Hard Conversations: Tips for Setting Boundaries with Family and Friends

iStock-499334271Hard Conversations: Tips for Setting Boundaries with Family and Friends


At some point, we’ve all been told we need to establish healthy boundaries. But what exactly does that mean? And how exactly do you set boundaries?

We tend to think it is awkward, uncomfortable, or even hurtful. For some reason, even Christians think setting boundaries is unloving.

In truth, it isn’t. Instead, they are healthy and they are loving.

Without boundaries, we run the risk of overextending ourselves and doing more harm than good to ourselves and those we think we are helping.

Church Leaders explains, “A boundary, according to [Dr. Henry Cloud], is a property line. We can easily understand this by thinking of one’s property, which defines what is yours, and what is not yours. A boundary then simply defines ownership. Knowing the scope of ownership is important because whoever owns something controls it, and is thereby responsible for it. In the material world boundaries are easily defined by such things as walls or fences, but in the immaterial world, such as human relationships, boundaries are harder to see. We can tell we have weak boundaries in relationships when other peoples’ problems always become your own. Of course we can help people but we are healthiest in helping them when others take ownership, control, and responsibility for their problems. In short, boundaries serve to keep good things in and bad stuff out.”

Now, we can read that blurb and have a basic understanding of the “idea” of boundaries.

But how do you actually set boundaries with friends and family?

Look to Jesus

It may surprise you to learn that even Jesus had boundaries.

In the Gospels, we see that Jesus regularly withdrew from people to be alone and spend time with his Father.

Seattle Christian Counseling provides this example: “In John 2:24, we read, ‘But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.’ This passage is amazing and too often completely overlooked. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was gaining acclaim and many people were believing in him. He was reaching the status of a celebrity, but rather than live up to his followers’ expectations, doing what they thought he should do, he chose to withhold himself from them, maintaining his personal boundaries.”

Additionally, you will find instructions throughout the Bible regarding setting boundaries in relationships, such as “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you” (Proverbs 25:17) and “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4).

Take Ownership

In order to set boundaries with others, we must take ownership of what we are in control of – our thoughts, feelings, body, actions, and decisions.

Cloud and Townsend, authors of the classic book Boundaries, explain, “Ownership says, ‘that is mine, and I am responsible for it.’ It is what Jesus was calling us to in the commandment to ‘take the log out of our own eye first.’ (Lk. 6:42) So, in order to take responsibility for our lives, we must own what is ours. […] If I am angry, for example, then it is my anger and I have to take responsibility for it, not blame it on you. You may have provoked me to it, but the reality is that since it exists in my soul, it is my problem. The behavior is your problem, what I feel and do in response is mine.”

Prioritize Time Alone in Prayer

Some of the clearest boundaries Jesus set were his need for rest, solitude, and prayer.

When it comes to setting boundaries, we should start here.

  • Recognize that God created us with human bodies that need rest. Set boundaries in order to carve out time to rest.
  • If you are constantly giving, you need time alone to refill your cup.
  • Pray, pray, and pray some more. Setting boundaries isn’t always easy. Pray for God to give you discernment in your relationships and wisdom with your time and assets.

Identify Your Priorities and Stick to Them

The key to discerning needed boundaries is by ordering your priorities. Take a self-assessment and determine what’s most important to you.

If you know what your priorities are, it will help you set boundaries.

For example, being involved in a local church may be a priority. If that’s the case for you, then you will say “no” to invites or tasks that take away time spent at church.

Guard Your Heart and Your Life

“Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”      (Proverbs 4:23, NLT)

Guarding your heart and your life means setting boundaries and sticking to them.

This includes relational boundaries, such as who is allowed access to your feelings and how much of your personal life you will share with others. It also includes boundaries around physical intimacy, entertainment, etc.

Be Honest and Direct

This blog on setting boundaries is part of our hard conversations series for a reason – it’s hard to make your boundaries clear! But you must.

You cannot just assume others know and understand your boundaries. The sooner you communicate them, the better.

Jesus gave us this advice for when we are establishing boundaries: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

Avoid Triggering Conversations

Take note of the types of conversations that tend to make you uncomfortable or upset.

Take note of who you have these bothersome conversations with.

You may notice that there are some people who always make you upset when they discuss certain things, such as politics. If this is the case, create a boundary by avoiding conversations on these topics unless absolutely necessary.

Don’t Get Stuck in the “What If’s”

Often, people hesitate to set boundaries because they are just in the “what ifs.”

What if it hurts their feelings?

What if it ruins the relationship?

What if they think less of me?

Grace Alliance suggests, “But consider “what if” you don’t.”

What if you don’t set a boundary and they continue to hurt themselves or others? What if you don’t set a boundary and you start to resent others? What if you don’t set a boundary and you burn out?

Seek Counseling or Support

Setting boundaries isn’t easy and some relationships are difficult to navigate.

You may need to seek additional support groups or personal counseling to help you set boundaries with your loved ones.

South Bay Bible Church offers faith-based counseling services.