Vivian feels frustrated that her friend, Sue, constantly offers unsolicited advice about how she parents her children. However, she’s afraid of making Sue mad, so she doesn’t say anything. She tells herself it’s better to keep the peace in the relationship than risk offending her friend.
John is fearful about trusting anyone and refuses to open up about his past hurts to his friends or family. Though he feels isolated, he tells himself, “Better to be alone than risk being vulnerable.”
Jackie feels hurt that her family seems critical of her life choices. She cancels on the upcoming holiday dinner without giving a reason. “That’ll teach them!” she says to herself.
What do each of these stories have in common? They each illustrate a type of unhealthy boundary.
Typically, I see unhealthy boundaries show up in three different ways:
1. Boundaries are too flexible.
You might think of someone as having unhealthy boundaries if they let people walk all over them or struggle with saying “No.” When your boundaries are too flexible, you might:
- Struggle to speak up honestly about your perspective.
- Deny or hide legitimate needs or preferences.
- Over-extend yourself for other people in a way that harms your own physical or emotional health.
This category is the most common understanding of what is meant by “unhealthy boundaries.”
2. Boundaries are too rigid.
Boundaries can also be unhealthy at the other extreme—they can be too rigid. Someone can stay so closed off from other people that they never risk the “good messy” of letting other people in. They build a brick wall around their emotions, their spirituality, or even their priorities in such a way that no one can really get in. In this case, the person might be using boundaries in an unhealthy way to:
- Avoid hard but necessary conversations.
- Share vulnerabilities in a healthy way with another person.
- Engage in the “good messy” of two-way relationships.
This type of unhealthy boundary isn’t talked about as much, but it can be just as harmful as boundaries that are too flexible.
3. Boundaries are weaponized.
There is a third way that boundaries become unhealthy. This is when they are used as a weapon. For example, someone might use a “boundary” in an attempt to:
- Control your behavior.
- Punish you.
- Manipulate you.
Instead of communicating directly about the issue or taking action to protect themselves, this person tries to get you to change. They might withhold something or they might give you the “silent treatment.” No matter what strategy they use, their goal is to get something from you. Notice the difference between the following two examples:
Healthy Boundary: “I am removing myself from this unhealthy situation.”
Weaponized Boundary: “I’ll leave you if you don’t do exactly what I ask.”
Healthy boundaries aren’t about changing someone else’s behavior. They are about protecting your own emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Questions to Ask Yourself
We all feel frustrated or hurt by other people’s behaviors from time to time. Relationships are messy. And there is no “one-size-fits-all” for how to go about addressing these tricky situations. We are all a work in progress when it comes to learning how to set healthy boundaries.
If you feel hurt or angry, acknowledge it honestly to yourself and to God first. Get curious about the pain that you feel; don’t shove it aside. Then determine the brave next step to take. Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to implementing boundaries.
1. If your boundaries are too flexible:
- What emotions do you notice that keep you from speaking up about what you need or desire? (e.g. fear, guilt, confusion, or self-doubt?)
- What messages do you tell yourself about expressing your voice?
- What past hurts may have contributed to those messages?
- Do you fear retaliation? If so, that’s a good cue to seek help from someone outside of the situation.
2. If your boundaries are too rigid:
- Are are you hiding behind “boundaries” to avoid a potentially painful conversation?
- What messages do you tell yourself to keep you from letting people in?
- What past hurts may have contributed to these messages?
- Who is one safe person you might practice opening up with?
3. If you are tempted to weaponize a boundary:
- Are you mostly interested in trying to change their behavior?
- Are you secretly hoping they’ll “see the error of their ways” as a result of your actions?
- Do you notice bitterness, anger, or spite?
- Do you notice grief or genuine sadness about the boundary you must set? Grief is often an indicator that the boundaries you need to set are coming from a healthy place. You’re not trying to hurt or change someone else. Instead, you grieve that the relationship has to change.
You can’t control how other people respond to you. Some people might distance from you, but resist the urge to control their response. If they attempt to punish or pressure you, pay attention. These responses reveal warning signs about future interactions. Remember, you can’t know for sure the motives or pain they are facing.
From Unhealthy to Healthy Boundaries
Let’s go back to each of the examples from the beginning of this post and imagine that each person was working toward healthier boundaries. Here is what that might look like:
Vivian feels frustrated that her friend, Sue, constantly offers unsolicited advice about how she parents her children. She prays about it and decides that she needs to have a conversation with Sue. She’s fearful about offending her friend, but she also believes that in order to stay healthy, she’ll need to speak up. She says to Sue, “I appreciate that you’re trying to help. But, I’m not looking for parenting advice from you. If I do want advice, I’ll ask for it. Otherwise, I’d love to keep talking about our other shared interests.”
Vivian’s honored herself. She’s been clear with Sue in a kind way. And, now it’s up to Sue to decide how she’ll respond. Vivian feels vulnerable, but she’s also proud of herself.
John is fearful about trusting anyone. As he observes his family members seeming to enjoy sharing about their lives, he wonders what it might be like to open up just a bit. He decides to take a small brave step and tells his wife, “I’m not sure how to open up, but I’d like to try. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I wanted you to know.” He feels a tiny bit closer to his wife. Together, they learn to negotiate new ways of communicating in their relationship.
Jackie feels hurt that her family has been critical of her life choices. She reflects on what she feels, and talks to her counselor about it. She doesn’t think that they’ll change, but she decides to communicate about it. The next time she sees them she says, “Sometimes I’m not sure you are proud of the decisions I have made.” Her parents don’t say much, but they seem to take it in. She feels awkward and vulnerable, but also relieved.
The truth is, the other person may not respond well. Maybe Jackie’s parents are too self-absorbed to really make a change. In that case, Jackie may need to forge relationships with people who truly care about her, leading her to change how she spends his holidays. The difference is that she will be taking this step to protect her emotional and spiritual health. She’s creating the support system that she needs vs. punishing someone else.
When someone else’s behavior stirs up turmoil inside of you, you can learn to address it wisely. You can seize the opportunity to lean into the best of who you are, with God’s help. As you do, you’re taking charge of your life. You’ll feel confident that you’ve done your best by yourself, and by the people in your life.