I was talking with a friend recently and the subject of boundaries came up. Everyone she knows, my friend told me, struggles with setting appropriate boundaries with people. I told her that I am not perfect at it, but I do a pretty good job with setting boundaries. She wanted to know how I do it, but seemed less enthused when I told her the secret: you have to be completely willing to let other people be wrong. I’m not sure why it is, but we humans seem to have a real problem even contemplating simply tolerating each other’s errors. We feel like it’s very important to do our part to teach the people around us how to be better people (according to our own understanding of what would make someone a better person, of course). So, we are upset (rightfully) when people think they know what is good for us and try to impose their view on us. But we’d really like to reserve the right to do the same thing to those around us. I would guess that some of this is just deeply ingrained human habit. After all, for most of human history we spent our time with very clear-cut rules, roles and expectations. Now that we have so much more freedom to make our own choices and judgments, we’re busy stepping all over each other’s toes and we’re just figuring out how to deal with not just our own freedom, but each other’s.
Here’s the thing though: it’s not our job or our right to evalute other people. Not to mention that it’s terribly pointless. How often do we stop to think of how someone will respond to our attempt to point them in the right direction. And not how we think someone should respond, but how people actually do respond. I mean, if you can show me one gay person who decided to repent and not be gay because they were told that God says its an abomination, I will eat one of my children. It’s never happened. It’s not going to happen. It probably can’t happen. The same thing is true of our odds of changing anything about any other person by making it clear just how wrong they are.
People will try and argue that they have a right or an obligation to point out the right path because these are paths that lead to destruction or hurt people around them. We can be right as anything about the damage someone could potentially do to themselves or others, but arguing, lecturing, shunning or otherwise trying to show another their error or the superiority of your way doesn’t do anything about that! As hard as it can be to accept, we have to learn to let other people find their own way. We can share our perspectives, but it must be with the understanding that the other person is under no obligation to accept them without damaging the relationship.
And yes, people will make mistakes and even hurt other people. This is the way life is. You cannot change or really do much to even influence this reality. Hopefully, people will learn from their mistakes. But one way to make that much more difficult than it needs to be is to let them know ahead of time that they are idiots who are making a huge mistake. It’s hard enough to be wrong. It can be next to impossible if being wrong means making someone who doesn’t respect you or approve of you right.
So, here’s the deal on how to set boundaries:
1. Recognize where your boundaries begin and end. Your own boundaries begin and end between your ears and with your body. This is yours to control, evaluate, change and direct to your heart’s content. Really, it takes a lot of nerve to try and direct other people when you can’t even direct yourself well!
2. Recognize the limits of your influence. We have a few people who we are supposed to influence. They are our children. We have a few more people who have agreed to allow us to influence (but not direct or control). These would be our spouses, friends and some family members. Other people don’t owe it to us to hear our arguments out, take our evaluations of them seriously or change to be more acceptable to us – no matter how superior our arguments, evaluations and directions may be. In fact, other people are well within their rights to treat such attempts as an assault on their sovereignty over their own lives.
3. Don’t take anything personally. You are captain of your own life and keeper of your own soul. As is everyone else. What people do or say is all about them and nothing about you. Even if they are directing what they say or do towards you, it is still coming out of who they are. So let people have their own opinions – even about you. This also has the benefit of being able to listen and hear any words of wisdom coming your way that you would normally miss because of your indignation.
4. Once you have a good idea of where your own boundaries ought to be, it is much easier to both recognize when someone is trying to violate your boundaries and not to let it bother you. The big thing that I think boundaries do is help us identify what are our problems and what are other people’s problems. If someone doesn’t like the way you are doing something and it doesn’t involve them, they are the one with a problem, not you. If someone wants you to do something for them, that is their desire and responsibility, not yours. You may still choose to help them out, but it’s your choice and not your obligation. If someone is upset over something you did or chose, that’s both their right and their problem. We shouldn’t carelessly do things that people find hurtful, but the reality is that our reactions and emotions are our own responsibility.
Learning to respect the boundaries of others and keep our own is the real core of tolerance. It doesn’t require us to give up our own opinions or values, but it does require us to accept that the right of those around us to be wrong. The reward is not having others trying to tell you who you should be or how you should live your life. That’s God’s job alone and he does a much better job of it than your average mother-in-law!