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Setting healthy boundaries in relationships....

  • by Lori Kostenuk,

Setting Mindful Relationship Boundaries


One of my readers reached out to me in her desperation. Her ‘wicked witch’ mother-in-law had been outright cruel and rude to her son (her husband) and herself over the years, especially during the Covid pandemic. Now her mother-in-law has stage 4 cancer and has demanded that they make the 2-hour drive every weekend, and that she stay longer and serve her while she is going through her cancer treatments. My reader told me that she feels so guilty about having no love for this woman and feels that if she goes and serves her, she would be doing it for all the wrong reasons. No compassion, no love, only guilt and obligation. Is there blessing in that? What should she do? I asked her if there was anyone in her world whom she does have compassion for. It didn't take her long to think about it and then told me there was a person in their home town whom who she wished she had time to help… but didn’t reach out to because she had too many people and things on her plate already. I suggested to her to follow her heart strings (who she legitimately had compassion for) and not her guilt strings. Still do her due diligence with her mother-in-law… go visit and bring a casserole or two to her as appropriate on their timeline, but focus on who God lays on her heart to help. I believe if we all acted on who we had compassion for, everyone who needed loving care would receive it. It turned out that by her turning to the one she had genuine compassion for, she freed up her role and allowed for someone close by to step up to the plate to help her mother-in-law... someone who had genuine compassion for her. If we are not giving cheerfully, it is dead works. The blessing comes when we are moved by love and compassion to serve others. Guilt is not a loving energy that brings grateful reciprocity, but rather is a tool of manipulation used against the 'guilty'.

For our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing, we must set boundaries in all our relationships. Setting these boundaries define who we are and who we are not. The purpose of setting healthy boundaries is to develop a good sense of self along with a strong sense of safety and security, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Boundaries are not isolation or impenetrable walls but rather, they give us wings of freedom to explore and create in a great and meaningful way.


My brothers were angry with me and made me tend the vineyards, so I have not tended my own vineyard – Solomon 1:6 ESV


We are keepers of our own soul… ultimate stewards of our lives, our own vineyards. No one can do this for us. We have each been given time and space to fulfill our soul’s purpose. Healthy boundaries define what we are responsible for and not responsible for, to say yes or no. Boundaries allow me to be in control of my life, to attend to my own vineyard, giving myself the best opportunity to grow and prosper.


The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly – Proverb 20:27 KJV


Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being, for from there flows the wellspring of life – Proverb 4:23


Imagine lighting a birthday cake in the kitchen, then carrying the cake into the dining room where family or friends are gathered in celebration, while singing the traditional Happy Birthday song. Chances are that, as we are carrying that cake out, we are trying our best to keep those candles from blowing out. We might walk slowly, steadily, or may cup our hand in front of the candles to protect the flame. We all are created with a light burning within us that God has placed there. Our job is to keep that candle lit and burning strong. For some of us, that candle might be dim as ego dominates, while others might have a strong flame, being aware of His love and light as it supersedes the ego guiding us through this life.


One way to protect the flame is to have clear established boundaries in our relationships. Boundaries allow how much access we allow others to have in our lives, allow myself and not others to be in control of my life, and allow me to attend to my own vineyard, to keep my innermost being alive and well. We allow access to different people in our lives, namely our spouse, kids, parents, other family, co-workers, friends, others, who contribute meaning and richness to our lives. However, it is imperative that we give clear established boundaries, so that we have space to learn, prosper, create.


As much as we need to respect our own boundaries, we must respect other people’s boundaries as well. If your spouse needs her privacy and closes the door to the bathroom or to get dressed, respect that. Other boundaries are treating others with kindness and respect. Even our children have boundaries that we must respect, so they learn to respect the boundaries of others.


                        Graph 1 – Healthy Boundaries


Graph 1 - shows healthy and clear boundaries between Me and others in my life who I choose to give time and energy to. Notice that there is lots of space and time to devote to my personal growth and prosperity. The more aware we are of maintaining our own healthy space, the more we can meaningfully contribute to others.

Graph 2 - Unhealthy Boundaries


Graph 2 – Notice how crowded the Me is in this graph. Other people or work are taking up too much space and crowding Me out. The more others encroach over my boundaries, the more control they have over Me.


There are seasons when certain people demand more than normal time and energy from us which is workable with awareness. An example of this would be an elementary teacher getting ready for a school Christmas concert. December would be a hectic month, no doubt…. Or tax time for an Accountant, perhaps. This is expected; however, it is just seasonal. We can make some adjustments and live with that for a short period. It is when we go from seasonal to seasonal non-stop, and soon we find the ME space almost non-existent. The first step to overcoming this challenge is to first be aware of it, then make some adjustments and pruning to get back to a healthy space.


What are some everyday simple things we can do to free up some space in our lives?


i.          Choose to eat your lunch at work away from the gossipers or haters. Without knowing it, they infringe on our values boundaries which is part of Me. Choose rather to eat with achievers, or those who build people up; or, perhaps go for that 40-minute run or walk, which would count towards bonus Me time.


ii.         Most of us have that negative friend who keeps calling, dropping his problems on your lap, whose calls you ignore four out of five times. You finally answer a call out of guilt. Your life is wonderful compared to his, so you try to give empathy or advice, but know that nothing will change in his life. He will always be negative. Tip – To end the call quickly yet kindly AND with power, tell him that you will send good vibes (or a prayer) his way immediately. I had one acquaintance who would call and ask me to come over right now because she doesn't trust herself in her agony. Out of pressure, I would often drop what I was doing and go over in the past. Now, in that same situation, I tell her that I will immediately send positive energy or a prayer her way. The positive intention/prayer works far more powerful than me going over there. It always has an immediate settling effect on her.


iii.        Distance yourself from people who want to argue about politics, personal values, or who always speak negatively about you and want to limit you, to hold you back, or seem committed to holding you to the worst version of yourself. Whether it is a family member or not, this negativity is encroaching on your personal boundaries, and you can choose whether to enter that space or not. Distance yourself from them. Literally step back and tell them that you will not go into that conversation with them. Or if someone is yelling or speaking harshly to you, step back and say, “You can choose to speak and yell this way, but I choose to leave the room until you are finished.” No one can manipulate you without your permission. Self awareness is always the first step forward in resetting your boundaries.


Part of spiritual growth is growing a spine so you can stand up to people and situations, protecting that Me candle within. When you set boundaries with people who encroach, there may be hurt feelings. You must trust that it is the right thing for you to do to preserve your own space, as well as the best thing for that person to begin to learn how to process challenges on her own without depending on someone else. If people get upset and defriend you, that may not be a negative thing.


There are needs all around us. There is no way that we can tend to all the needs we see. Let your compassion be your guide. In ancient Israel, Jesus looked out over the Pool of Bethesda and saw the sick, lame, and blind people who were hoping for a miracle. Do you remember how many people he healed there that day? Just one. Even though there may have been dozens of handicapped people there, He had compassion on one person. Choose that one person who tugs at your heart strings, not your guilt strings… that one person who brings out the compassion in you. Just because someone has a need, it does not mean that it is your place to meet that specific need. Draw some gentle boundaries for yourself and be true to maintain them.


Often times, it may be a parent who is demanding our time and energy.  We can honor our parents without being controlled by them. Setting boundaries in a gentle way is not being disrespectful. I have met a lot of young adults who have well-meaning parents, but these parents cannot let go of their adult children. They try to run their lives, voice their opinions over decisions they make, put pressure them to spend holidays with them, tell them how to raise their children. These lack of boundaries with the parents begin to cause marital conflict with the adult child and his spouse. Be gentle but firm. You may want to assure the parents that you love them and appreciate all that they have done for you over the years, but it is now your responsibility to make decisions for your new family.


How many of you parents have adult children who are irresponsible, who have addictions, who cannot hold down a job, who are always broke? Are you allowing this child to affect your time, energy, and money? Have you tried everything to help this child over the years, but nothing seems to ever change? Have your child’s toxic behaviors been controlling your own decisions and behaviors? If so, this is not a child issue but a boundary issue. Reset your boundaries. When you set up healthy boundaries for yourself, it will help and establish your adult child in the long-term. It is so easy for parents of adult children to want to rescue them from their poor choices. Set boundaries where the adult child can still have access to mom and dad, but cannot steal their money, time, and joy from life.


Boundaries are not walls. Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach people where the door is. Any relationship where we feel worn down or defeated is a boundary issue. What we put up with is our choice. Boundaries help us from being controlled by someone else’s bad behavior to becoming empowered to tend to our own vineyard, to keep that flame alive.


My challenge for you is to create your own Before and After graph. Look at those critical relationships in your life honestly. What does your current graph look like? Establish healthy boundaries and stick to them. Check in a few months later. Are there any positive changes? Good luck with this.

Inspired by Paul Osteen, MD – December 2019



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