Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 9—Healthy Boundaries

by TriviaKing, from Wikimedia Commons

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 
… Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
(Matthew 7:1-2, 6)

These two verses snuggle side-by-side. Jesus commands us not to judge, and in the very next breath tells us not to waste energy on difficult people. His followers have no end of trouble with this boundary. I count myself in that group.

We discover our first boundary when we are infants or toddlers: I end here, at the boundary of my skin, and the rest of the world is “out there.” There is a separation between my “internal” world and the “external” one. There are parts of our brains that are responsible for this distinction between self and world, and we can see them light up on fMRI scans. When people who meditate deeply feel that they are one with the universe, these parts of the brain decrease in activity.

We develop relationship boundaries soon after we develop a sense of self. Young children start to distinguish between “family” and “stranger,” and may shy away from people they previously welcomed. As we grow into adolescence, we continue to develop and expand our group identity. We determine group boundaries, negotiating over and over again who “my people” are. During this process, some of us may have a hard time finding a balance between separation and enmeshment, learning to trust or mistrust parents, authority figures, friends, and love interests.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend use an architectural analogy for the importance of boundaries: relationships are made up of walls, doors, and windows.

I imagine my own house that has a wide porch, a small yard, and a sidewalk. Nearly anyone is welcome to hang out on my porch. The amount of trust and intimacy in our relationship determines where someone can go after that. Friends can come inside and have a drink. Close friends and family can hang out in the kitchen, or even walk into our messy rooms. Only a very few are welcome into bedrooms or private areas. People I trust may even be welcome to walk into the house unannounced. But if I do not trust someone or they have malicious intent, they may not even be welcome in my yard.

In our spiritual life during this contentious political time, I see a grand renegotiation of so many boundaries. There has been a massive loss of public trust. We have changed our opinions about acquaintances and even family. Many people are struggling with what kind of boundaries they need to apply.

Jesus’s call to refrain from judgment sometimes seems to push against the call to honor our own boundaries and protect our energy. I suspect that when Jesus was preaching these two lessons, he had in mind a certain religious tendency to offer unwanted help and correction. “I know you think you’re helping, but please shut up,” could be one way to paraphrase this lesson. “It’s good neither for you nor the other person.”

I do not think this takes away from our duty and calling to forgive others, promote love, and challenge injustice, but it reminds us that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to choose not to interact with someone.

Love that lights up the universe, thank you for the shelter of healthy boundaries. Help us to be hospitable and secure, so we may live and love without fear.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.