Boundaries: Building and Preserving Them

Bob RoaneCounseling, Wise living

Adapted + expanded from Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. 1

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Christ-glorifying boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and a healthy life. For some people this is new and challenging concept. Margarita Tartakovsky draws on the work of Dana Gionta (psychologist and coach) and I add a Christian emphasis to Tartakovsky’s helpful article. See also Steve Brown’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy!: Saying Goodbye to Doormat Christianity” (1986).

1. Name your limits. You can’t set good boundaries if you’re unsure of where you stand. Identify your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits. Consider what you can tolerate and what makes you feel unreasonably anxious or stressed. Enduring manipulation or abuse is not God-honoring or good for us. Jesus’ call to self-denial and cross-bearing (Luke 9:23) does not require us to be doormats. Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do. Jesus is our perfect model. No one took His life from Him. He laid it down voluntarily and took it back again (John 10:17,18). Christ didn’t let people push Him around. He yielded by choice, but only when it advanced God’s kingdom. Jesus is omni-wise, omni-loving, omni-powerful. We are omni-nothing; we are very limited, so we need boundaries.

2. Feelings can’t be our guide, but two red flags can signal that we’re letting go of our boundaries: discomfort and resentment. Think of these emotions on a scale from one to 10. If you’re at the high end in a situation, ask yourself: What is causing that? What about this interaction is bothering me? Resentment usually comes from being taken advantage of or feeling unappreciated. It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves beyond our own limits because we want to be “nice” or someone else is pushing their expectations, views, or values on us. When people’s actions make us feel very uncomfortable, that’s a cue to us that they may be violating or crossing a boundary and that we need to take action.

3. Be direct. With people different from us in their communication styles, views, personalities, cultural background, and general approach to life, we often need to be more direct about boundaries. One person feels that challenging opinions is a healthy way of communicating, but to another person this seems disrespectful and tense. In friendships, ministries, and romantic relationships, time can become a boundary issue. You might need to talk about how much time alone you need to function well. Jesus calls us to be honest when we choose to say “yes” or “no” (Matt 5:37). If we are being used and manipulated by others, it’s our responsibility to act, not theirs, and we can only blame ourselves if we let it continue.

4. Give yourself permission to set and keep boundaries. Fear, false guilt, and self-doubt might make us feel bad speaking up or saying no. We might fear other people’s negative response if we enforce boundaries. Many Christians think they must always give in, even when they are taken advantage of. Boundaries are not only a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of God-honoring self-respect and emotional health. Our ultimate, eternal acceptance is rooted in Christ’s saving work for us and in us, not in being people-pleasers. See Os Guinness on “The Audience of One”.

5. Practice self-awareness. If you notice yourself slipping and not sustaining your boundaries, consider: What’s changed? What I am doing or what is the other person doing? What is happening that’s making me resentful or stressed? Consider your options: What am I going to do about the situation? What do I have control over? We often have more control over our lives than we think. But we must reject passivity, accept responsibility, and live courageously in Christ.

6. Consider your past and present. If you were raised to be your family’s rescuer or caretaker, you may have learned to focus on others, letting yourself be drained emotionally or physically. Ignoring your own needs may have become the norm for you. Think about the people you surround yourself with. Are the relationships reciprocal? Is there a healthy give and take or are you always the giver or the fixer? Only God can fix people and we can’t restore anyone. We can love and serve our family members, friends, and others, but only the Lord can recover, deliver, and straighten them out as He sees best. Do your part, but don’t try to do Jesus’ part.

7. Make self-care a priority. Self-care involves Christian self-respect and honoring your limits. Sacrificing yourself too much may leave you burned out and unable to help others or care for yourself. Preserving our own energy, joy, peace, and positive outlook allows us to be better spouses, parents, co-workers, and friends to others. “Self-care is not a narcissistic luxury….It is a human necessity and an ethical imperative” (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2011, p. 73). Self-care is important for surviving and thriving in Christian life and ministry. Moses’ father-in-law warned, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (Exodus 18:17,18) God requires us to make every lawful effort to preserve our own life (heart, mind, soul, and body, see Eph 5:29 and Matt 10:23 for example). More on self-care in another article.

8. Seek support. If you’re having a hard time with boundaries, seek help from friends, counselors, or church officers. Ask others to hold you accountable to live with balance. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17) “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) “Two are better than one….If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (Ecc 4:9,10) If “it takes a village to raise a child” (Swahili proverb), then it often takes the whole church family or multiple churches and para-church ministries to care for certain people. Don’t try to do it all alone. That’s not the way God planned it.

9. Be biblically assertive. Maintaining boundaries requires follow through. Even though we know intellectually that people aren’t mind readers, we still expect others to know what hurts or stresses us. Since they don’t, it’s important to communicate honestly when others cross the line. “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph 4:15) Truth without love is too hard; love without truth is too soft. In a firm and respectful way, let the other person know what troubles you and work together to address it. See also: Speaking the Truth in Love: How To Be an Assertive Christian by Ruth Koch and Kenneth Haugk.

10. Start small. Like any new skill, assertively communicating your boundaries takes practice. Start with a small boundary, and then incrementally increasing to more challenging ones. “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.” (Chauncey Depew) “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Then build upon your success.

Tartakovsky and Gionta remind us that setting boundaries takes courage, practice, and support. Thank God, it is a skill we can master with the Holy Spirit’s help and blessing!

1 Tartakovsky’s original article at: