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Establishing Boundaries With Yourself

Girl with orange umbrella.

Learning to be mature in self-boundaries is not easy. Many obstacles hinder our progress; however, God desires our maturity and self-control even more than we do. He’s on our team as an exhorter, encourager, and implorer (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

One way to begin developing limits on out-of-control behavior is to apply a boundary checklist:

1. What are the symptoms?

Look at the destructive fruit you may be exhibiting by not being able to say no to yourself. You may be experiencing depression, anxiety, panic, phobias, rage, relationship struggles, isolation, work problems, or psychosomatic problems. All of these symptoms can be related to a difficulty in setting limits on your own behavior. Use them as a road map to begin identifying the particular boundary problem you’re having.

2. What are the roots?

Identifying the causes of your self-boundary problems will assist you in understanding your own contribution to the problem (how you have sinned), your developmental injuries (how you have been sinned against), and the significant relationships that may have contributed to the problem.

Some possible roots of self-boundary conflicts include:

  • Lack of training. Some people never learned to accept limits, to pay the consequences of their actions, or to delay gratification when they were growing up. For example, they may never have experienced any consequences for dawdling as a child.
  • Rewarded destructiveness. People who come from families in which the mom or dad was an alcoholic may have learned that out-of-control behavior brings relationship. The family came together when the alcoholic member drank.
  • Distorted need. Some boundary problems are legitimate, God-given needs in disguise. God gave us sexual desire both to reproduce ourselves and to enjoy our spouses. The pornography addict has diverted this good desire; he feels real and alive only when acting out.
  • Fear of relationship. People really want to be loved but their out-of-control behavior (i.e., overeating, overworking) keeps others away. Some people use their tongues to keep other people at bay.
  • Unmet emotional hungers. We all need love during the first few years of life. If we don’t receive this love, we hunger for it for the rest of our lives. This hunger for love is so powerful that when we don’t find it in relationships with other people, we look for it in other places, such as in food, in work, in sexual activity, or in spending money.
  • Being under the law. Many Christians raised in legalistic environments were not permitted to make decisions for themselves. When they try to make their own decisions, they feel guilty. This guilt forces them to rebel in destructive ways. Food addictions and compulsive spending are often reactions against strict rules.
  • Covering emotional hurt. People who are injured emotionally, who were neglected or abused as children, disguise their pain by overeating, drinking too much, or working too much. They may abuse substances to distract from the real pain of being unloved, unwanted, and alone. If they were to stop using these disguises, their isolation would be intolerable.

3. What is the boundary conflict?

Take a look at your particular self-boundary problems in relation to eating, money, time, task completion, the tongue, sexuality, or alcohol and substance abuse. These seven areas aren’t exhaustive, though they cover a great deal of territory. Ask God for insight into what other areas of your life are out of control.

4. Who needs to take ownership?

At this point, take the painful step of taking responsibility for your out-of-control behavior. The behavior pattern may be directly traceable to family problems, neglect, abuse, or trauma. In other words, our boundary conflicts may not be all our fault. They are, however, our responsibility.

5. What do you need?

It’s useless to try to deal with your boundary conflicts with yourself until you’re actively developing safe, trusting, grace-and-truth relationships with others. You are severely hampered in gaining either insight into or control over yourself when you are disconnected from God’s source of spiritual and emotional fuel. Plugging in to other people is often frustrating for “do-it-yourself” people who would like a how-to manual for solving out-of-control behaviors just as they would buy to teach themselves piano, plumbing, or golf. They wish to get this boundary-setting business over with quickly.

The problem is that many people with self-boundary struggles are also quite isolated from deep relationships. They have no “rootedness” in God or others (Ephesians 3:17). Thus, they have to take what they think are steps backward to learn to connect with others. Connecting with people is a time-consuming, risky, and painful process. Finding the right people, group, or church is hard enough, but after joining up, admitting your need for others may be even more difficult.

Do-it-yourself people will often fall back into a cognitive or willpower approach, simply because it’s not as slow or as risky. They’ll often say things like, “Attachment is not what I want. I have an out-of-control behavior, and I need relief from the pain!” Though we can certainly understand their dilemma, they’re heading toward another quick-fix dead end. Symptomatic relief – trying to solve a problem by only dealing with the symptoms – generally leads to more symptoms. Jesus described this process in a parable:

When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. – Luke 11:24-26

Evil can take over the empty house of our souls. Even when our lives seem to be in order, isolation guarantees spiritual vulnerability. It’s only when our house is full of the love of God and others that we can resist the wiles of the Devil. Plugging in is neither an option, nor a luxury; it is a spiritual and emotional life-and-death issue.

6. How do I begin?

Once you have identified your boundary problem and owned it, you can do something about it. Here are some ways to begin practicing setting boundaries on yourself.

Address your real need. Often, out-of-control patterns disguise a need for something else. You need to address the underlying need before you can deal with the out-of-control behavior. For example, impulsive eaters may discover that food is a way to stay separate and safe from romantic and sexual intimacy. Their fear of being faced with those kinds of emotionally laden situations may cause them to use food as a boundary. As their internal boundaries with the opposite sex become firmer, they can give up their destructive food boundary. They learn to ask for help for the real problem – not just for the symptomatic problem.

Allow yourself to fail. Addressing your real need is no guarantee that your out-of-control behavior will disappear. Many people who address the real issue underneath a self-boundary problem are often disappointed that the problem keeps recurring. They think, “Well, I joined a support group at church, but I still have problems being on time, or viewing pornography, or spending money, or talking out of turn. Was all this for naught?” No. The recurrence of destructive patterns is evidence of God’s sanctifying, maturing, and preparing us for eternity. We need to continue to practice to learn things. The same process that we use to learn to drive a car, swim, or learn a foreign language is the one we use for learning better self-boundaries. We need to embrace failure instead of trying to avoid it. Those people who spend their lives trying to avoid failure are also eluding maturity. We are drawn to Jesus because “He learned obedience from what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). People who are growing up are also drawn to individuals who bear battle scars, worry furrows, and tear marks on their faces. Their lessons can be trusted, much more than the unlined faces of those who have never failed – and so have never truly lived.

Listen to empathic feedback from others. As you fail in setting boundaries on yourself, you need others who will let you know about it in a caring way. Many times, you are unaware of your own failures. Sometimes you may not truly understand the extent of the damage your lack of boundaries causes in the lives of those you care about. Other believers can provide perspective and support.

Biblically based support groups, which provide empathy and clear feedback, keep people responsible by letting them see the effect their actions have on another. When one member tells another, “Your uncontrolled behavior makes me want to stay away from you. I don’t feel that I can trust you when you act like that,” the out-of-control person isn’t being parented or policed. He is hearing truth in love from a peer. He’s hearing how what he does helps or damages those he loves. This kind of confrontation builds an empathy-based morality, a love-based self-control.

Welcome consequences as a teacher. Learning about sowing and reaping is valuable. It teaches us that we suffer losses when we aren’t responsible. The impulsive overeater has medical and social difficulties. The overspender faces bankruptcy court. The chronically late person misses plane flights and important meetings, and loses friendships. The procrastinator faces losses of promotions and bonuses. And on and on.

We need to enter God’s training school of learning to suffer for our irresponsibility. Not all suffering should be embraced; however, when our own lack of love or responsibility causes the suffering, pain becomes our teacher.

Learning how to develop better self-boundaries is an orderly process. First, we are confronted about the destructiveness of our behavior by others. Then consequences will follow if we don’t heed the feedback. Words precede actions and give us a chance to turn from our destructiveness before we have to suffer.

God doesn’t glory in our suffering. Just as a loving father’s heart breaks when he sees his children in pain, God wants to spare us pain. But when His words and the feedback of His other children don’t reach us, consequences are the only way to keep us from further damage. God is like the parent who warns his teenager that drinking will cause a loss of car privileges. First, the warning: “Stop drinking now. It will have bad consequences for you.” Then, if it’s not heeded, car privileges are yanked. This painful consequence prevents a possible serious catastrophe: a drunk-driving accident.

Surround yourself with people who are loving and supportive. As you hear feedback and suffer consequences, maintain close contact with your support network. Your difficulties are too much to bear alone. You need others who will be loving and supportive, but who will not rescue.

Generally speaking, friends of people with self-boundary problems make one of two errors:

(1) They become critical and parental. When the person has failed, they adopt an “I told you so” attitude, or say things like, “Now, what did you learn from your experience?” This encourages the person to either look elsewhere for a friend (no one needs more than two parents), or simply avoid the criticism, instead of learning from consequences.

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. – Galatians 6:1

Replace this parental position with gentle restoration, understanding that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

(2) They become rescuers. They give in to their impulse to save the person from suffering. They call the boss and tell them their spouse was sick when he or she was drunk. They lend more money when they shouldn’t. They hold up the entire dinner for the latecomer, instead of going ahead with the meal.

Rescuing someone is not loving them. God’s love lets people experience consequences.

This five-point formula for developing self-boundaries is cyclical.

That is, as you deal with real needs, fail, get empathic feedback, suffer consequences, and are restored, you build stronger internal boundaries each time. As you stay with your goal and with the right people, you will build a sense of self-restraint that can truly become part of your character for life.

Excerpted with permission from Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, copyright Zondervan, 2002.

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Your Turn

How good are you at setting boundaries with yourself? Personally, I read this book once a year because I need the refresher course! In what area do you need to work on boundaries? Come join the conversation on our blog! We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full