by Aundi Kolber
Mary walked into my counseling office breathless. She sat down quickly, and with tears in her eyes, began apologizing for nothing and everything, in particular.
“I just feel so stretched. I don’t even know where I end and the next person begins,” she told me.
Mary and her husband had gone through several years of infertility. As the years went by—she faced more and more questions about children.
Mary began seeing me, partly for support through infertility, but also because she didn’t know how to deal with all the well-meaning questions that often caused more pain then the asker realized.
Over the next few weeks, we examined Mary’s tendency to say ‘yes,’ even when she meant ‘no,’ and how that was playing out in dealing with unwelcome questions.
“Growing up, we would never turn anyone down—for anything. Honestly, it wasn’t really allowed,” she shared. “Over time I began to assume that always giving people what they want was part of what it meant to be a faithful Christian. Then, when we went through infertility and subsequent miscarriages, I figured if someone asked me a question, I had to tell them...
But then, some people gave me awful advice, and I found myself even more guilty and ashamed for not taking their advice. I feel trapped in those situations, as though I don’t have a choice.”
As a licensed therapist, I see all types of issues come through my door. But one of the most enduring concerns tends to be around setting limits. In my work, I specialize in trauma informed perspectives and emotional regulation, and inevitably some of the deep work we must focus on presents itself around boundaries.
What I’ve come to see is the significant connection between our ability to say no and our ability to feel safe, and thus—emotionally healthy. Mary didn’t feel she was able to say no to conversations she didn’t want to have, and as a result was walking around constantly fearful of what people might ask.
In his excellent book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains that experiencing visceral safety is absolutely essential to mental health. In other words, if we don’t feel physically and emotionally safe, we aren’t able to focus on much else. Boundaries help create safety by empowering us to choose what we think, feel, need, or dislike, and act accordingly. Alternately, they help us create needed distance between people who do not respect our choices.
Ideally, we learn in childhood how to say healthy “no’s” and “yes’s”—which is a core idea within boundaries — in the presence of an imperfect, but attuned parent or caregiver. Through mirror neurons, we internalize and re-create our caregivers behaviors—including how to set limits.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the concept of limits can become convoluted and misunderstood, especially if it wasn’t modeled for us in our families or churches. If we grew up in families where it was never okay to say no (because it was disobedient, or disrespectful, or showed signs of not having a servant’s heart), the idea of boundaries can be bewildering.
To be sure, as believers we want to be obedient, respectful, and servant-hearted. Yet, the most faithful way to test we’re understanding what those words mean is to watch what Jesus himself did.
Jesus did tell people no (Mark 10:40), he frequently set limits for himself according to his preference (Matthew 19:14), or physical needs (Mark 1:35-38) , and he even told his followers not to throw “pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6 NIV). Jesus disappointed people: what he knew God was calling him to do didn’t always line up with what people wanted. Sometimes Jesus withdrew because he needed alone time. Sometimes he changed the topic when people were asking unhelpful questions. In Matthew 5:37, Jesus said we should let our “yes, be yes, and our no, be no”: clearly, Jesus anticipates there are times when we will need to say ‘no’.
Jesus modeled how to honor our finite humanity, our unique personhood, and even our emotional safety. And, each of these pieces are connected to healthy limits.
While not all of us will receive counseling around boundary issues, many folks still struggle with these questions in their day-to-day lives. One of the common questions I receive is: how do I respond kindly when people want to know more than I’m willing to share?.
A Way Forward
If you find yourself, like Mary, in situations where people want more information from you than you want to give, here are three tips for setting healthy limits:
1. Understand that you have the right to choose who, when, where, and how much information you share. You are the steward of your body and the story of your life. It’s essential that we know we have choices.
2. If you have an area of your life that feels particularly tender or vulnerable, take some time to have a mental script ready, in order to give answers. In Mary’s situation, she practiced saying something like:
Thanks so much for caring about us as we go through this time. I appreciate your support. We’re not sharing much information right now because we’re still processing what this means for our family, but thank you for your kindness.
Then, depending on the circumstances, Mary could choose to walk away, or change the subject, or even ask a different question.
3. Finally, as you begin to identify the area of vulnerability you are aiming to have stronger boundaries around, try to have a support team available who understands and can support you in a way that feels emotionally safe.
Setting limits can be challenging, but it can often lead us to deeper and richer connection with God, our neighbors, and ourselves, because we feel safe to do so.
Aundi Kolber is a licensed therapist, author, and speaker who is passionate about helping people come awake to their right now life. Her first book with Tyndale is forthcoming in January of 2020, and you can follow along with her here.