You have heard it said, “You are what you eat.” A very wise nutritionist said once that this is not actually the truth. In actuality, you are what you metabolize. If your body does not absorb what you eat, it passes through and has no impact on the building blocks of your physiology.
The same can be said of the words, actions and various other messages that bombard us daily. Proverbs 23:7 tells us, “As we believe in our heart, so are we.” We are bathed daily in a world of interactions, and somewhere in those interactions we become what we allow into our hearts. With this in mind, we should learn what it means to “guard our hearts above all else” (Proverbs 4:23).
Boundaries are those invisible dividing lines whereby I maintain myself as separate and distinct from anyone else. My emotions are my own. My desires and goals are my own. My values are my own. My body belongs to me, and I am responsible for maintaining everything that belongs to me.
My boundaries allow me to prevent you from defining my identity and my worth while allowing me to receive from you that which I choose to receive. My boundaries allow me to define my areas of responsibility in life and the areas for which I will not take responsibility.
Boundaries are not simply a way to prescribe rules and prohibitions. They are a way to help people maintain a healthy sense of self—and therefore to define the parameters of healthy relationships. When the Bible tells us to guard our hearts above all else, it is referring to ways we can allow God to define and protect that which is most true about us as the individual people He created.
And there are three important issues to help us keep the balance of our individuality within relationships.
1) Overt and covert communication
Communication is the way that all boundaries are crossed. Not all of it is verbal. Touch, posture, eye contact, tone and other non-verbal elements of communication are part of the exchange that takes place between two people.
Communication, in its purest definition, is the exchange of meaning. If the exchange is merely an idea, then intellectual communication has occurred. But every couple in love knows that more than ideas can cross the gap between people. Boundary violations take place when one person is able to send an unwanted message or meaning to another.
The most lethal forms of boundary-crossing communication take place in the arena that I call covert communication. Overt communication is the evident meaning of words exchanged. Covert communication is the murky world of implications, inferences and attributions of motive.
Covert communication includes the subtleties of meaning that are attached to the more obvious meaning. Like a spoonful of sugar can encourage a child to take bad-tasting medicine, so will words that appear sweet convince us to swallow the poison delivered by another.
Learning to recognize these subtleties is a very important part of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. In my counseling practice, I used to give an assignment called “Gorillas in the Mist,” named after the popular movie about sociologist Dian Fossey. Ms. Fossey went into the wilderness to observe the culture of gorillas in their natural habitat. Like all good sociologists, she did her best to observe the culture without actually entering into it. This allowed her to observe interactions and unspoken social rules in the gorilla culture.
In the same way, I assigned people to visit their families. Instead of entering into their normal family exchanges, I encouraged them to sit back and observe as a non-participant. It is amazing what you can learn about your family and how you have been defined by it when you choose not to enter into unconsciously prescribed roles and expectations. It is here that you begin to see where covert communication takes place and you notice that invisible boundaries are crossed in your family.
This way of stepping back to observe allows us to be much more conscious of what messages are being offered—or in many cases, thrust upon us—in a variety of settings. The more conscious we are, the more we have the freedom to choose what we receive and what we reject.
2) Freedom to choose
Freedom to choose how we relate to another—and what we will and will not receive from another—is an essential building block of healthy boundaries. Freedom to choose is directly related to awareness. Many people feel they are victims because they do not know or feel they have a right to make new choices. Like being in a restaurant with a limited menu selection, people only order that which they see as possible options.
Often people feel they deserve poor treatment and do not know they have the right to stand up for themselves. If they don’t know better, they aren’t free to choose. Many people who suffer from boundary challenges grew up in homes where boundaries were skewed. Children were blamed for the shortcomings of the adults. Other family members were made out to be responsible for the choices, behaviors and emotions of a misbehaving person.
When a child is raised in this atmosphere, he or she becomes an adult who does not recognize healthy patterns of choice and responsibility. They assume they must bear the burdens or dysfunctions of another.
One of the most insidious and painful impacts of boundary-crossers is that they blame others for their own issues. They often believe that others are responsible for their behavior. The alcoholic often believes that other people cause them to drink. The abuser often believes that other people make them abuse. People who cannot take responsibility for their poor choices are unable to change because they can only change that which they will take responsibility for.
People who have lived in boundary-challenged and abusive environments often struggle to know what they should take responsibility for and what is someone else’s responsibility.
The kind of messages that are sent in human interactions are not simply about image and value, but also about responsibility. You hear this in the messages of boundary-challenged individuals: “Why did you make me beat you up?” or “If you hadn’t dressed that way, I wouldn’t have done that to you.” You see this in men who blame women for their lustful thoughts or actions. The flip-side of this equation is the person who blames himself or herself for the poor choices of others, which is just as dangerous an illusion.
Our soul is a storehouse of the many ideas and emotions that have been injected into it. A kind word can change the chemistry of our bodies, lift our mood and even change our self-image. Positive communication can positively affect our thoughts, feelings and actions, while negative communication can damage our sense of self. The people around us become a mirror. Accurate or not, we begin to see ourselves reflected back to us in their words and their responses to us.
As we begin to realize the ways others have assumed power over us, we can begin to learn how to regain a sense of self in the face of boundary violations. As we become more aware of how others overtly and covertly interact with us, we find ourselves faced with having to set boundaries in our relationships. This is good and necessary.
The formula for boundary-setting communication is simple. Make the covert message overt, and pose it in the form of a question. The question places the responsibility back in the hands of the potential boundary-crosser. It can be difficult at first to recognize covert communication, but it is of great importance. You’ll discover that people in your life may be crossing your boundary lines often, and you either didn’t know it or didn’t have a way to bring it up.
Try this week to focus on what you are truly comfortable with in your relationships with friends, siblings, parents, significant others—and study the overt and covert communication that takes place. When you are aware of your relationships and their effect on you, the power and responsibility is in your hands to accept communication that respects you as an individual.
This article was originally published on GoodWomenProject.com.
Bob Hamp is an author, a seasoned counselor, and respected pastor at Gateway Church in Dallas, Texas. You can find him at bobhamp.com or follow him on Twitter at @bobhamp.