what was eternal and what God was calling him to pursue.
Are there exceptions and times when we cross our boundaries?
It is funny that we always want to know if there are any exceptions. By definition, an exception is something that is out of the ordinary. Yet, our boundaries should be a daily practice. If we are focused on “do we have any outs?” then we need to evaluate our hearts. There may be times when exceptions need to be made, and some important questions to evaluate the validity of an exception are listed below:
Is this a phase (for a limited time) or is this a pattern (continuing, unending cycle)?
-We may make an exception for a phase. However, for patterns we need to reevaluate and either enforce or rework a previous boundary.
Is this eternal?
-In what we are being asked to give towards, does it have eternal impact, is it a call from God or an earthly distraction?
How does this affect our relationships and community?
-If what we are being asked to do comes at the expense of not only ourselves but others, then those individuals must also be included in the decision regarding the exception.
One of my most common prayers, both for myself and for others, is that God would teach us how to live and how to love. We long to do it well, but we must realize that we are all in the process of learning how to live and steward this life and the relationships that God has given us. As we develop and enforce healthy boundaries, we are loving more authentically and intentionally.