Healthy Emotional Boundaries

Lying in bed, Sherrie couldn’t tell which was greater, her loneliness or her exhaustion. She has no clue about healthy emotional boundaries. Let’s explore her case as an example of how to set up healthy emotional boundaries. So Sherry, deciding it was the loneliness that was greater, she picked up her Bible from the bedside table and opened it to the New Testament. Give me something to hope for, Lord. Please, she prayed silently. Her eyes fell to the words of Christ in Matthew 5:3–5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will e comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

But Lord, I already feel like that! Sherrie protested. I feel poor in spirit. I mourn over my life, my marriage, my children. I try to be gentle, but I just feel run over all the time. Where is your promise? Where is your hope? Where are you? Sherrie waited in the darkened room for an answer. None came. The only sound was the quiet pit-pat of tears running off her checks and onto the pages of her Bible.

What’s the healthy emotional boundaries Problem?

Sherrie tries to live her life the right way. She tries to do a good job with her marriage, her children, her job, her relationships, and her Lord. Yet it’s obvious that something isn’t right. She has no healthy emotional boundaries.

Life isn’t working. Sherrie’s in deep spiritual and emotional pain. Woman or man, we can all identify with Sherrie’s dilemma—her isolation, her helplessness, her confusion, her guilt. And, above all, her sense that her life is out of control. Look closely at Sherrie’s circumstances. Parts of Sherrie’s life may be remarkably similar to your own. Understanding her struggle may shed light on yours. You can immediately see a few
answers that don’t work for Sherrie in terms of healthy emotional boundaries.

Healthy Emotional Boundaries

First, trying harder isn’t working. Sherrie expends lots of energy trying to have a successful life. She isn’t lazy. Second, being nice out of fear isn’t working. Sherrie’s people-pleasing efforts don’t seem to bring her the intimacy she needs. Third, taking responsibility for others isn’t working. A master of taking care of the feelings and problems of others, Sherrie feels like her life is a miserable failure. Sherrie’s unproductive energy, fearful niceness, and over responsibility point to the core problem: Sherrie suffers from severe difficulties in taking ownership of her life.

Back in the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve about ownership: “‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen. 1:28).
Made in the image of God, we were created to take responsibility for certain tasks. Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job, and what isn’t. Workers who continually take on duties that aren’t theirs will eventually burn
out. It takes wisdom to know what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t. We can’t do everything.

Sherrie has great difficulty in knowing what things are her responsibility and what aren’t. In her desire to do the right thing, or to avoid conflict, she ends up taking on problems that God never intended her to take on, without healthy emotional boundaries: her mother’s chronic loneliness, her boss’s irresponsibility, her friend’s unending crises, her church leader’s guilt-ridden message of self-sacrifice, and her husband’s immaturity. And her problems don’t end there.

Sherrie’s inability to say no and lack of healthy emotional boundaries has significantly affected her son’s ability to delay gratification and behave himself in school, and, in some way, this inability may be driving her daughter to withdraw. Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries. Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.

As we see in Sherrie’s many struggles, the inability to set appropriate boundaries at appropriate times with the appropriate people can be very destructive.

And this is one of the most serious problems facing Christians today. Many sincere, dedicated believers struggle with tremendous confusion about when it is biblically appropriate to set limits. When confronted with their lack of boundaries, they
raise good questions:

  1. Can I set limits and still be a loving person?
    2. What are legitimate boundaries?
    3. What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries?
    4. How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy,
    or money?
    5. Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting
    6. How do boundaries relate to submission?
    7. Aren’t boundaries selfish?

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