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7 Ways to Set Boundaries with Grace

  • Dr. Audrey Davidheiser Crosswalk Contributing Writer
  • 2022 29 Apr
7 Ways to Set Boundaries with Grace

I lied. That’s because Allie is a wonderful person who travels in a tardy mode.

We had agreed on the meeting time, but Allie failed to show up on time. Again.

My aggravated part pushed me to confront Allie about this tendency. However, a part of me feared I might offend her if I pointed this out. This part reasoned that if Allie got mad, she might scold me. This, despite my wholehearted knowledge that there’s no way a gentle soul like Allie would resort to verbal violence.

But fear can be irrational, right?

That’s when I fibbed. “Allie, I wasn’t sure I had the right time for our appointment. What time did we agree on?”

Between you and me, I had the exact time memorized. But I had to test her to see if Allie knew the appointment time but disregarded it. That would’ve hurt more.

Does the idea of setting boundaries contort your insides too? The fear I revealed earlier may feel familiar. You may wonder if Christians are even allowed to set these intangible boundaries.

According to Jesus, yes. He modeled as much during His earthly ministry. After multiplying the fish and loaves to feed the masses, for instance, “immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd” (Matthew 14:22).

Why? The next verse reveals His motivation: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23).

His message was clear but firm: time to go, folks. I have a pressing appointment next.

Let’s not super spiritualize this move, shall we? Yes, Jesus shooed the crowd to free up some alone time for prayer. But Jesus didn’t pray only because it was a spiritual discipline. He also resorted to prayer as an emotional release, given how intimate He was with the Father (John 10:30, Matthew 11:27).

Wouldn’t you crave the presence of your closest companion after a long day at work?

The Heart of Boundary Setting

Setting boundaries can assume different shapes. In my case, Allie’s frequent lateness violated my ever-present need to avoid waiting. Maybe that’s not your problem. Instead, maybe your overbearing mom continually criticizes the way you discipline Junior. Or perhaps your freshly divorced sister keeps updating you with episodes from her dating life.

Without your consent.

No matter how it looks, boundaries are intended to protect us—even if some may resist or ridicule us for it.

Take Jesus’ example from before. To establish His personal boundary, Jesus had to disband the crowd. Some star-struck fans might have grumbled at this: “Why can’t I hang around with you and your disciples, Rabbi? Are you playing favorites?”

Because boundary-setting affects others in ways we can’t predict, it’s imperative to approach this matter with grace and truth. Grace, to minimize relational damage with those around us, and truth, so we don’t neglect our own needs in the process.

Would you like to join me in learning this skill? Here are 7 ways to start with.

1. Introspect

When your boundaries are crossed, responding in anger might feel natural. Once you’ve cooled off, however, ask yourself. Why was I so incensed over what happened?

Even if this question seems inconsequential, don’t sidestep it. Don’t settle for any vague response either, like “anybody would react like this” or “I don’t know. I’m just mad!” Keep pressing until you arrive at an answer that rings true.

We’ll cover why at a later step.

2. The Right Time

There’s no sense in provoking anyone into an unnecessary conflict. Trying to establish a personal boundary while steaming mad will only escalate matters.

Guaranteed.

That’s because “as the beating of cream yields butter and striking the nose causes bleeding, so stirring up anger causes quarrels” (Proverbs 30:33, NLT). Because “anger is cruel” (Proverbs 27:4), yelling at others to mind your boundary will only evoke a defensive set of reactions.

Wait until calm has returned before attempting any discussion with the person who violated your personal space.

Paper cutout of one man pushing another

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Gajus 

3. Not Tit for Tat

The Bible relegates revenge to the Almighty’s domain (Deuteronomy 32:35, Psalm 94:1, Romans 12:19). When someone offends us by crossing our boundaries, we’re called to stand down instead of avenging our own hurt.

Setting personal boundaries isn’t a form of punishment. Neither is it a passive-aggressive way to settle a slight, like by sending the offender on a guilt trip.

Proverbs 19:18 expresses it this way: “Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction” (NKJV). The margin in my Bible explains that a Jewish tradition conveys this verse to read “… on his crying.” That is, parents shouldn’t discipline their kids with the eye toward making them cry.

Similarly, we don’t set boundaries to provoke someone else into an emotional meltdown.

4. Unnecessary Guilt

We set personal boundaries to protect ourselves and our interests.

If, despite what we’ve discussed previously, guilt is seeping into your heart, it might be because you’ve heard of the acronym JOY—"Jesus, Others, You”—as a reminder of life’s order of importance.

However, everyone—billionaires included—carries a limited amount of reserves. No one struts around with an endless supply of money or mental resources. Seen this way, setting a personal boundary is akin to setting a budget for your household expenses.

Besides, Jesus instructed us to love others as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). You can’t continue loving others if you don’t replenish yourself.

5. Don’t Procrastinate

If you procrastinate with setting a crucial boundary, prepare for a possible explosion the next time the offender repeats a similar behavior.

Will Smith jolted us to an example when he slapped Chris Rock during the 2022 Oscars after the latter joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. But have you heard about what happened prior? Apparently, Rock aimed another barb at Jada at the 2016 Academy Awards. Smith found it unamusing.

If this scoop proves true and Smith had harbored resentment against Rock all along, we saw what happened when a grudge grew to be six years old.

You may not end up hitting anyone—and please don’t—but the principle remains. Ignoring a porous boundary again and again breeds frustration and a real risk.

6. Benefit of the Doubt

A fraction of the population has earned the clinical diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. We’re talking 1-4%. These individuals—mostly men—have zero regard for right or wrong or the welfare of anyone but themselves. If they did something to make your life miserable, you could almost bet it happened because they plotted your downfall with precision and passion.

Thankfully, the majority of the world operates with a mostly intact moral compass. Therefore, the next time someone aggravates you—including if you think they should’ve known better, perhaps because they’re a fellow believer—it helps to remember that most likely, they didn’t mean to harm you.

7. Wade into the Why

When we first began this list, I advised you not to skip ahead. The current step is why. Calmly explaining the whys behind your decision to establish your boundaries might soften the other person to listen with an open heart.

So, I mustered up the courage to let Allie know how anxious and antsy I felt each time she made me wait—a state of mind I’d rather avoid.

Upon hearing my explanation, Allie shared her tendency to get so absorbed in whatever she’s doing. That’s why time often eluded her easily.

I’m relieved to report that Allie has since demonstrated a valiant effort to show up on time each time we met. If she was running late, she’d alert me with her new ETA.

Before You Go

Anyone can learn to set personal boundaries. However, the way you were raised and/or your cultural heritage may cast a dubious light on these steps. If your family or friends hardly set any boundaries, you may feel unsure as to how to even begin.

The best way forward is to listen to concerns that might crowd your mind when you’re trying to set your boundary. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that’d happen if I set my boundaries?

Remind yourself that things are different now. For instance, when you were a child, of course you had to follow in the footsteps of your parents or caretakers. Your survival depended on them. But now that you’re an adult, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with new behavior—as long as they’re within biblical guidelines.

Thankfully, Thrive & Cultivate can also help. This virtual summit on mental health is crafted by, and for, Christians. Register for free to watch brief sessions by church leaders and mental health professionals—including yours truly.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, Allie has finally arrived.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/VitezslavVylicil 

dr. audrey davidheiser bio photoAudrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems therapist, and author of Surviving Difficult People: When Your Faith and Feelings Clash. She founded and directed a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, supervised graduate students, and has treated close to 2,200 clients. Dr. Audrey devotes her California practice to survivors of psychological trauma. Visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.



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