What About Boundaries?
QUESTION: Hi Roger! The question I have is about boundaries. Over the years I’ve had a few friends at various times who were extremely needy. Whether Christian or still unbelievers, these have been women with deep unresolved issues who were not necessarily handling them in healthy ways. I know God puts people in our lives in His timing and for His reasons. But I get confused sometimes about how exactly to help or be their friend. I know I’m not their professional counselor. I know I can’t condone certain unhealthy behaviors. I’ve learned that I need to be their friend without their being my best friend (because I need a best friend who is fairly healthy). But after that, the water gets muddy for me. Can you clear it up a bit? Sincerely, A.P.
ANSWER: It seems to me that you are already well on the way to ministering like Jesus. You have a heart for helping hurting people. You recognize the need to have energizing friends for balance. You also understand the need for boundaries so you don’t wear out.
Jesus knew the importance of boundaries: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Some misguided disciples were trying to force Christ into an untimely and dysfunctional predicament. He walked away. The exhausted Jesus—tired from teaching, preaching and healing all day often withdrew away from everyone to regroup and pray.
Now, let’s put a few boundaries in place. Put a boundary on your self. Since you are not a counselor, don’t try to be one. Recognize when you are “in over your head” and recommend that they seek professional help. Then, refuse to act as their counselor.
Set boundaries for your needy friends. Many people really don’t expect you to solve their problems. They are hurting and need to express their hurts. They are lonely and need someone to listen. So, listen. Listen to their problems, comfort their hurts, support them in their struggles and grieve their losses. Give them the attention they need. Work with them on their issues—once, twice, even three and four times. But, that is enough. Set a boundary. “Functional” people will be able to move on in their healings and struggles. Unfortunately, the “dysfunctional” ones will be no further along than when you began. The time to move on has come.
So tell them. Refuse to let them continue discussing their issues with you. Perhaps you might say, we’ve talked about your issues long enough. “I would love to help you some more; but, let’s talk about something else.” Then, perhaps, you might add, “Your life is so much more than just these problems. I’d like to know about the rest of you!” Then, you might add, “Besides, I have some problems of my own that I need to share.
Some of your needy friends will get the message and move into a deeper and healthier relationship with you. Others will get mad and think you are not nice or not loving or whatever—and leave you to begin their draining process all over again with someone else. Perhaps their next set of friends will know exactly how to help them—probably not! But at least they tried—and so did you.
Remember, fixing another’s problems is seldom your responsibility. You can give some guidance, advice, comfort and care. But, ultimately, their healing is in their hands—not yours.
Set boundaries on how long you listen and comfort