Written by Hillary McBride, RCC, and Dr. Alex Kwee, R.Psych.
Growing up, my family lived in a house in a cul-d-sac, in a suburb outside of Vancouver. It was the kind of place where you knew your neighbors, and they knew you. If you were standing outside on the deck behind my house, you could look straight back and see a big tall hedge – this made for nice shade during the day, and kept the neighbors behind from seeing into our home, which was mostly all glass doors on the back side. If you looked right, you’d see several medium sized fruit trees and a fence – about 6 feet tall- covered in ivy. If you were standing on the ground, you wouldn’t be able to see into the neighbor’s yard- the fence was a little bit too tall. If you were to look to your left, you would see a shorter fence, which allowed us to see over into our neighbors yard, and lent to the occasional conversation between the neighbor dad, and mine – their arms hanging over the wooden posts as they talked about summer plans.
When I started to learn about boundaries, the metaphor of the fence kept coming up for me. Like fences, boundaries are there to protect what is ‘ours’ and keep out what is ‘not ours’. Because of the fences in our yards, it didn’t mean we didn’t care about the other people in our neighborhood – it helped us know that whatever was inside our fence was ours to take care of. Rather simply, we would mow the lawn inside our fence, and the lawn on the other side of the fence, was someone else’s to mow.
Other than a fence, another way to understand a healthy boundary is to think of literal borders, like the US-Canada border. It is flexible, and rigid when needed. And when working well, it allows for a good relationship between the two parties. This is because the parties on both side have different identities (political values, restrictions on foods, taxes on purchases, etc). While neither is better, they are different, and the border defines where one ends, and the other begins. Boundaries are useful for defining, and also for protecting. Like security at the border, boundaries don’t just let anything, or anyone, in. They are designed to keep out what is harmful or hurtful, and keep in what is theirs. What I think is best about this border metaphor is that it reminds us that we can have boundaries, while still allowing flow between things inside and outside of the boundary. When the boundary is working well, and everything is in order, a boundary is unobtrusive. When necessary, boundaries can also become non-negotiable, and rigid. Think of the border between North and South Korea, where boundaries are keeping each entity as separate as possible. At times, borders, just like relational boundaries, preclude the ability for mutually constructive relationships. We always want the boundary to appropriately match the context and relationship.
In my work doing therapy with clients, it seems that as Christians we have a harder time with healthy boundaries than we would think. This difficulty, I believe, comes from the idea that as Christians we should give selflessly and sacrificially, as a way of showing that because of God’s love, we are different than ‘the world’ around us. But, how that can translate into boundary issues becomes more clear if we return to the metaphor of the fence: if I’m so busy mowing everyone else’s lawn, then I won’t have time to take care of what’s within ‘my fence’.
There is a book by Christian psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, aptly called Boundaries, which gives lots of examples of common ways we can draw distinctions between what is ours, and what is ‘not ours’. Their first example is that of ‘skin’- the most obvious and basic of all lines that we draw, which defines who I am, and where ‘I’ end. Emotional and geographical distance, are two other types of boundaries. When we create geographical distance between ourselves and someone else, we can protect ourselves from their destructive or disrespectful behavior. Emotional distance does something similar, but is often less obvious on the outside. Think of the example often used at Christian weddings; “leave your mother and your father, and cleave to your wife” (Genesis 2:24). This is God’s way of instructing us that the marriage between two people draws a boundary between who is now responsible to whom – children have left their parents ‘yard’ and are now responsible for their own ‘yard’. This is not just a geographical leaving, but an emotional leaving – the husband is now bound to his wife in a way that reprioritizes who gets his whole heart – he has left his old family, to create a new family.
Another example of a boundary we use all the time is how we use our words. An example of a word boundary would be “stop”, or, “I don’t like it when you pinch me” – it tells people who you are, and what you like or don’t like. Cloud and Townsend say that words give us ‘edges’ so that people know what behaviors fit for us, and which don’t. Another word boundary is the word “no”. It lets others know they we don’t like something, or what is being asked of us doesn’t ‘fit’ with who we are. Saying “no” can be hard for some people, and is often one of the most difficult boundaries to put into practice. It is often difficult because we are afraid of what saying no to someone else will make them feel, and if we believe that we upset another person, then maybe we won’t be liked or respected by those around us. If someone asks for help, and we say ‘no’, it could also make us feel like we were doing a very poor job of ‘doing unto others, as we would have them do unto us’. Ouch. This can lead us to not put up boundaries because we feel guilty, as opposed to helping someone else out, from a place of love. Guilt with saying no, or fear of what others will think, are great concerns to discuss with your Christian psychologist or therapist, to explore more about what God really says about all of this.
Boundaries are not actually contradictory to what God asks of us as Christians. In fact, there are numerous examples of God drawing boundaries with us, or Jesus creating boundaries during his time on earth. An example of this is in Romans 13:12 (NASB) when Paul writes “the night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light”. Here, Paul is reminding us there is a distinction, a boundary, between what good is, and what bad is. Good, and God, is like the light, and bad, or night, is like the darkness of our sin. God is very clear with us in scripture that boundaries are appropriate as they differentiate what is Godly, and what is evil. Another example of a boundary in scripture comes from 1 Timothy 5:8 (NIV): “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. This verse reminds me of the fence analogy I introduced earlier – it can be tempting to say yes to everyone else, or hard to say no to others, but if it means we’re not taking care of what’s within our own fence, then we have a boundary issue. God requires of us, before mowing anyone else’s lawn, to make sure our own is mowed.
One of my favorite examples of boundaries is when Jesus retreats to pray. The story in Matthew 14, tells us that Jesus has just learned of the death of John the Baptist, and it tells us in verse 13 “when Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place”. When I think of this, it reminds me that it’s ok to take breaks, to say ‘no’, to listen to what we’re feeling and to rest. If you think about Jesus’ ministry at the time, it’s not like he had nothing to do. He probably had to make the choice to say no to opportunities for ministry, or caring or healing someone else, to make time to grieve the loss of his dear friend.
When I was spending time with my parents a few days ago, we were telling stories about growing up. As it turns out, I never knew this at the time, the neighbors to the right of our back yard (behind the taller fence) were not always the kindest or most respectful of our property. In fact, their son once egged our family home just for fun. On the other hand, the family on the other side was one that I babysat for, that we took daytrips with, and showed us trust and care on a daily basis. I don’t imagine that the height of the fences around our backyard were necessarily for those reasons, but when I look back, the metaphor still stands. The fences that needed to be higher to protect our safety and privacy as a family, were higher. And, the fences that separated our yard from the people who treated us well and showed us respect, were lower. We would never feel guilty spiritually about hurting another person’s feelings by putting up a hedge in our backyard to protect us from anyone looking in our bedroom window, and we also don’t need to feel guilty, or like we’re sinning, when we say ‘no’ to something in order to rest. God says a lot about boundaries, and scripture tells us that it’s ok to know who we are, who we are not, and what is, and isn’t, required of us as a result.