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3. Boundary Myths

Article contributed by Probe Ministries
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"How do we get people to do what we want without being controlling and manipulative?"

Answer is in the first word of Matt 7:7—ASK.

  • Ask for what you want. People are not mind-readers.
  • Request, not demand.
  • Preserve the other person's freedom: "Feel free to say no if you don't want to or can't."
  • Avoid the word "need" when it's not accurate. Use "want" instead.
  • Make the request in a way that shows you are not implying the other person "should" do whatever you want, but instead shows that you realize you are not "entitled" to what you are asking for.
  • Don’t remind the other person of all you have done for him or her, or some other form of manipulation that communicates they should do what you want.

If they say no, don't come back with:

  • Fine. Excuse me for wanting something.
  • It seems like the least you could do.
  • That will be the last time I ever ask YOU for anything.
  • It seems like after all I have done for you, the least you could do would be…
  • See? It doesn't do any good to ask you for what I want.

None of these reactions give freedom to people to say no to you.

Myth #1 If I Set Boundaries, I'm Being Selfish

If I set boundaries, doesn't that mean I'm being self-centered, interested only in my concerns and not those of others?

It is absolutely true that we are to be loving, concerned for the welfare of others. Jesus said our #1 hallmark of being Christians is that we love one another.

Appropriate boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others. How?

Make a distinction between selfishness and stewardship. Selfishness means we're fixated on our own wishes and desires, ignoring our responsibility to love others.

Stewardship means understanding that God gives us a limited amount of personal resources to manage: time, energy, feelings, thoughts, behaviors. We are responsible before God for how we spend them and how we develop them. When we say NO to people and activities that are hurtful to us, we are protecting what belongs to God.

Helpful: playing "Go Fish."

  • “Do you have a four?” “No, go fish.”
  • "I want you to do this for me." “Sorry, I don’t have a four.”

No shame, no condemnation.

As a polio survivor, I have a limited number of steps available to me in any given day and in my life. How do I want to spend them? Doesn't it make sense to ask for help and accept help so that I can be a better steward of my limited resources?

Myth #2: Boundaries Are a Sign of Disobedience

Many Christians fear that setting and keeping limits equals rebellion, or disobedience. In some religious circles you'll hear statements such as, "Your unwillingness to go along with our program shows an unresponsive heart." Because of this myth, countless people remain trapped in endless activities of no genuine spiritual and emotional value.

"Abusive Churches" article at

This truth is life-changing: a LACK of boundaries is often a sign of disobedience. People who have shaky limits are often compliant on the outside, but rebellious and resentful on the inside.

Little boy: "I'm sitting down on the outside, but I'm standing up on the inside!"

Sometimes people can pressure us into doing something we don’t want to do, but we're afraid of what they'll think if we say no.

Fear is a terrible reason to let our boundaries be trampled. 1 John 4:18—"Fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." If we say yes out of fear, we are not doing it out of love, and God wants us to be able to say yes out of love.

The Bible tells us how to be obedient: "Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:7) RELUCTANTLY and UNDER COMPULSION both involve fear, either of a person or of a guilty conscience. Fear and love are on opposite ends of the spectrum. "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18) When we're afraid to say no, our yes is compromised.

Biblical principle: an internal no nullifies an external yes. God is more concerned with our hearts than he is with our outward compliance. Remember the gospel story of the father who asked his son to do something and he said no, but then changed his mind and did what his father wanted, and his brother said 'OK, Dad,' but didn't do what his father wanted? It's what's in our hearts that matters. Our insides and our outsides should match when it comes to boundaries.

We should own our yesses and our nos. "Let your yes be yes and your no be no." (Matt. 5:37)

If we say yes to God or anyone else when we really mean no, we're being compliant, and that's the same thing as lying.

Now, this is different than obeying from the heart when our feelings are telling us one thing and we know the right thing to do and we freely choose to do it out of obedience. We CHOOSE to obey even if we don't feel like it, but we own our yes—it's just not clothed in enthusiasm. Learning to give thanks for polio.

Disobedience to parents: children obey, adults honor.

Myth #3: If I Begin Setting Boundaries, I Will Be Hurt by Others

Some people genuinely believe in boundaries, but they are terrified of their consequences.

Is it possible that others will become angry at our boundaries and attack or withdraw from us? Absolutely. We can't control how others respond to our no. Some will welcome it; some will hate it.

Jesus told the rich young ruler a hard truth, set a hard boundary: sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. He rejected Jesus' boundary. "He went away sad, because he had great wealth."

Jesus could have manipulated the situation so that it was easier to swallow. He could have said, "Well, how about 90%?" After all, He's God, and He makes up the rules! But He didn't. He knew that it was a heart issue and the young man had to freely choose whom to worship, Jesus or money. So He let him walk away.

We should do the same thing. We can't manipulate people into swallowing our boundaries by sugarcoating them. Boundaries are a "litmus test" for the quality of our relationships. Those people in our lives who can respect our boundaries will love our wills, our opinions, our separateness. Those who can't respect our boundaries are telling us that they don't love our nos. They only love our yeses, our compliance. "I only like it when you do what I want."

Setting limits has to do with telling the truth. One of the primary boundary verses: "Speak the truth in love." The Bible clearly distinguishes between those who love the truth and those who don't. First, there is the person who welcomes your boundaries. Who accepts them. Who listens to them. Who says, "I'm glad you have a separate opinion. I honor the fact that you're you and not me." This person is called wise or righteous.

I REALLY want to be a wise person. I've learned how to honor other people's boundaries. I asked an executive’s admin about him joining the board of a ministry. "You're not going to like this, but I won't let him be on any more boards." No, I respect and honor a no because I want others to respect and honor my nos. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"—the Golden Rule.

The second type hates limits. Resents your differences. Tries to manipulate you into giving up the treasures of your heart. Try the "litmus test" experiment with your significant relationships. Tell them no in some area. You'll either come out with increased intimacy—or learn that there was very little to begin with.

Recognize a hard truth: you can't make anyone stay with or love you. That's up to the other person in the relationship. Sometimes setting boundaries clarifies that the other person left the relationship a long time ago—in every way except physically. When one person starts setting boundaries by telling the truth about themselves, it causes a crisis. Hopefully, they can reconcile and change the relationship into a healthier one. The problem is brought out in the open so it can be addressed. You cannot change or heal that which you don't acknowledge.

Will some people abandon or attack us for having boundaries? Yes. Better to learn about their character and take steps to fix the problem than never to know.

One couple: after 27 years, he was honest about his struggle with homosexuality. Once it was out in the open, she was able to deal with the truth. She started setting boundaries, and getting healthier, he didn't like it, they divorced. The marriage was based on a lie, and once the lie was exposed, they couldn't live with it anymore.

Another couple: he was a procrastinator, she was punctual. They were always late for church. It made her mad. A couple of times she said, "If you're going to dawdle, then I'm going to leave without you. I'll see you at church." And she went without him. He got mad and accused her of being disrespectful. So she stopped doing that and just let the anger build.

What if she had said, "I'm sorry you see it that way (me being disrespectful). I'm really respecting your choice to be late, and I'm respecting myself in my desire to be on time. I would love to go to church with you, but I also would love not to feel torn up and resentful inside. Can we negotiate a way where we can both be happy?"

Secret: set boundaries while remaining loving and cheerful. No edge to your voice. "Speak the truth in love."

A few times he understood that it was a problem, and he worked at being punctual, but after a few weeks he fell back into his old pattern. She didn't stay with the boundary-setting program, she just let her resentment build. She could have said, "For a few weeks you worked really hard at being on time, and I really appreciate that. It seems we're slipping back into the old rut of you being late and me being resentful, and I don't want this to be a problem in our relationship. What can we do?"

We need to be patient when people are learning new behaviors.

What if there weren't two cars? What if the late person forces the on-time person to suffer? What if they were leaving on a trip and they HAD to go together?

"Help me understand something. It seems that whenever we leave for a trip, you have all kinds of things to do before we leave the house, and not all of them are necessary. And then we're late leaving. It's a real pattern, and it's a real problem. What can I do to help you get things done so we can leave on time, or what can I do to help you discern between the things you have to do and the things you don't have to do? It's causing me a lot of frustration and anger toward you and I don't like feeling this way."

Tell the truth. "Speak the truth in love." Say that you're frustrated and it's impacting the relationship.

Myth #4: If I Set Boundaries, I Will Hurt Others

If you set boundaries, you fear that your limits will injure someone else:

  • The friend who wants to borrow your car when you need it
  • The relative in chronic financial straits who desperately asks for a loan
  • The person who calls for support when you are in bad shape yourself

The problem is that sometimes you see boundaries as an offensive weapon. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Boundaries are a defensive tool. Appropriate boundaries don't control, attack, or hurt anyone. They simply prevent your treasures from being taken at the wrong time. Saying no to adults, who are responsible for getting their own needs met, may cause some discomfort. They may have to look elsewhere. But it doesn't cause injury.

Difference between hurting and harming. Can we hurt someone's feelings when we set a boundary? Sure. But hurting feelings are different from HARMING the other person. We take kids for shots, and it hurts them, but it doesn't HARM them. In fact, if we prevent them from experiencing the hurt, we DO harm them.

This principle of setting boundaries isn't just about those who would like to control or manipulate us. It also applies to the legitimate needs of others. Even when someone has a valid problem, there are times when we can't sacrifice for some reason or another. Jesus left the multitudes who had real needs for Him, to be alone with His Father. When we remember we need to be good stewards of our time and energies, when we live before the Lord, we can distinguish between the important and the urgent.

That's why it's important to be in community.

It's important to have a group of supportive relationships. The reason is simple: having more than one person in our lives allows our friends to be human. To be busy. To be unavailable at times. To hurt and have problems of their own. To have time alone.

Then, when one person can't be there for us, there's another phone number to call. Another person who may have something to offer.

When we have taken the responsibility to develop several supportive relationships, we can take someone else's no. Why? Because we have somewhere else to go.

Do you have a friendship with another lady where you're the only person she calls for help or to vent or to cry on your shoulder? What if you got caller ID and didn't answer the phone? What if you were unavailable and she panicked? She would come right up against her wrong belief that you are all she needs. It would cause some pain, because she needs other people besides you, and your unavailability would be the best way for her to see that. She may feel hurt, but she's not HARMED.

Myth #5: Boundaries Mean That I Am Angry

Lots of us are uncomfortable with anger. But anger is an emotion that is God's gift to us. All of our negative emotions are God's gift to us; they are like warning lights on the dashboard of a car. They are a signal of something going on "under the hood" that needs attention.

  • Fear tells us to move away from danger, to be careful.
  • Sadness tells us we've experienced a loss.
  • Anger tells us that our boundaries have been violated.

Like fear, anger signals danger. But instead of withdrawing, which is what fear tells us to do, anger is a sign we need for move forward to confront the threat. Anger is emotional energy to deal with a problem that needs to be dealt with. Anger gives us a sense of power to solve a problem. It energizes us to protect ourselves, those we love, and our principles.

Let me say it again: If you're angry, it means your boundaries have been violated. ("Oh, THAT'S why I'm angry!")

Ever find yourself feeling hostile with pushy salespeople? They can't or won’t hear your no. They are attempting to get inside your financial boundaries, and God's gift of anger is doing its job.

As with all emotions, anger doesn't understand time. Anger doesn't dissipate automatically if the boundary violation occurred two minutes ago—or twenty years ago! It has to be worked through appropriately. Otherwise, anger simply lives inside the heart.

That's why people with injured boundaries are often shocked by the rage they feel when they start setting limits. It's not new anger, it's old anger. Years of no's that were never voiced, never respected, never listened to. The protests against all the evil and violation of our souls sit inside us, waiting to tell their truths.

That's why people in counseling for abuse issues have to go through a time of being angry. It's not being fleshly, it's getting healthy.

Ex.: My friend throwing plates.

It's very common for boundary-injured people to do some "catching up" with anger. They may have a season of looking at boundary violations of the past they never realized existed.

If this kind of person is in your life, give them grace. It's a season, not the rest of their life.

As you develop better boundaries, you have less need for anger. Once you have your NO intact, you no longer need to "rage signal." You can see evil coming your way and prevent it from harming you by setting your boundaries.

An important point about anger: The better our boundaries are, the less anger we experience. Individuals with mature boundaries are the least angry people in the world. If you can prevent boundary violation in the first place, you don't need the anger. You are more in control of your life and values.

Tina resented her husband's coming home 45 minutes late to dinner every night. She had a hard time keeping the food hot; the kids were hungry and crabby, and their evening study schedule was thrown off. Things changed, however, when she began serving dinner on time, with or without her husband. He came home to refrigerated leftovers that he had to reheat and eat alone. Three or four "sessions" like this prompted Tina's husband to tear himself away from work earlier! Tina's boundary (eating with the kids on time) kept her from feeling violated and victimized. She got her needs met, the kids' needs met, and she didn't feel angry anymore.

The old saying "Don't get mad, get even" isn't accurate. It's far better to say, "Don't get mad. Set a limit!"

Myth #7: If I Set Boundaries, I Feel Guilty

Someone who gets a job opportunity across the country, and suddenly their parents start telling them about their poor health and their loneliness. And all the sacrifices they'd made for them.

What do we owe our parents and anyone else who's been loving toward us? What's appropriate and biblical, and what isn't?

Some people solve this dilemma by never setting a boundary. They never leave home, they never change schools or churches, they never switch jobs or friends. Even when it would be an otherwise mature and wise move.

They believe that because we have received something, we owe something. The problem is the nonexistent debt. The love we receive, or money, or time—should be accepted as a gift. "Gift" implies no strings attached. All that's really needed is gratitude.

"Mom and Dad, I am so grateful for all you've done for me. Nothing will ever come close to the sacrifices you've made. Thank you for investing in my life the way you have."

With parents, we don't ask permission, we inform about what we're doing. When we're children, we ask permission because we are under their authority and we need to learn to obey and submit. When we're adults, we ask permission of GOD, not our parents. That authority relationship is over. We honor them by listening to them and considering their input, then we do what God wants us to do.

We need to distinguish between those who "give to get" and those who truly give selflessly. It's generally easy to tell the difference. If the giver is hurt or angered by a sincere thanks, the gift was probably a loan. If the gratitude is enough, you probably received a legitimate gift with no feelings of guilt attached.

If the person gave you a loan instead of a gift, then recognize that the problem is about them, not you.

No one can make you feel guilty without your permission.

Sometimes we think we're feeling guilty when what we're feeling is discomfort over the other person's withdrawal of approval and affection. If I set a boundary and the other person doesn't accept it and withdraws or gets angry, then that person is not respecting me. God calls us to respect one another. Instead of camping on "I feel awful because of the disruption in the relationship," think about it this way: "The other person is not respecting me. It's about them, not me."

Next lesson: Boundaries with Family

Related Topics: Boundaries, Christian Life, Messages, Spiritual Life, Wisdom, Women

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