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Although people often talk about “appropriate boundaries,” I wonder if many people really understand what this phrase means. Here’s a very basic introduction to this topic.

Put simply, a boundary defines what is our responsibility and what is not. When a boundary is “appropriate,” it is something that the person in question should be in charge of. When a boundary is not appropriate, it is because someone has assumed responsibility for something that does not belong to them.  

To help your understanding of boundaries, let’s look at some ways that boundaries may be crossed inappropriately.

Physical

Our body belongs to us, not to anyone else. We need to decide how, when and where we want to be touched. From an early age, we must teach our children that healthy boundaries include having the power to say “please don’t touch me” or “I would like to hug you, may I please?” In this way, we learn to respect our own and others’ right to say “yes” or “no” regarding what happens to our bodies.

Physical and sexual abuse are extreme forms of boundary violations and they result in great trauma to the person whose boundaries have been crossed. If this has happened to you, you will need to work on recovering your sense of appropriate boundaries. (A counsellor can be very helpful when working through these issues.)

Psychological

Each of us also needs to have the authority to determine for ourself what we will and will not accept psychologically. Each of us has our own likes, dislikes, opinions, needs, interests, values etc. A healthy individual is able to “own” each of these aspects of who they are and allow others to do the same. For example, just because my friend likes sushi does not mean that I need to. My opinion may be that sports are a waste of time, but my son may be a passionate sports fan. I must respect and not impose myself on others; this respects their boundaries as well as my own. Some people lose their own identity trying to please other people, and this is a violation of their boundaries.

Emotional

Feelings belong to the person experiencing them. So often, well-meaning people tell others how they “should” feel. Christians are told that they should not feel depressed. Children are told that they should not feel angry. While we can encourage people to deal effectively with their emotions (i.e. talk about angry feelings rather than hit someone), we need to give each person the “right” to feel what they feel, to be aware of those feelings, and then, hopefully, make healthy choices about what to do with those feelings. Telling someone else how to feel is to cross a boundary; on the other hand, we must “own” our own feelings and choose responses judiciously.

Relational

We are all made to be relational beings, created in the image of God Himself, who is Three in One. Just as in the Trinity, each person in a relationship needs to be his or her own person. Unrealistic expectations in relationships often cause much grief. When we expect our loved one to do something that they have not understood and agreed to do, we have violated their boundaries. We must learn to ask for what we want, clearly and respectfully. This is being honest about our own needs. But then, we must respect the other person enough to allow them to freely say “yes” or “no” to our request. Too often people assume or demand, instead of negotiating with others.

Temporal

We all have many competing claims on our time. It is up to each individual to determine what they need and want to do with the time available to them. While some demands are less flexible (i.e. how many hours your employer expects you to be at work every day), we can make our own decisions about how much time to give to sleep, recreation, helping others, entertainment, commuting etc. If someone else is making “demands” on your time that do not fit with the other responsibilities you have chosen, it is up to you to set a boundary and let the other person know what can reasonably be expected from you. For example, if your mother expects you to call and talk to her for two hours every evening, you may need to establish a boundary by saying, “Mom, I can talk to you for 15 minutes, three times a week; I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Spiritual

God created us with boundaries; He set parameters for the man and woman He made, for their safety and security. But the Fall distorted those boundaries. When Adam and Eve crossed God’s boundary, the temptation to think they knew better than God entered into human experience and consequently, now we all wrestle with appropriate boundaries. Revisiting God’s parameters for our lives will help us live within healthy boundaries. Search His Word and be guided by its wisdom.

Jesus said “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no.’ ” This is the essence of boundaries. Be who you are, take responsibility for yourself, protect what “belongs” to you and respect what belongs to others.

Why are boundaries a big deal?

“Feelings belong to the person experiencing them . . . Telling someone else how to feel is to cross a boundary . . .”

Although people often talk about “appropriate boundaries,” I wonder if many people really understand what this phrase means. Here’s a very basic introduction to this topic.

Put simply, a boundary defines what is our responsibility and what is not. When a boundary is “appropriate,” it is something that the person in question should be in charge of. When a boundary is not appropriate, it is because someone has assumed responsibility for something that does not belong to them.  

To help your understanding of boundaries, let’s look at some ways that boundaries may be crossed inappropriately.

Physical

Our body belongs to us, not to anyone else. We need to decide how, when and where we want to be touched. From an early age, we must teach our children that healthy boundaries include having the power to say “please don’t touch me” or “I would like to hug you, may I please?” In this way, we learn to respect our own and others’ right to say “yes” or “no” regarding what happens to our bodies.

Physical and sexual abuse are extreme forms of boundary violations and they result in great trauma to the person whose boundaries have been crossed. If this has happened to you, you will need to work on recovering your sense of appropriate boundaries. (A counsellor can be very helpful when working through these issues.)

Psychological

Each of us also needs to have the authority to determine for ourself what we will and will not accept psychologically. Each of us has our own likes, dislikes, opinions, needs, interests, values etc. A healthy individual is able to “own” each of these aspects of who they are and allow others to do the same. For example, just because my friend likes sushi does not mean that I need to. My opinion may be that sports are a waste of time, but my son may be a passionate sports fan. I must respect and not impose myself on others; this respects their boundaries as well as my own. Some people lose their own identity trying to please other people, and this is a violation of their boundaries.

Emotional

Feelings belong to the person experiencing them. So often, well-meaning people tell others how they “should” feel. Christians are told that they should not feel depressed. Children are told that they should not feel angry. While we can encourage people to deal effectively with their emotions (i.e. talk about angry feelings rather than hit someone), we need to give each person the “right” to feel what they feel, to be aware of those feelings, and then, hopefully, make healthy choices about what to do with those feelings. Telling someone else how to feel is to cross a boundary; on the other hand, we must “own” our own feelings and choose responses judiciously.

Relational

We are all made to be relational beings, created in the image of God Himself, who is Three in One. Just as in the Trinity, each person in a relationship needs to be his or her own person. Unrealistic expectations in relationships often cause much grief. When we expect our loved one to do something that they have not understood and agreed to do, we have violated their boundaries. We must learn to ask for what we want, clearly and respectfully. This is being honest about our own needs. But then, we must respect the other person enough to allow them to freely say “yes” or “no” to our request. Too often people assume or demand, instead of negotiating with others.

Temporal

We all have many competing claims on our time. It is up to each individual to determine what they need and want to do with the time available to them. While some demands are less flexible (i.e. how many hours your employer expects you to be at work every day), we can make our own decisions about how much time to give to sleep, recreation, helping others, entertainment, commuting etc. If someone else is making “demands” on your time that do not fit with the other responsibilities you have chosen, it is up to you to set a boundary and let the other person know what can reasonably be expected from you. For example, if your mother expects you to call and talk to her for two hours every evening, you may need to establish a boundary by saying, “Mom, I can talk to you for 15 minutes, three times a week; I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Spiritual

God created us with boundaries; He set parameters for the man and woman He made, for their safety and security. But the Fall distorted those boundaries. When Adam and Eve crossed God’s boundary, the temptation to think they knew better than God entered into human experience and consequently, now we all wrestle with appropriate boundaries. Revisiting God’s parameters for our lives will help us live within healthy boundaries. Search His Word and be guided by its wisdom.

Jesus said “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no.’ ” This is the essence of boundaries. Be who you are, take responsibility for yourself, protect what “belongs” to you and respect what belongs to others.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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