How to Establish and Keep Healthy Boundaries

How to Establish and Keep Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries are necessary to maintain a healthy and productive life.  Yet many of us struggle to know where to set up boundaries and how to maintain them.  The result is that we often find ourselves doing things we know deep down inside are unhealthy.  We regret it and feel like we have no control over it.  So why is it so hard to establish appropriate boundaries in our lives?

A simple analogy may be helpful to help us grasp why the problem exists and how to overcome it.  Each of us is like a planet in the solar system.  Each planet has a mass and therefore has a gravitational pull.  Planets have different amounts of gravitational pull, but they all have a force that pulls things towards them.  All of us have a gravitational pull when it comes to boundaries and it is related to our personalities.  It is important for us to understand the nature of our “pull” and what is causing us to break through appropriate boundaries that lead to unhealthy behaviors.

People are primarily motivated by three things: people, performance, and process.  We could also add perspective (combination of all three).  Your motivation – what is most important to you – is connected to the “pull” to break healthy boundaries.  Let’s look at these motivations and how they influence your ability to set and keep boundaries.

PEOPLE:  If you are motivated by people and desire to help others and make sure people are cared for and treated well, you have a difficult time saying “no” to someone who asked you to do something which is beyond your boundary.  Perhaps they ask you to drive them somewhere on Tuesday, but you really don’t have time, have other commitments, and it will cost you personally if you say yes, but you say yes anyway.  Why?  Because you want to help them, and you don’t want to be thought of as a person who doesn’t care about others.  It is that important to you.  It is your gravitational pull.

PERFORMANCE:  If you are motivated by performance and desire to accomplish things and feel a sense of great satisfaction from it, it is hard to say “no” to an opportunity.  You may have more on your plate than you can currently handle, but the opportunity just is too juicy to pass up!  You reason that you can fit it into your schedule, and you minimize the cost in time and energy because you want it that badly.  There is “pull” to say “yes” even though it is beyond what is reasonable and healthy.  You may even risk yours and other’s security to obtain the possibility of achievement.  It’s your gravitational pull.

PROCESS:  If you are motivated by process and the desire to see things done in order and done right, your gravitational pull may be to say “no” and have a hard time saying “yes”.  Your boundaries may be tight and need to be expanded but expanding them may lead to chaos and unpredictability.  Your gravitational pull is to set up boundaries that are close by and guard them with little flexibility.  Your “pull” is the opposite of the other gravitational forces listed above in that you say “no” to things you may need to say “yes” to because you don’t like life messy an unorganized.  Your boundaries are tight and taunt.

PERSPECTIVE:  For those who have an equal amount of people, performance and process motivation, the gravitational pull is in all directions at the same time.  You want to keep a balance in life, but you want to have it all!  In an effort to address all these motivations, you find yourself stretched to the limit and unable to keep the balance you so desperately crave.  All this takes time and energy and leads to a life of busyness and unresolved decisions.

Let me share with you four steps to establish healthy and productive boundaries that will help you live a more prosperous life.

  1. Become dissatisfied with your current reality.  Nothing ever changes until you come to the conclusion that what you are currently doing isn’t working.  It isn’t healthy.  Or it is hurting the people around you.  Can you see the damage it is having on you and those you love?  If you don’t, nothing will change.  You may want to write down how your gravitational pull is hurting you and others.  Make a list.  Make it concrete.  You need a reason to change.
  2. Create a vision for life with good boundaries. If you were to implement changes and set new boundaries, what would life be like for you?  For instance, if I am motivated by performance, I may set a boundary of not adding anything to my schedule or goals until I drop one that I have already set.  That will keep me from getting overloaded and overcommitted.  It will lessen the stress on myself and those around me, making me less demanding on them and setting unrealistic expectations.  You need a vision of what life would be like if you were able to set appropriate and heathy boundaries.
  3. Name your gravitational pull. Give it a name.  There is power in naming the “pull” which is why you struggle so much in saying yes or saying no to maintain healthy boundaries.  If you don’t come to grips with “why” you struggle, you will never make the changes necessary.  You will blow right by the warning flags.  Name not only what is causing the “pull” but also the damage that is does in your life and the life of others.
  4. Decide on a plan to set the appropriate boundary and stick to it. You need a plan when you feel the force of the gravitational “pull” to go past the boundary.  I was coaching a person who had a performance “pull” and the plan they decided to implement was to get permission from their board before taking on any new speaking engagements.  They needed a firewall to protect themselves from their tendency to say yes to every opportunity.  What do you need in your life to resist saying “yes” when you should say “no”?

Here is the great problem that we all face.  We cannot trust our internal instinct to do the right thing all the time, because our instinct is sometimes being pulled in the wrong direct – and it is highly predictable!  If you don’t recognize the “pull” and have a plan of correction, we will find ourselves repeating the problems of the past.  When we do this, we lose the trust of others.  We end up damaging relationships.   Becoming aware of our “pull” and the impact on our boundaries will help us make wiser and healtheir boundaries.

Bruce Terpstra

Our President, Dr. Bruce Terpstra, has 36 years of pastoral ministry experience. He is a veteran of 17 years in denominational leadership and developed more than 70 new churches in the New York metro area and has given oversight to almost 400 pastors. He holds a doctorate in Leadership Development and is also the founder of 3KeyCoaching and the author of Three Passions of the Soul.