Better than Medicine: Good Boundaries
Learning how to set well-defined boundaries is essential for successful stress management. Wise boundary setting potentially solves conflicts, causes peace of mind, and improves relationships. In fact, wise boundary setting improves every aspect of our health including physical, mental, social, and certainly spiritual health. Establishing good boundaries is definitely a skill everyone can benefit from having!
Boundaries in Biology Class!
Let’s look at boundaries from a biological point of view. If you were to put cells in a culture dish, they would keep migrating until they encounter neighboring cells. Further cell migration is then inhibited. As normal cells adhere to each other, they form an orderly array of cells on the culture dish’s surface. Healthy cells respect, as it were, the territory of other cells, and do not invade their space. Contact inhibition is the term coined to describe this phenomenon. In contrast, tumor cells do not show contact inhibition and continue to move into the other cells’ territory even after they have made contact with their neighboring cells. They keep migrating over adjacent cells and grow in disordered, multilayered patterns. Tumor cells interfere with the proliferation of normal cells.1
Contact inhibition, then, is a special feature of the cell membrane that keeps the cell from invading another cell’s territory. As long as the membrane is intact, there is much less of a chance of the cells becoming cancerous. On the other hand, when the cell membrane becomes deranged, it is much easier for cancer cells to proliferate. Contact inhibition provides orderly tissue development, but loss of contact inhibition eventually leads to a complete disaster. Comparing these cells to our lives, failure to set good boundaries will bring calamities upon us as well.
What Do Healthy Personal Boundaries Look Like?
Not only does the cell membrane hold the contents of the cell intact, but it also does something called selective permeability. The cell membrane allows desirable substances to come into the cell while it keeps undesirable substances out. In addition, the cell membrane has markers that allow cells to recognize each other. Without these markers, tissues, organs, and the immune system would not be able to distinguish between what is “self” and not “self” during the early stages of development. When we look at the cell membrane, we can see how important good psychological boundaries are for our health. Keeping the good in and the bad out, respecting others’ rights and privacy, and being appropriately flexible are all part of having healthy boundaries.
The Two-Edged Emotional Sword
While feelings should not be allowed to govern our actions, they should not be ignored either. We should quickly dismiss petty feelings. However, it is prudent to evaluate our reoccurring, negative, or complicated emotions. Happiness consists of the harmonious working together of the physical, mental, social, and spiritual aspects of a person and we need to make sure that we nurture all of these.2 If you take care of a few aspects, but ignore even one, you will feel miserable. That is why setting boundaries is so important. They protect our needs and allow us to say no when we need to. Healthy boundaries call for deliberate responses to our needs. This promotes a balanced life.
You probably wouldn’t pick the Bible as the first book to understand how to have healthy boundaries, but there’s a lot of valuable information in there actually. Take for example 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Do not give grudgingly or under compulsion.” Feelings of resentment or hesitation warn us that something is wrong. Ignoring these feelings jeopardizes our mood or even our service to others.
Know Your Limit!
Good boundaries are those that are set up to protect the precious little time that we have. When we run out of time, we could ask ourselves, ”Should this be done? Am I the person who should do this? If so, to what extent should I get involved? When should I do it?” Good boundaries also respect our limitations when it comes to how much energy we have left, and how much we can cope with certain roadblocks in our lives. At some point, your cup is empty and you need to take care of yourself to refill it. We must set time apart to take care of our physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs, if we do not want to discover suddenly that our resources have been depleted. Perhaps a written inventory of the things and relationships that build up our energy, versus those tasks, persons, and situations that consume our energy, would help us live a more balanced life.
We do not need to feel guilty if an occasional day is not balanced, but we do need to become concerned if weeks or months seem out of balance. It will eventually take its toll. The counsel of 1 Peter 4:11 tells us that we are to perform in the strength which God has given us. This verse seems to be saying that we are responsible for that which we have. When we do not have anything left and our cup is empty, we cannot give.
To recognize our limitations calls for utmost honesty and some objective evaluation on our part. Some of us see excuses as constraints. Others ignore or deny that we have limitations. In our logic, we wrongly equate limitations with deficiencies and deficiencies with shame. To complicate matters, some limitations are permanent on this earth, while others are not. At times, our assumed limitations might be perceptual in nature. Then in addition, there are times when God calls us from our self-absorption to reach people beyond our seemingly limited resources. If that is the case, He will provide the strength and energy needed.
We would be much kinder people, I suspect, if we could learn to respect our own limitations. The way we take care of ourselves will affect how we treat others. We cannot take care of others if we do not take care of ourselves first. Only then can we can respect others. Failure to accept genuine limitations can cause a great amount of stress. In other words, if we cannot respect our own pain, we will find it challenging to accept the pain and limitations of others.
Setting Boundaries Verbally
Words are another parameter of good boundaries. With our words we either clarify our boundaries, or hide them. We usually want the impact of our words to equal our intent. However, each person has a protective filter. Our upbringing, the way we see life, preferences, and priorities create our own personal filters that sometimes hinder communication. When there is good communication, we consider the filters of others as well as our own.
Even when people share the same lofty goals, their differing perspectives and responsibilities may not be in line with our priorities and concerns. We can get into a lot of trouble when we think that our concerns are the most important. Inadvertently we can feel judged by somebody else sharing his perspective. With appropriate words, we should define our priorities, affirm and respect people, clarify issues, and maintain good boundaries. Clearly expressed limits not only keep us focused on our chosen goals but also allow others to know what to expect from us.
Handling Objections Successfully
Sometimes it is good to offer an explanation, but in dealing with pushy people, skip the explanation. Just repeat your stance. No explanation will appease pushy people. In setting boundaries, consistency is a jewel. Respond to other people’s comments honestly and kindly. Do not apologize for your decision unless you know for sure that you made a mistake. Take responsibility for your reactions.
Thoughts as Internal Boundaries
Sometimes we cannot set external boundaries, but we can always set internal boundaries. We cannot always escape immediately from multiple stings of abusive words. We could become too dazed in the moment to know how to answer ridicule and sarcasm wisely. Of course, whenever we can, we should physically separate ourselves from an abusive person. When that becomes impossible, setting boundaries in our thoughts becomes even more important.
Many times childhood abuse hinders children in certain areas of development, but this is not always the case. As a former ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I met a wonderful exception to this rule. Anna was born and raised in an Eastern bloc country. The state police invaded her house when she was only five years old. They took her father to prison and sentenced him to die because of his Christian faith. The taunts “children of the enemy of the state” were often hurled at Anna and her siblings. Her godly mother managed the best she could through difficult these times. Eventually Anna decided to go to college. However, when the faculty discovered her Christian convictions, she was publicly humiliated and expelled. Finally, after several attempts, ridicule, and expulsions, she finished her degree.
She married a wonderful man, but because of his religious convictions, the state did not allow him to practice his profession, but sent him to mop floors in factories instead. She and her husband worshipped secretly with a few friends each weekend. They knew that if they got caught, they would lose their jobs. Her husband lost over thirty jobs in twenty-five years, because of his faith. When I asked her how she felt during those times, she smiled and said: “It was difficult, but we got used to it. God always gave my husband a job soon after he got fired from his other one.”
I marveled at her resilience. (I’m still sad because of a job loss I had several years ago. And, to be honest, if my husband lost a job because of his faith, I would be shaken up quite a bit.) We became friends pretty quickly. Because she had such a buoyant spirit, I wondered, had she no lingering bitterness? I gently probed. She didn’t seem to have any permanent scar from losing her father at such an early age, or from suffering persecution. I could find none. She did have a compassionate sorrow for her persecuted fellow citizens. Maybe it was her mother’s legacy, or perhaps she had internalized God’s love at an unusually young age, but Anna knew how to set internal boundaries of faith and forgiveness. Her grief did not deteriorate into bitterness.
One’s core beliefs can undermine boundaries and make one always accessible to work’s demands and others’ needs. Time set apart for personal development and family time are essential. Strong boundaries are highly necessary to achieve that. Core beliefs are the things that we believe within the deepest parts of our being. They are our deepest motivations. They are our gut feelings, even though we might be able to argue with them occasionally. There are three basic recognizable core beliefs: approval/ conformity, performance, and control.3
Approval/Conformity Core Beliefs
Certain conformity, without surrendering principle, is necessary and good. It promotes unity of effort and achievement of goals. People with conformity/approval issues see all conflict as evil, and seek approval to avoid conflict. They may act with the following in mind:
- “Others will love me more if I always give.”
- “It is my job to make everyone happy.”
It is difficult to set boundaries, and hold on to principles if we are afraid of others’ opinions, isn’t it?
Performance Core Beliefs
These core beliefs center around earning recognition. It is all about having unrealistic expectations of others. Unrealistic demands can lead to unhealthy defense mechanisms, pseudo-guilt, and anger. This can lead us to become ungracious to others and violate their personal space. If we have performance core beliefs, we make sure that we are always available, because we act upon the premise that:
- “I should be able to satisfy all of my own needs.”
- “I should be productive at all times. There’s no time for learning or making mistakes.”
- “Perfection is the only acceptable standard.”
Performance core beliefs make us ignore that still small voice which persistently taps up on the shoulder, and says: “Watch out. Burnout ahead!
Controlling Core Beliefs
This kind of control thinking is dangerous, because it does not respect God’s ability to rule and overrule in our own lives and the lives of others. Controlling people often do not respect the ability of others to make their own decisions. Controllers tend to use force, threats, and manipulation when dealing with others. Cognitive distortions surface such as the following:
- “If things don’t go as I have planned, I am out of control.” (Self-control.)
- “If others don’t do as I wish, they don’t care about me.” (Control of others.)
- “I must be strong because only the strong are loved.” (Self-control and control of others.)
- “If anything goes wrong, it is my fault.” (Self-control.)
- “No one can do it as well as I can. I’d better stick around.” (Self-control and control of others.)
- “I must be sure to correct any error I see in others.” (Control of others.)
Look at your core beliefs. Watch how you express yourself. Assess your core beliefs in the light of reality. Keep what is sound in your core belief system, but consistently challenge those elements that are too extreme, violate Biblical principles, or just do not make any sense.
When it comes to the way we prioritize our time, how we spend our energy, and use our words, we can be somewhat flexible. Choosing our values beforehand helps us establish internal boundaries and enables us to endure crisis successfully. A devout Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Franz Hasel, was drafted in Hitler’s army back in the 1940s. He made it clear that he would not work on the Sabbath day. That was a brave move back then because Hitler imprisoned and killed Jews who did worship on that day. Anyone could have thought of him as a Jew instead of a Seventh-day Adventist Christian.
Franz requested to work as a medic, but instead he was directed to work in the engineering department that would build bridges and roads to make more land accessible to the Nazi’s. Franz did not want to carry a gun, but refusing to do so could have gotten him killed even before he started his job. He carved a wooden piece, sprayed it black, and placed it in his holster instead of his gun. He clandestinely tossed his real weapon into a river one night when nobody was watching. Eventually the Allied Forces captured Franz’ company. You can imagine the look on his comrades’ faces when they were forced to throw their weapons on the ground. Hasel never carried a gun they realized.4
Integrity Is Powerful!
But what if two values seem to conflict? Franz’ wife Helene had that dilemma. Honesty was an important value for her as a Christian who made the Ten Commandments her rule of life. One day a friend asked if she could hide a Jewish boy in her home. To do so meant to risk death. Not to do so would mean the boy would be sent to a concentration camp. Frau Hasel decided to take the boy in. A few days later the Nazi’s knocked on her door. “Frau Hasel”, they said, “We have heard that you are hiding a Jewish boy in your apartment. Are you?” The boy must have cringed in the room next door. And what about Frau Hasel’s children? They must have been scared too. “Answer us!” the Nazis shouted in the momentary silence.
Choosing to be honest, and yet preserve life, Suzanne decided to trust in God to protect her. She calmly replied, “You have my permission to look through my house, if you so desire.” The Nazi soldiers left without checking the house. They didn’t think that Frau Hasel was hiding any Jews or she wouldn’t have allowed them to search her house. Discreet honesty erects a good boundary. Honesty, faithfulness to principles, and courage compose integrity.
God-given desires add still another dimension to boundaries. Every person has a set of unique personality traits, talents, and a calling from God. (Here I am not equating God-given desires with the natural, legitimate desires we all have). Understanding of who we are should ideally shape our mission in life and bring about desires in our hearts that are in line with God’s will. In trying to make ends meet and grow professionally, we can lose sight of our vision and mission. Consequentially, we fail to protect the priorities we have in life.
We must be true to the vision that God has given each of us as individuals. Isobel Miller Kuhn’s mother did not want her daughter to go to China to become a missionary. Neither did Florence Nightingale’s parents want their daughter to enter the nursing field. In subtle ways, they attempted to divert Florence’s interest in nursing. Through conflict and courage, these ladies patiently persisted in working towards reaching their goal. Words, thoughts, feelings, and a vision are all important in developing good boundaries. But none of these would be powerful for good without the exercise of the will.
The will is the deciding power of a person. Without decisions, no boundaries could stand. It is the daily choices that we make that determine the direction of our will.
Neurological studies confirm that nerve pathways extend from the frontal lobe of the brain (where the will resides) to key centers of the brain where behavior is controlled. Therefore, the power of choice becomes paramount in deciding the values and behavior by which we govern our lives. Setting appropriate boundaries, like so many other good things in life, depends on the proper exercise of the will.5
Healthy boundaries define and preserve a person’s identity and cultivate meaningful relationships. They lead to fulfillment and enjoyment in one’s work, and reduce stress by protecting us from taking on more than we can handle.
Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. Boundaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1992.
Crabb, L. Understanding People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.1987.
Jones, S. & Buttman, R. Modern Psychotherapies. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1991.
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Disclaimer: The information in this article is educational and general in nature. Neither Wildwood Lifestyle Center, its entities, nor author intend this article as a substitute for medical diagnosis, counsel, or treatment by a qualified health professional.
- Ribatti, D. (2017). A revisited concept: Contact inhibition of growth. From cell biology to malignancy. Exp Cell Res, 359 (1), pp. 17-19. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28642051
- White, E.G. Mind, Character, and Personality. Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association. 1997.
- McMinn M. Cognitive Therapy Techniques in Christian Counseling. Wipf and Stock Publishers. 2008.
- Mundi Hasel, S. (2012) Though a Thousand Shall Fall. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
- Stuss, D. & Benson, F. (1986). The Frontal Lobe. Na, na (na), pp. 24-27, 179, 206-212, 243. 1986.