Brené Brown defines a personal boundary as “what is okay for you and what is not okay for you.” It is a simple definition for a terribly complicated thing.
As a pastor, I often get to process and pray with people about their messiest dilemmas. One of the most common issues that I observe is how difficult it is for many folks to name, enforce and respect personal boundaries.
Some of us fear that the other person will abandon us if we create boundaries and, for example, deny a request. Some of us derive our sense of self-worth from being useful and end up addicted to pleasing others. Some of us cannot set priorities, so we say yes to everything even when we have no capacity to follow through with it.
This last problem is particularly common in activists. I get it. Every day, I receive dozens of emails asking me to help avert a crisis.
“Sign this petition!” “Donate now!” “Come to the rally!” “Call your senator!” “And don’t forget to share on Facebook!”
The groups sending these requests genuinely need support to advance their justice-based agenda, but the recipient without healthy boundaries can quickly become consumed by the enormity of needs.
People who struggle with boundaries tend to ping-pong back and forth between two ends of a spectrum: Selflessness and selfishness. The selfless person has minimal boundaries and acts as though the needs of others are more important than their own. They eventually become a burned-out shell and reverse course completely, cutting off ties, quitting projects and ghosting in relationships. Out of necessity, they become what we call “selfish,” putting their own needs and desires above all else. When they tire of this, the pendulum swings.
I have experienced this in my life and have grown tired of it. I have found an alternative in Christian mysticism, which transcends the binary of selfish and selfless. It casts a vision of a third way to be: Myself-in-community. Theologically, this way states that we are unique beings (not just a smudge in a big puddle of oneness). At the same time, we are created for community.
When I embrace the notion that my true self comes to fruition only when I exist in community, I no longer need to prove my usefulness by helping others, or build walls to protect myself against the needs of others. I can choose to respond based on what I feel called to.
The mystic, Rev. Howard Thurman, summed this up when he wrote:
“Do not ask what the world needs, ask what makes you become fully alive, because what the world needs is people who have become fully alive.”
Together may we embrace healthy boundaries and become fully alive.
Rev. John Helmiere is the Convener of Valley & Mountain.
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