Family therapist Sarri Gilman defines boundaries as the guidance system we use to make our decisions and navigate our relationships at home and at work. While we all seem to understand the significance of having clear boundaries and respecting them, we don’t seem to live it out very well. Consider with me for a second the number of times our decisions are made based on what we think other people will think of us rather than on what we know to be right and healthy. Furthermore, consider how many times we feel that we are left with no option because of the circumstances we are in. While there is a structural aspect to our seeming inability to establish healthy boundaries – providing for your family may require you to work longer hours than your mind and body would like you to, for instance – it’s the most personal aspect of it that I’d like to discuss.
I grew up in Brazil. As a child, I was never taught boundaries in a clear manner. Family in Brazil is the ultimate truth and sharing anything less than the absolute totally of your life will rend you being called selfish and anti-social. Being transparent and serving others are values my family carries. While there are definitely positive aspects to it, like having each other’s back and being intimate, they take their toll when done without balance. Back home, everyone knew about everyone else’s personal lives. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone was vocal about what they thought was the best course of action for someone else’s life. Our parents’ opinions weren’t simply advice, they were law. Making our own decisions was a luxury we didn’t get to have until we had our financial independence – something that doesn’t come easily in a developing country.
While that dynamic felt wrong at times, I never knew any better until I came to the US. It took me a few years to start learning about personal space and a deeper sense of respect for others and myself. I remember initially thinking it was just a cultural difference without fully realizing how much of an impact that kind of upbringing had had in me. As a child, I was the one that people would come to in order to vent. I never said no. I was afraid to disappoint, and afraid to be less than perfect in my compassion, friendship, moral values, and hard work towards them. I was constantly praised by teachers and friends on how helpful, obedient, and kind I was. What neither them nor I knew is that my behavior didn’t stem from a conscious choice to help and a true capacity and availability. I simply didn’t know how to respect my limits. I didn’t even know of the word ‘boundaries’ or what it meant. I was afraid of being rejected or deemed disobedient if I said no. It wasn’t my empathy that guided my efforts to help, it was my fear. I learned at church I was born to serve and I thought that meant putting others’ needs above my own even when I had nothing left to give. This enabled me to have many friends, but I felt lonely and insecure because no one knew who I really was. I myself didn’t know who I was.
My family raised me like that not with any wrong intentions but because it was all they ever knew. Unfortunately, those learned behaviors of mindless servitude led me to feel I was only as good as the number of things I did for others. One day I realized I had nothing else left to give and a heart full of resentment. I had trouble negotiating salaries and work schedules, I had trouble saying no, and most of all, I had trouble figuring out what I truly wanted. And when I did, I felt selfish and guilty. I blamed everybody for how bad I felt every time I disrespected myself.
Now, mind you, it’s easy for me to blame my upbringing for my lack of boundaries and my inability to love myself well. However, while that might explain a lot in my story, it doesn’t solve any of my problems. Understanding our dysfunctional dynamics is only the first step towards healing and freedom. It matters more what you do with what you know than what you know per say. It wasn’t easy for me to be faced with this reality and to take ownership of the responsibility for my own change. I felt and still feel trapped in my learned patterns, and at times I feel discouraged because setting boundaries is hard work. Researcher Brené Brown says we should ask ourselves the following question in the midst of that process: ‘What boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?’
I had to learn that being a decent Christian isn’t saying yes to everybody. I had to learn that my identity is in Christ alone and that no matter how people treat me, I am loved and valued. Establishing boundaries require patience and self-awareness. As Sarri Gilman says, ‘The key to placing boundaries where they’re needed the most is tolerating stormy emotions.’ And as Pastor Jeff put it, “A healthy relationship can handle a ‘no’”. Learning to respect myself and knowing where to find my value has enabled me to slowly establish my boundaries. Of course, there are days I fail miserably and I end up feeling hurt deeply but I’ve been learning to forgive myself for not being perfect. The funny thing is, as we accept, love, respect, and care for ourselves we are empowered and freed to accept, love, respect and care for others as Christ has done for us.
Lici is a graduate student from Brazil. She is essentially an extrovert who's really bad at small talk. She serves at Skyline and loves all things blue, tasty and insightful.