When I left for college at the ripe old age of 18, I remember being equally excited, hopeful, and anxious.
Up until that point, my school experiences had been those of a small rural school district. Everyone knew everyone, and the odds were likely that you were related, even if distantly, to at least half of your classmates.
I spent my middle school and high school summers attending various church camps and conferences, so it only made sense to me that Christian college would be like church camp on steroids.
Everyone would love Jesus.
Everyone would be friendly.
The heavens would obviously open, and angels would descend and bless everyone with kindness and goodness on a daily basis.
*cue angelic choir music*
Yeah, so that wasn’t really my Christian college experience.
What I didn’t understand in the 90s was that I am an extroverted introvert. While I can do the people thing and do it well, at the end of the day, I need peace, quiet, and alone time.
The thing about college life in the 90s was that it didn’t lend itself to the needs of the introvert.
There were people around all the time.
Some of those people, I didn’t really want to be around, even when I was feeling “peopley.”
Add to that the pressure of the Christian college system that encourages fake perfection and false holiness, and you have yourself a recipe for disaster, folks.
I didn’t even understand that I had my own needs apart from everyone else’s.
I lacked the knowledge and understanding of boundaries.
I was miserable.
If I knew then what I know now, goodness. I can’t even wrap my head around all the ways that experience might have been different, but I know this:
- I would have separated myself from the people who caused me nothing but stress.
- I would have squelched the controlling nature and jealousy of those who called me “friend” by refusing to placate it.
- I would have sought out meaningful friendships with authentic individuals who weren’t attempting to fit into an image the Christian College environment purports.
It took me years to understand what friendship should actually look like, what is healthy and unhealthy, and the importance of implementing boundaries in these relationships when they’re necessary.
Discernment in Friendships
Discernment is one of those $100 Christianese words that really just means “to judge well.”
I 100% believe the inability or refusal to tap into our own discernment when it comes to friendships is what gets us in trouble way too often.
I learned this lesson the exceptionally difficult way.
Okay, if I’m being honest, I got burned by this multiple times before I finally started to use discernment in my own lie and own friendships.
Before boundaries, I had this terrible habit of letting anyone into my life.
I felt like it was my God-given burden to be a friend to anyone who needed a friend.
I’ve since learned that’s not the case.
Just like God didn’t create us to be in marriages or romantic relationships with every single individual on the planet, He didn’t create us to be in relationships/friendships with every single individual on the planet.
Consequently, what that means is we have to discern well whether the people seeking access to us and our lives are people we should really be granting access to.
Sometimes, the answer to that is “no.”
I used to be close to a woman who was fun, loud, and exceptionally outgoing.
That seemed like a good choice for friendship, right?
What I didn’t see through all of those facades was her lack of individual identity, her almost-paralyzing lack of self-worth, and her excessive fear of every single person being out to get her.
For me, it was impossible to have an authentic relationship with this individual because there was never any authenticity or vulnerability shared.
Every conversation was rooted in other people–what they were doing wrong, how they had wronged her, how they were failures, how their actions were terrible, etc…
Within a couple of conversations with this person, had I been discerning, I would have seen this was not someone I should allow access to my life.
Those kinds of relationships are like cancer–they destroy you from the inside out.
If I had been discerning, I would have immediately set a boundary that both kept her at arm’s length and shut down the negativity as soon as it began.
This isn’t the only behavior we need to pay attention to when it comes to discernment in our friendships.
We might have friends who are:
- Jealous of us and attempt to undermine us to make them feel better about their own lives
- Function in a constant state of comparison
- Don’t listen when we speak
- Interrupt us to shift the focus to themselves
- Are fake
- Make their own lives appear perfect even though no one’s life is perfect
- Gossip about everyone else instead of talking about anything real
- Talk about you behind your back
As you were reading over that list, were there friendships that were coming to mind as you felt that nagging feeling in your gut?
If so, then there’s a good probability things need to change in those relationships.
This is where it gets tricky, right?
It’s one thing to be able to identify dysfunction and toxic traits in our relationships, but it’s an entirely different thing to address those things and make changes. I find James 1:5 (TPT) incredibly encouraging for these situations:
And if anyone longs to be wise, ask God for wisdom and he will give it! He won’t see your lack of wisdom as an opportunity to scold you over your failures but he will overwhelm your failures with his generous grace. Just make sure you ask empowered by confident faith without doubting that you will receive.James 1:5 (TPT)
Sometimes, I think we forget that God wants to give us wisdom. He doesn’t want us to have to figure it all out on our own.
When we’ve been in these challenging relationships for some time, it’s easy to blame ourselves for letting these behaviors and the dysfunction continue, but James reminds us that isn’t how God sees us or our situations at all.
God wants to heap wisdom on us, regardless of our failures.
As you assess these relationships and begin to think about boundaries in them, I would encourage you to ask God for wisdom in how to do that and believe that He will give you that wisdom and guide your steps in this.
When to Set Boundaries in Friendship:
As I’ve mentioned several times throughout this series, it’s so important to remember that boundaries are put in place for peace and protection, not punishment.
As you think about these relationships, think about what it would take to bring peace and protection to them, not what punishment in them looks like.
Paul tells us in Colossians 3:9 that we aren’t supposed to lie to one another.
That seems like a no-brainer, right? Of course, we aren’t supposed to lie to one another.
Can we really say we always do that, though?
Especially in these challenging relationships.
If you can’t be authentic in your relationship, or you know your friend is not being authentic with you, that’s a good time to assess the relationship and think about an honest conversation about boundaries.
Authenticity and honesty should be the foundations of any healthy relationship, and if those things are missing, we are forced to step back and examine the health and purpose of that relationship.
When we continue reading Paul’s words in Colossians 3, we see a great guide for our relationships. I’ve used these verses so many times, but there is so much guidance in them!
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.Colossians 3: 12-14 MSG
These qualities are important for several reasons:
- They should be present in us, as individuals.
- They should be present in our relationships.
Too often, we accept less than we deserve.
Read that again:
Too often, we accept less than we deserve.
Not only should we clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, and discipline, but we deserve those qualities in the individuals we enter into relationships with.
Not only should we be even-tempered, content with second place, and quick to forgive offenses, we deserve that same treatment from those we are in relationships with.
So, here’s the thing–if your friendships don’t reflect these qualities, a boundary or a break is probably necessary.
Friend, if you are reading this right now and your heart hurts and your gut is nagging you about certain relationships in your life, I have to believe that God is telling you something needs to change.
How to Set Boundaries in Friendships
I have a philosophy that not everyone in my life appreciates–if you set a boundary in a relationship and that relationship ends as a result, the relationship wasn’t strong to begin with.
That one smarts a little bit, doesn’t it?
I have talked to countless individuals about setting boundaries, eliminating toxicity from their lives, and healing dysfunction in relationships, and I hear the same thing every time someone begins this hard work–what happens if the relationship ends when I set boundaries and get healthy?
The answer to that question is not an easy one to accept.
The answer to that question is the reason why so many of us are stuck in unhealthy patterns, toxic relationships, and dysfunctional families.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this– “the dysfunction we know is more comfortable than the health we don’t.”
It’s the reason why people go back to abusive partners and kids choose to stay in abusive homes–the dysfunction they know is easier than the unknown that comes with change.
Our friendships can be that way too.
The familiar dysfunction and toxicity are more comfortable than the unknown that accompanies advocating for our health.
The reality of setting boundaries in any relationship is that it can cause the end of that relationship.
In order to set boundaries, I think you have to accept the possibility that the relationship might end.
While that’s scary and can be very lonely, it is necessary if you are eliminating unhealthy behaviors, toxicity, and dysfunction from your life.
The first step to setting boundaries in any relationship is understanding this could be a possible outcome.
And, not everyone is at a point in their lives where they can accept this.
If you are, though, the next step goes back to that verse in Colossians that reminds us we aren’t supposed to lie to each other.
That means we have to start with an honest conversation with our friends where we address the boundary we need to set in a way that is not accusatory and is focused on our own peace and protection.
For example, if you have a friend who constantly talks crap about one of your other friends, you could tell them:
- When you bring up _____________ in conversation, it’s really hard for me. I love you and want to have a healthy relationship with you, so if you bring them up, I’m going to change the subject to something else.
Maybe you have a friend who is constantly engaging in risky and unhealthy behaviors and then wants to talk to you about their choices. You could set a boundary by telling them:
- When you talk about those kinds of things, it makes me uncomfortable and scared for you. I understand those are your choices, and I love you, but for the sake of my emotional health, I can’t listen to those stories anymore.
Some other scenarios with friendships can be even more challenging. For example, maybe you have a friend who thinks you should be accessible 24/7 and doesn’t respect your alone time or family time. When you don’t respond to them and their needs immediately, they get upset and accuse you of not being supportive. That’s a hard conversation, but it might start like this:
- I love you, and I appreciate the fact that you want to spend time with me and trust me with your problems. I don’t function well without alone time, a sleep schedule, and quality time with my family. Those are my needs and not a negative reflection on you at all. For my peace, I need you to know that I can’t take your calls after 9 pm, and if I’m with my family, I won’t be responding to texts.
The most important thing when setting boundaries is to approach them out of a place of love, gentleness, and kindness, but to also state them as facts instead of giving room for input or for you to be persuaded to loosen up your boundary.
Healthy people respect healthy boundaries.
Healthy people want you to have peace and protection.
Healthy people don’t need you to overexplain your boundary.
When Boundaries Aren’t Respected
Not everyone is going to respect your boundaries.
That’s the sad truth.
If you are attempting to be healthy, to rid your life of dysfunction and toxicity, and if you have asked God for wisdom in these relationships, you might have to grieve the loss of some of these relationships while knowing you have done what God is leading you to do in wisdom.
And that’s really hard.
Sometimes, pruning is necessary though.
Friend, if you are in a situation where you know you have to set some boundaries for your own peace and protection today, I pray that God gives you the wisdom to do just that.
- What’s the hardest part of boundary-setting for you in your friendships?
- Who are the people who came to mind as you were reading?
- What are some tough conversations you need to pray for wisdom to have?
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