I’ve spent this last week thinking a lot about the need for healthy boundaries in life. Normally I understand my own boundaries and limitations without giving it much thought, but when a major life-change comes along, sometimes the boundaries need to be shifted to accommodate that change.
For me, some of the hardest boundaries to draw are between people. I have no problem enforcing boundaries over non-human elements. I try not to bring work home with me. I am retraining myself not to answer work emails on the weekends. I am starting to shut my office door when I need to focus on some task without being interrupted. Those boundaries are easy for me. The more difficult boundaries are between myself and other people.
[Now, please, please, please don’t think that I’m trying to send anyone a not-so-subtle message with this blog. If you come to me tomorrow and say, “did you write that blog about me?!” I’m going to smack you and tell you to quit being so self absorbed. This is NOT about one person, but it is about people in general.]
Here’s what I’ve noticed about boundaries between people. When you are in a people-focused occupation… like ministry… your automatic response is to want to help people and to fix their problems. Here’s where I get into trouble and over extend myself. There are people in our lives who truly need and deserve our time and attention, and then there are people who are just a drain on me emotionally. And sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. Sometimes boundaries must be readjusted when I realize that a person is moving from one category to the other.
When a person only wants to talk about their problems, and never reciprocates concern for my wellbeing- it’s time to redraw the boundaries. When a person’s problems never seem to get any better no matter how many suggestions I give, that’s an indication that I have them in the wrong category, and I need to make some adjustments. I can spin my wheels in mud forever with them and nothing will be resolved, so now I need to limit the amount of time I give them.
It’s not only for MY sake, but sometimes it’s an indication that I’M not the one who can help them. That’s not to say that NO ONE can help them. But if they keep coming to me, they will never seek another avenue. Plus, it’s like I’m denying that Jesus is really, ultimately the one that they need- not me. I don’t want to create a dependency issue, so I use boundaries.
Another red flag that indicates that the boundaries are not in the right place is when a person just flat-out exhausts me. When I start dreading seeing their name pop up in an email or I start navigating crowds to avoid someone, then it’s time to put some space between myself and the person who drains me. I know that sounds heartless for a missionary to say. But I need those boundaries for my own health and well being too. How can I help others if one or two people are draining my limited energies. For me, my feelings are the fuel indicator lights of my life. When the big red E is blinking, we have a problem.
The last thing that I want to say about boundaries is that they can be in different places for different people. For me, I have friends that I never get tired of being around, and others who require me to pull myself inwards and withdraw into myself more. It depends on the person and how they either energize me or drain me.
For other friends of mine, the time of day is the thing they need to pay attention to- that’s where their fuel light is located. I have a friend and fellow missionary who goes to bed early. We all know that’s her boundary. We don’t get offended when she leaves a party early or backs out of a dinner engagement because she’s tired. That’s just her limit. When she’s on E she needs to go to bed.
[This same friend gave me a handy little phrase that I now use to help me say “no” without offending. I now say, “That’s not going to work for me.” So if you hear that from me, it means NO.]
For others, their limits involve their iPhone or cell. They are tempted to answer every phone call, every text, every instant message they receive in the very moment that their phone dings. (They are like Pavlov’s dogs who were trained to drool at the sound of a bell.) That little ding becomes a demanding little dictator separating them from friends, family, and events happening right at this moment. These friends need to learn to turn their phones off and give their attention to the present.
So you see, we all have boundary lines that need to be drawn, guarded, and reassessed frequently just to keep us emotionally fueled up and running smoothly. That’s where I am with this new school year and new job. I’m readjusting boundaries and reading the fuel light frequently. I’m having to say No to people and things, not because I’m mean and hateful, just because I’m human. Boundaries are necessary.