How to Know if Your Boundaries Are Helpful or Harmful

Like anything in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. The same is true for boundaries. Boundaries are a double-edged sword. While they are beneficial in the way of helping us maintain balance and safety, they can also become destructive when they keep us from thriving. In my experience, there is one particularly problematic boundary that holds us back: fear. Fear-based boundaries may cut us off from hurt but they can also cut us off from help; they may cut us off from opposition, but they also cut us off from opportunity. These same boundaries can build barriers rather than bridges and can cause us to become cynical rather than sympathetic. We must recognize what types of boundaries fear allows so that we can renegotiate them when they are no longer beneficial.


The universal trigger of fear is a threat of harm, either real or imagined. Fear is often considered a negative emotion but we can attest that healthy fear serves an important role in terms of keeping us safe. However, misplaced fear becomes unwanted anxiety that holds us back, such fears can be boiled down to these five areas: fear of failure, rejection/inadequacy, uncertainty, judgement, and hurt.

Fear of failure


Universally, it seems as though the fear of failure is what paralyzes us most. I can’t help but think of the Bible story when Jesus commanded His disciples to go out ahead of him on the boat while he went up to the mountaintop to pray. Eventually, Jesus would join His disciples when He walked on water toward them. At first, they were afraid, but then Peter found courage to ask, “Lord, if it’s You, tell me to come to You on the water.” Jesus told him to come. As Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus, the wind began to blow and he became fearful. In his fear, he began to sink and he cried out, “Save me!”


The power of fear can cause us to set boundaries that keep us from experiencing the power of God within us. We forget that failure is inevitable and that it is not fatal. We allow it to be an excuse that holds us back from trying. We often set boundaries in fear rather than in faith. In that moment, Peter allowed his fear to keep him from experiencing the awe and wonder of God’s power.


Can you think of a time when your fear held you back from trying something new?


Many of us forget that failure is a normal part of life because we are used to only seeing others' successes on social media. The truth is, the only surefire way to experience failure is to never try, or to try, but give up before we fail. In light of that, the odds for success seem much more likely. For when we fail, we also succeed. We succeeded in finding something that didn’t work.

Fear of rejection and inadequacy


The fear of rejection often holds us back from asking for things that we want to pursue. Often, we are stifled by hearing the word "no" that we don’t even attempt to ask. Rejection-informed boundaries look like not asking help when we need it, not asking for the raise we deserve, not going out on a limb to make a request that we think is fair, and not pursuing a relationship we’re interested in because we think we are unworthy.


Our fear of rejection is often rooted in feelings that suggest we aren’t good enough or deserving of better. Such feelings are often trauma-informed. While rejection and inadequacy are often more perceived than experienced, trauma may cause us to feel otherwise.


In those moments, however, when we are met with rejection, we have a choice to see it as our final destination or an opportunity for redirection. We often assume rejection means that we are not good enough. We hardly give thought to other reasons. While there are times to be honest with ourselves, there is also room to use rejection as redirection.


At the end of the day, not everyone is going to agree with you or prefer what you offer, but you can’t let your fear hold you back from pursuing your deepest desires. Rejection is necessary in the pursuit of success. If you’re not someone’s cup of tea, I can promise you’re someone’s shot of whisky! Fear of rejection eventually leads to feelings of regret, guilt, and dissatisfaction. In light of knowing that, isn’t the risk worth taking?

Fear of uncertainty


There have been many times in my life when I allowed my fear of the unknown to persuade me to play it safe, and every time, I regret not trying. Uncertainty-informed fear may be as simple as not trying something new when you go out to eat. In our unwillingness to try new things, we hold ourselves back from growing in new ways.


Avoidance of uncertainty may lead to short-term comfort, but in the long run, we will be unable to tolerate anything short of certain. Tolerance of uncertainty is like a muscle; it must be exercised to be strengthened. The effects of not facing uncertainty are crippling in that we will eventually stop experimenting with the unknown. We can either embrace the unknown with the belief that we have something to learn from it, or we can recoil and remain unsatisfied and stagnant.

Fear of being hurt


Another area of fear that misinforms healthy boundaries is fear of being hurt. On some level, we all have a fear of being hurt. If we didn’t, we would never exercise caution. The boundaries we often place around ourselves in regard to fear of being hurt are the same boundaries that often lead us to feel lonely and isolated.


In some seasons, it may be necessary to pull away from certain relationships to heal. We should not feel inclined, however, to pull away from all relationships. The boundaries we place around one person out of experience does not mean that we should place the same boundaries around everyone in our lives.


Hurt-informed boundaries often look like fear of engaging in relationships, fear of trusting others, fear that everyone is out to get you, and fear of being backstabbed. While we can certainly attest to be hurt by someone in our lives, we can also attest to being loved and helped by others.

By nature, we are sinful creatures, incapable of perfection. Knowing that, we know that we will eventually get hurt but we must also accept that not everyone will hurt us. At some point, we must be willing to trust again. We must consider putting a fence in the place of the wall that once existed. We must consider building bridges rather than barricades.

Fear of judgement


The last area of fear that causes misplaced boundaries is our fear of judgement. Often, we are concerned with pleasing others that we set aside our own desires to pursue that which is expected of us. Fear of judgement looks like not standing up for what we believe in for fear of what others will think about us. It also looks like people pleasing and going with the flow of normalcy for fear of appearing different.


The fear of judgement keeps us from embracing who we were created to be. Everything about us, from our gifts to our talents to our quirks were perfectly designed by God to fulfill the purpose of our calling, a calling that no one else on Earth can carry out the way you were meant to do it. You had a purpose before anyone had an opinion about you, so resist letting others define you. Have the courage to be misunderstood by being confident in your purpose and calling.


Often, the boundaries that exist in our lives are informed by one of two things: what we know to be true and what we perceive to be true; both of these are informed by our experiences. However, these once helpful boundaries that we set into place become harmful when they unnecessarily remain in place. Therefore, there comes a time when testing boundaries and allowing our boundaries to be tested is necessary for growth.

Testing and renegotiating boundaries


Testing boundaries is a natural part of life. It’s a part of our inherent curiosity as well as our ties to sin nature. It is this tie to sin nature which allows us to use something that was meant for good to become something bad. There are certainly times when boundaries must be put into place because our fears were realized; however, we must not be set on letting them remain when circumstances change.


Listen to me carefully, loves -- change cannot occur and growth cannot happen when risks are not taken, lines are not toed, the bill is not pushed, and things are not shaken up a bit. We must be willing to step out of our comfort zone and experience the discomfort of vulnerability. When we test boundaries, we gain further insight of ourselves; we learn our triggers, pain tolerance, desires, fears, and more. Testing our boundaries allows us to create healthy ones and recognize harmful ones. We must acknowledge that boundaries initially set with good reason eventually become no longer useful.


Boundaries boil down to respect -- respect for yourself, respect for others, and others' respect for you. Join me next week to conclude this series on boundaries, where we will explore how to set life-changing boundaries.