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Boundaries Are Hard

Boundaries are varying degrees of hard for different reasons. The unhealthiness of the paradigm, the resistance to change of those within the paradigm, the severity of the boundary, all of these things can impact how difficult it is to both create and maintain boundaries. Because of this, it can often feel worse before it feels better and get harder before it gets easier. Despite this, boundaries are so important for those of us who want to pursue healthy ways of relating. 


Consider the idea of the dots along the circle. The circle represents a family unit’s ways of relating, and each dot represents a family member of that unit. The circle is stable. It’s used to being a circle. Any change in circle-ness threatens the stability, comfort, and ease of being, that every dot on that circle knows to be true. The moment one of those dots looks around and thinks, “I don’t think this is very healthy or good in some way. I think I’d like to make a change,” that dot, immediately becomes a threat to the circle, because it begins to distort its shape. In real life, this is pretty easy to see. 


Anytime one person in a family decides they want to be treated differently, or they have some new boundaries they want to keep, the rest of the family’s knee-jerk reactions are to be defensive. This is something you know, because you know. Consider for a minute how you feel if literally anyone calls into question your character or how good you are at something core to who you are, like being a family member. If someone says you’re a bad mom, you get defensive. 

Anytime one person in a family decides they want to be treated differently, or they have some new boundaries they want to keep, the rest of the family’s knee-jerk reactions are to be defensive.

So this dot in the circle decided to change their boundaries, in turn changing the shape of the circle, which communicates to the other dots in the circle that this circle is a bad shape. Any time one family member decides that the way the rest of the family is working is not good for any reason, you have a whole unit of people who love the paradigm, exist within the paradigm, believe in the paradigm, who have now been challenged in one of those core, identity ways. This changing person is now labeled as a black sheep, traitor, betrayer, pariah, toxic, not a good “family member” (insert last name there…y’know this is just the way we are), when the ultimate irony is that this person is actually the strongest member in that unit, because they are learning emotional intelligence. 

... the ultimate irony is that this person is actually the strongest member in that unit, because they are learning emotional intelligence. 

They are trying to become healthy, learning to be self-reflective, learning to say no, understanding their triggers, honestly evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and it threatens the dysfunctional paradigm that always has been. The circle is becoming an egg shape of some sort, and it can be scary for some, borderline offensive for others. If you’re this person, don’t lose heart. Right about now, you start to hear things like, “who are you,” “you’ve changed,” & one of my personal favorites, “I don’t even know you anymore,” haha. While these are very charged phrases, understanding where they are coming from and viewing them for what they are can help mitigate some of the sting and even keep you from taking it to heart. 


Statements like those originate from a place of fear, hurt, insecurity, and ultimately brokenness. They are what would be considered ad hominem arguments. “Ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that translates to, “against the man.” These are logically unsound, unreasonable positions to take during debate when good counterpoints cannot be achieved. You see this most often in politics, when one person will make a legitimate claim or point, and the other party will counter with something calling their character into question. If I can get everybody convinced that you lack moral fiber, then it doesn’t matter that your actual well-thought out, reasoned points of view are evidence based, documented, or supported. It doesn’t matter that you have a compelling stance on global economics, because now everybody knows you smoked marijuana in college or something, you deplorable. Does that make sense? 


So in regards to the circle, in regards to the family unit, it doesn’t matter that the things you are saying about our dynamic, the points you are making about our ways of relating don’t matter, and I don’t have to reflect on my actions or be accountable to change, because I have now conveyed to everyone else that you’re someone who changes, and we all know that this family operates a specific way and as humans, change is bad. It’s actually a weak argumentation strategy for someone with an unsupportable view. It comes across as strong and appears to put them in a superior position, if you aren’t able to see it for what it is.


This is one of those instances where the phrase, “don’t listen to the haters,” rings true. In actuality, if someone makes one of these comments to you when you’re forming boundaries, it is sort of a metric of success. It means that someone who has been exposed to, grown up in, or become accustomed to that original unhealthy paradigm is recognizing that you no longer fit the mold; they can see that you are not conforming to the status quo in some way. It’s uncomfortable, but not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, it can certainly feel gross and alien, especially at first, and especially depending on the specifics of the family system. 

It’s uncomfortable, but not necessarily a bad thing.

For example, Mels is a middle child. That means she grew up pleasing people. That’s not an insult at all. I think she would tell you that same thing, maybe in different words…like probably some curse words or something. Haha, just kidding? So for her, the people-pleasing tendencies would be something she would have to subjugate and overcome to find success through this process. That’s huge. That’s not easy for any of us, especially if that’s the only way you’ve known of relating your entire life. I went the opposite direction with my maladaptive behaviors, haha. 


So, whereas Mels would find stability, security, and peace in pleasing everyone, I got to a point where the way I took back control that was taken from me was to be contrarian and demonstrate apathy as often as I could. I was proverbially poking the bear, so to speak. It’s pride. I know. At 35 I can look back and recognize it for what it was, but as a teenager, all I knew is that I didn’t like the way I was being treated, and I was being reminded that I had to respect the person who was mistreating me, because of our blood relation. I had no agency, so I responded by usurping power where I could, and sometimes in as public and embarrassing of a way as possible. So, for me, the risk factors in creating boundaries looks different than Mels. 


She has to war against people-pleasing, while have to fight against a bitter spirit that makes me want to supersede healthy boundaries and walk straight into unkind words or deeds. Refusing to give someone permission to impact your emotional health is very different from purposing to tear them down as people. Unlike my sweet wife, my knee-jerk reaction isn’t to make sure everybody is okay, it is to go for the jugular. If I can cut someone deeply enough, they will know that they can’t speak to me or treat me how I don’t want to be…or at least they may never want to again. Is that sinful? Absolutely. It’s my flesh trying to corrupt something positive like establishing healthy boundaries and use it to throw around emotional grenades, hypocrisy at its finest. 

Refusing to give someone permission to impact your emotional health is very different from purposing to tear them down as people.

There is a risk of inadvertently becoming puffed up in this process. You definitely don’t want to give of an air of condescension or like you have the moral high ground. Resistance to change is real, and being haughty only makes matters worse; it exacerbates the rest of the family’s feelings and almost serves to validate the way they are feeling about you and the changes you are bringing to a system that’s always worked. How do we know it works? It’s the way it’s always been. 


Even if you are justified in your conduct and your desire to change is good, right, and true, do so with humility. Work hard, stay humble, and remember how long it took you to want to be different. The system wasn’t ingrained immediately, and these sorts of changes don’t happen overnight. 

Work hard, stay humble, and remember how long it took you to want to be different.

Creating boundaries does not necessarily mean cutting someone off entirely. Certainly that is a boundary, a severe one, but boundaries can actually be used to help you keep someone in your life. It can serve to make unhealthy patterns of relating healthy, so that you can maintain relationships with people that otherwise might be damaging. Think about the child whose parents have divorced. If that child, adult or not, says that they don’t want to participate in a conversation with either parent that maligns the character of the other, that is a boundary. If you ever say you don’t want to be unnecessarily pulled into the middle of some argument that doesn’t have anything to do with you, that’s a boundary. 


Oh! Here’s one. Let’s say you want to try and create some sort of new holiday tradition with your family and friends, and that you will have to alter or limit your involvement in other traditions. You can reassure family it isn’t a negative reflection on their other traditions or that you don’t want to spend time with them. You can explain that you just want to do a new thing, and they don’t need to necessarily understand it, but it would be great if they could respect it, and they certainly don’t need to be offended by it. That’s a boundary. Sorry. Too close to home? Good. It’s the holiday season. Someone needed permission to change something this year, haha. All of these though are ways that you can keep someone in your life, keep certain “rules of engagement,” and walk away from an encounter without wanting to pull your hair out…or theirs, haha. 


There’s a fun little side note here about “the big pink elephant.” We often refer to the big pink elephant as a negative thing. To be fair, usually it is. It is referring to something damaging that should be addressed in order for the involved parties to re-enter into closer communion. The big pink elephant is commonly rooted in some sort of conflict that should be reconciled; it’s a relationship that has been fractured by something and should be cleared up. What happens when the big pink elephant though is actually part of one of your boundaries!? Is it always bad? Can it actually be used in a healthy way? Be on the lookout for that post soon. 


Boundaries also honor God. I’d like to wrap our time chatting about boundaries today by looking at the golden rule. For the believer, you would think of our greatest commandments, the first being, “to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and the second being just like it, “to love our neighbor as ourselves.” More commonly, “The golden rule,” is to treat others the way you want to be treated. I’d like to say that you should treat yourself the way that you want to be treated. No, this isn’t an excuse to be a hedonist, or a license to be a think-for-yourselfer. It reflects an understanding of the imago dei and a desire to be healthier in your ways of relating to your inner world and the world around you, an aspect of the human condition that has been fractured since Genesis chapter 3. The desire for healthy boundaries echoes a desire to return to the garden of Eden. 

... others will treat you however you allow yourself to be treated.

I suggest that others will treat you however you allow yourself to be treated. If you don’t think you deserve to be treated well, then they will respond in kind. On the other hand, if you think that you are worthy of love, honor, and respect, if you understand the weight of the imago dei, that you bear the image of the uncreated, creator God of the universe within you, and that means you are inherently filled with dignity that mustn’t be impugned or maligned, then others will be forced to reconcile that truth about you. Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard. It is often an act of bravery met with disdain and resistance, but it is a worthy endeavor. It is worthy, because you are worthy.


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