Confession: I am a recovering people-pleaser.
Since my earliest memories, I have always sought approval, hated letting anyone down, and thought it was my job to “make people happy.” (This did not apply to siblings, of course.) So for approximately three decades of my life, I made it my personal mission to ensure that everyone around me was “ok.” (I must have been pretty powerful, right?!)
What did this look like in my life? It meant that if I perceived someone needed or wanted something from me, I was quick to comply. In social settings, I constantly scanned the room to make sure everyone was being included and having a good time. It meant I answered my phone or my door at any hour of the day or night, and listened for as long as it took. It meant I rarely had an opinion and deferred to others about what to do or where to go. If someone was upset with me for any reason, I had to resolve the matter immediately. I refused to ask for help, because I didn’t want to be a bother. I couldn’t stand to disappoint people. I apologized for everything. (Hmmm, I think I may still do that…)
Some might read that description and think me a push-over. Others might read it and think me kind-hearted. I read it and see a young woman who didn’t have healthy boundaries.
This concept of “boundaries” has become wildly popular (and also widely critiqued) among Christians. Some are concerned that it reinforces selfishness; that is based on a misunderstanding of what healthy boundaries really are. They are NOT an excuse to avoid helping others selflessly. They are NOT walls to keep out close relationships and accountability, while hiding in isolation. They are NOT a means of getting your own way or trying to change people. They are NOT intended for punishment or manipulation or power trips.
So then what are boundaries? Basically, they are the recognition and realization of our own person apart from others. We take ownership of our individual attitudes, feelings, behaviors, thoughts, desires, choices, and limits. We are responsible for our own, and others are responsible for theirs. We cannot change someone else’s (fill in the blank), and they are not in charge of ours. (Isn’t that a relief?!)
Before learning about healthy boundaries, I lived in a constant state of stress, resentment, pressure, and false guilt. I lived as though I were personally responsible for the happiness of others. For example, my grandmother once stayed with me for two weeks. I loved that spunky woman dearly, but it was well-known that she was difficult to please. (Of course, you better believe I was going to try!) However, it seemed that no matter how much I bent over backwards to accommodate all requests, I still couldn’t “make” her happy. (I guess I was not as powerful as I thought!) Not even my early-morning runs to the store for the right flavored this or the preferred brand of that could ensure the approval and contentment of my beloved grandma.
Thankfully, I eventually realized that others’ responses and feelings were within THEIR own territory (not mine), and I was set free! Because the truth is, nobody can choose how someone else is going to feel. That’s up to them. And as for me, I may not be able to control the behavior and attitudes of others, but I DO get to choose how I’m going to respond, think, and feel about it (my territory).
I realized that I was giving people too much power over my life. Although they weren’t asking for it, I was freely giving others control of my feelings, schedule, choices, behaviors, etc. When I made the shift in my mind and heart, it wasn’t about “setting boundaries” on other people. (Remember, I cannot control their behaviors!) But I simply started to recognize what I am responsible for and what I am not.
What does this look like in my life now? It means that when I say “yes” to people, it’s a sincere “yes.” I do not build up resentment for getting involved in commitments that I didn’t really have the time/space/desire/capacity for. It means that I am no longer “on call” 24/7 for any person, at any time, for any reason. It means that I do not take responsibility for “making” anybody happy, because I recognize that the only feelings I can manage are my own! It means that I am not afraid to express my ideas, opinions or preferences, just because someone may not agree with them. I now realize that I am not in charge of how others respond to me. I get to be myself, and they are free to be themselves. It means my relationships are more genuine, my words are more honest, my heart is more restful, and my schedule includes activities that I have chosen.
It means that this recovering people-pleaser would rather be a God-pleaser. And I believe that God is pleased when I am free to love others (and myself!) with His overflowing love – no strings (or guilt trips) attached.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13)