Many might be familiar with the classic work on the subject of boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This book has given many who are in unhealthy relationships tools to begin to walk in freedom. At the same time, I think there is a wide awareness of the presence of unhealthy boundaries that block relationships that God designed and that in extreme situations partner with a love of power and control and are used to tell others what they will or won’t do in a way that suppresses who God made them. In this blog, I wanted to address the root causes of either a healthy or an unhealthy boundary.
Are Boundaries Biblical?
God created boundaries. He separated light and darkness. He separated dry land and water. He differentiated between different kinds of animals. He differentiated between male and female and He differentiates between each individual human being. Boundaries are everywhere in creation and God intended for each of us to have boundaries. There is a place where one person stops and another person begins and in accordance with this design, this has an impact on how we interact and relate to each other. At the same time that God created boundaries, God created relationships between everything in creation. The water and the dry land have a synergistic relationship even though God declared that one would not violate the other. Without the water, the dry land would become a barren wasteland. Without the dry land, much of the life on the planet would end. God most certainly believes in boundaries, but at the same time, he believes in boundaries that support, not destroy the existence of life-giving relationships.
First of all, what is the foundation of a healthy boundary? A healthy boundary is based on the fact that you are valuable, you are worth something. If you are worth something, you should not be abused, you should not be taken advantage of against your will, you should not be treated certain ways. If you know that you are valuable, you will then be empowered to begin to take care of yourself and this means enforcing or having healthy boundaries. If have been in a situation where you are treated like dirt, where you have been abused in some way or another, where you have not been allowed to say “No,” the purpose of teaching on boundaries is for you to learn that you are valuable and that you are worth something and for others to come along side you and say “you are worth something, we are here to help you and we want to help you start to take care of yourself by supporting you in saying “no” to something that is unhealthy for you.” One of the ways to take care of yourself is through healthy boundaries, boundaries that most of us walk in without even thinking about them because they just “are” and other people respect them.
A boundary that is based on the fact that you now value who you are, that is who God made you, will never be an abusive or unhealthy boundary because if you value who you are, you WILL value who other people are as well. It goes with the territory. Valuing self and valuing others are two sides of the same coin. As a side note, if you devalue someone else, you devalue yourself at the same time. Not only will valuing yourself cause you to value other people, you will accord them similar boundaries. It will be mutual. You will live by the golden rule and treat others as you wish to be treated. How you treat boundaries will also not be rigid, there will be a natural flow or give and take in each situation. You will not be held captive by your own boundaries.
There are several factors that make boundaries unhealthy.
The first is when a boundary is based, not on a sense of personal value or worth, but on a need to escape from pain or cope with pain. When we are in a very painful circumstance, it is easy to adopt belief systems that are not true. One false belief system is the belief that “No one will ever take care of me or help me or value me.” While it may be true that those around you don’t do any of these things, it is not true that there is “no one” who will take care of you or look out for your needs or value you. If we adopt this false belief system, it will separate us from relationships that we need because God didn’t design any of us to be loners. We need other people.
When we are in pain, it is easy to make vows or decisions that may continue to govern how we live and operate, even after we forget them. One common vow is, “I will never let anyone hurt me like this again.” This vow can be very helpful in establishing boundaries which may prevent us from getting hurt again, but the reality is that even in the best of relationships there are times that are painful and if we have vowed never to allow anyone to hurt us, we will set up boundaries that will separate us even from healthy relationships. An expectation, “Everyone will try to hurt me” can both lead us into hurtful situations and also lead to boundaries that separate us from others in an unhealthy way.
A second way that “boundaries” can be unhealthy is when we combine those ideas with a “love of power and control.” God created us free and he created others free as well. What this means is that God created us to have control over what we do and how we respond to circumstances around us, but He did not create us to have control over other people because He created those people to be free. If we use the idea of boundaries to try to create a world around us where we are in total control, where nothing will happen that could possibly destabilize us, or cause us discomfort or interfere with our interests, those boundaries become unhealthy. Often this need for power and control comes from the belief listed above that we are on our own and that no one else cares about us or will ever be there to look out for us or meet our needs. These beliefs can require us to maintain personal control of everything around us to protect us.
The solution to “unhealthy boundaries” is not to say “no boundaries” but to identify and address the beliefs, judgments, lies and expectations that may contribute to a boundary becoming unhealthy, while at the same time absorbing all that God says about who we are and anchoring to the reality of the value God has given us.
Helping people establish healthy boundaries
Let’s say that you are walking alongside someone, helping them to get out of an abusive situation. They may not be capable of feeling their own value or worth, they may be in so much pain and their sense of who they are may have been so destroyed by those around them that they aren’t capable of realizing, “I’m worth more than this, I need to take care of myself and take steps so that I am not abused the way that I am.” All they may know is the fear and the pain of where they are. As such, you may need to help them set up boundaries, and for them, those boundaries may be based entirely on the need for peace from the fear and relief from the pain. This is okay because they are in process. What you can do to help them move from boundaries based on the need to escape pain to boundaries based on a sense of their own value and the value of others is to speak into them and affirm them in relation to who you see that God made them.
When we do this for someone, we help them understand the idea of “abuse” because, by its very definition, the word “abuse” implies a misuse or wrong use of something. Abuse is when someone is treated in a way that is contrary to God’s design for them. Helping someone who is in an unhealthy situation label behavior they experience as abuse is based on building their understanding of design, of the value of their design, the value of who God made them. When they see that value, they can realize that behavior that destroys or goes against that is properly termed “abuse.”
The greater your understanding of your design by God and the value of your design, the greater your mutual understanding of the value of God’s design for others will be and the healthier your interactions with other people will be.
May God bless you all with a firm foundation in the fact that you are loved and you are worth being loved, that you are valuable and that value isn’t based on whether people see your value or whether you feel you are doing anything valuable. You are valuable because God created you in His image and took great interest in every detail of who you are and took great delight in who you are. May you discover as you walk with God how to walk in the dignity of who you are as someone created in God’s image, a child of God, someone so valuable that even if you were the only one in the whole world who needed help, Jesus would gladly give everything for you.