Boundaries are often the most misunderstood concept in the healing process. Without boundaries, we can’t find inner peace—a place of safety. We can’t properly regulate our emotions and we frequently hurt others when trying to get our needs met.
Boundaries are taught in childhood and become a natural part of our “space” and individuality. In a functional family system, we are encouraged to express our dreams and opinions, likes and dislikes; and when we do, we are respected and encouraged to be who we are becoming through life experience. Through this healthy family system, when conflict happens, we have learned to stay in relationship and stay connected to those around us.
In a dysfunctional family system, our dreams and opinions are often met with criticism or rejection, resulting in feelings of abandonment. We come to the emotional conclusion that we don’t matter and that our feelings aren’t important. We grow up with the belief that we are unworthy of love and belonging. This creates an internal narrative that gives way to shame. Without boundaries, the words and behaviors of others—the emotional energy of another—impact our self-perception of worth, further wounding our heart. Our perception is skewed and we either fall into victimhood or become angry at the world.
A lack of boundaries deteriorates our sense of worth, making it nearly impossible to objectively perceive our world and relationships. We live a lifestyle of anxiety, wondering what others think of us, and generally feel disconnected in relationships.
As we continue on the path toward lifelong health, it is important that we understand how boundaries operate—how they are developed and how they are violated. Most of our current struggles in relationship are due to a lack of effective boundaries. We need to identify our unmet needs and the role they have played in our current struggle with boundaries.
Simply put, a boundary is a perimeter around how others impact us and how we impact others. God created us inherently worthy of His love and belonging. He also wired into our heart a sensitivity to harm—an intuitive sense of self. Even the youngest of children, including those who cannot yet speak, react anxiously to harsh words, sensing danger or harm. This “wired” sense stems from our inherent worth from God.
There are two types of boundaries: external and internal.142
External boundaries are perimeters around our physical space. This includes our personal space, the level of comfort we feel when interacting with others. This may fluctuate over time and change from person to person. From an early age, our physical boundaries are shaped through experience.
When it comes to external boundaries, our sexual boundary is probably the one with which we are most familiar. Many of us were raised in an environment where we learned that our body was our own. We learned sexual boundaries from our parents usually at an early age. Our caregivers are instrumental in shaping how comfortable we are with external boundaries.
Internal boundaries pertain to how we think, feel, and behave when interacting with others. This includes how well we listen and talk to others. Internal boundaries are the key to living a life of intimacy with others. It is the “fencing” that holds us intact from the inside.
Our talking boundary governs how we verbally communicate with others, as well as how we feel about and filter what someone is saying to us. It reflects that others have the same inherent worth we have, which is deserving of respect, even when we don’t like what they have to say. Listening boundaries govern how we hear and take in information from others objectively, allowing them to have a different opinion than ours.
Our internal boundaries protect how we hear information from others, as well as how and with whom we share information. This helps us determine whether the relationship is safe or unsafe. When we develop healthy internal boundaries, it helps us recognize that we are in control of our thoughts and feelings. We get to decide how the words of others are going to affect us. When we take responsibility for our internal boundaries— our thoughts and feelings—it helps to reinforce our external boundaries.
Developing healthy boundaries is learned behavior. Our first step in this process is to recognize that God will protect us. For some of us, this may require a fresh perspective of God. Those of us who have been betrayed by caregivers or others, or have had our boundaries violated, may struggle with trusting God. We need to examine the truth of who God is and how He intervenes in our life. Gaining a new perspective of God can provide a renewed sense of ourselves and our inherent worth. Healthy boundaries protect our self-worth and self-esteem.
As we begin to develop healthy boundaries, what does it look like?
I entered college with excitement about social life, academics, and life on my own. My high school experience was amazing! During this time, highly influenced by a friend, I was involved in many activities so my college and scholarship applications would stand apart from others. While my friend’s advice seemed a bit extreme, I knew what colleges were looking for, so I followed my friend’s direction. I was involved in every high school activity I could possibly do and excelled in all my honor courses. All my hard work paid off and I was going to college on a full-ride scholarship. What I didn’t realize is that after four years of trying to do everything and saying “yes” to as many things as I could to make myself look good on paper, I now felt the need to say “yes” to everything. I said “yes” all the time, even when I really wanted to say “no.”
Within the first few weeks of college, I signed up for a few clubs and joined student government. I was taking 21 credits, trying to maintain my relationship with my high school boyfriend, working four part-time jobs, volunteering for the worship team at church, and participating in several freshman activities in my dorm. I said “yes” again and again and did not know how to say “no.” The year continued on a downward spiral. My grades took a turn for the worse; I broke up with my high school boyfriend; I was carelessly spending all the money I made; and the stress from all my classes and hardly getting any sleep was taking a toll on my body. My life clearly reflected that I had no boundaries in place. I had no idea where to start developing healthy boundaries.
Many of us grew up in an environment where boundaries were not modeled or respected.143 For those of us who struggle with managing love, sex, and relationships, we have problems setting healthy boundaries as well as not recognizing when we violate the boundaries of others.
Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is an essential step on the path toward health. It is important to understand that when we develop healthy boundaries to keep us safe in relationship, it helps others recognize that we are safe because they feel more secure and less threatened in the relationship.
When it comes to recognizing differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries, there are many distinct characteristics that reflect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
• Interact with others effectively
• Frequently get what they want in relationship
• Know what they will and will not do
• Know what they will and will not allow others to do
• Can set limits and still love
• Do not violate the personal space of others
• Do not take on responsibilities of others
• Can be responsible to others without feeling responsible for them
• Feel safe and secure
• Create healthy connections
• Frequently have difficulty in relationships
• Have difficulty getting their needs met in relationships
• Trust too easily and overshare with the wrong people
• Trust too little and don’t have people to share with
• Violate the personal space of others
• Ask inappropriate personal questions of people they don’t know well
• Feel responsible for others’ behavior and feelings
• Often live lives driven by guilt
• Choose actions based on what will please others rather than their convictions
• Tolerate unhealthy or inappropriate behaviors from others
• Feel unsafe in relationships
• Create unhealthy connections
When it comes to our pursuit of lifelong healing, we can unknowingly become our own worst enemy. We are unable to recognize how our memory of past events is tainted by euphoric recall.144 This is the process by which we only remember the positive aspects of an experience, not the negative.
Here’s how this works: an alcoholic remembers the fun they had partying with friends, but blocks out the memory of throwing up all night and waking up on the bathroom floor. In the same way, a new mom remembers the immense joy she feels when she holds her baby for the first time, suppressing the memories of morning sickness and the pain of childbirth.
For those of us who struggle with love, sex, and relationship addictions, euphoric recall keeps us stuck in our unhealthy patterns. We remember the feelings of excitement and pleasure that come from a night of passion but block out the feelings of emptiness and loneliness that follow the next day. This process distorts our memory, disrupting the healing process, and limiting our ability to set healthy boundaries.
Establishing healthy boundaries allows us to live in freedom: having the ability to make choices that continue to move us toward relationship with God and others.
Many of us who struggle with managing love, sex, and relationships have experienced sex with several partners. Scripture reveals the bond that takes place between two people when they engage in sexual intercourse—the two will become one flesh.145 This bond is not only physiological, but spiritual.146 Sex is such a powerful bonding agent, God intentionally designed sex for marriage to bond husband and wife together in a way that is unlike any other relationship.
Think of it this way: anytime we glue two surfaces together and later separate them, what happens? Residue and pieces of the other surface remain affixed to one another. Sometimes the bonding agent is so strong that it takes extensive work to get the surface clean again.
This is what happens when we have sex outside of marriage. We form a sexual, emotional, and physical attachment to another person that becomes part of our soul. Even years later, the enemy can continue to use these experiences against us, creating destructive patterns in our thinking, feelings, and behaviors.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. 1 CORINTHIANS 6:15-20
When we engage in sex outside of marriage, we not only sin against God, we also sin against the other person involved, our spouse (if we have one), and against our own body. However, we can find sexual freedom through prayer, confession, and forgiveness.
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