How to Recognize When You Need Boundaries

I knew a man in Florida who repeatedly ignored his car’s check-engine light. He kept driving, week after week, and finally the engine burned out. His failure to pay attention to the warning signs cost him nearly $2,000 in repairs.

Unfortunately, there is no quick, easy formula for balancing the demands of career, family, and personal time. But if you are starting to see your own internal “check-engine light” come on, then it may be time to consider making some changes with what you will and will not tolerate. You can consider this your “boundary-evaluating and boundary-setting challenge” for the month.

A good starting place to work on time management is to rethink how you can use boundaries to protect and make the most of your personal, family, and work time. Perhaps asking yourself some boundary-clarification questions like these might help:

  • At home or work, am I feeling some kind of “ouch,” such as anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, guilt, or pressure related to a specific person or situation?
  • Do the ways I’m using my time and gifts match priorities? Are my efforts the best use of my skills and time?
  • What behaviors and words from others are acceptable or unacceptable to me? What will I tolerate or not tolerate from others, or even from myself?
  • What activities or relationships should I add, drop, or change?
  • What changes to my schedule and relationships will cause the least collateral damage?

Sometimes, setting boundaries and protecting them also means changing or eliminating them. Remember the lyrics to singer Kenny Rogers’s hit song, “The Gambler”? His words have profound boundary-setting implications for some activities and relationships at work, home, and elsewhere:

Every gambler knows
that the secret to survivin’
is knowin’ what to throw away
and knowin’ what to keep …
You got to know when to hold ‘em,
know when to fold ‘em,
know when to walk away,
and know when to run.

There are times when a work project or even a family activity will need to be cut or temporarily suspended. These changes can sometimes result in harsh opposition, but they are often necessary for the long-term health of you, your family, and your job.

Remember Jesus’s teaching about the necessity of pruning fruit-bearing trees? Consider his words, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener... every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be more fruitful.” He emphasized the importance of cutting back on still-­productive trees so that they would produce even more fruit.

Though painful, pruning is often necessary for greater professional growth. Dr. James Dobson, a popular Christian author and psychologist, found this out when he set a time-use boundary that meant he had to stop teaching a very popular adult couples’ Sunday school class that he and his wife had taught for years.

His decision ruffled a lot of feathers. However, if he had tried to please others by yielding to their expectations, he would have had less time to produce the books, articles, radio shows, and other media outreaches that have now reached tens of thousands of people.

When you prune your activities, at first it may seem like a bad decision. Other people may criticize you, and you might second-guess yourself. It may be difficult to believe that your decisions will result in more success at work or a more rewarding family and personal life. Initially, your pruning efforts might even result in inner havoc. But stick with it.

There could be certain relationships or work activities that pull you from your major career focus, personal plans, or family concerns. These “diversions” can take their toll—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Setting specific boundaries on what work, church, or community meetings you’ll skip will open time for more important things.

Sometimes pruning also needs to be done on your personal or family activities, not just your work schedule. Paul hints at this when he says, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.

By setting and following clear boundaries in your personal life, you will experience increased self-confidence and inner calm, less stress, better mental and physical health, and more enjoyable relationships.

In addition, your willingness to set boundaries and stick with them will bring you a clearer sense of who you are. You will gain a new sense of self-respect because your boundaries are a strong affirmation to yourself—that you are not an object to be trampled on, but rather a human being with dignity, who is entitled to respect and fair, humane treatment.

Despite some initial opposition, in the long term you’ll receive strong benefits from setting clear “lines in the sand” and sticking to them. Your work will reap huge rewards and you’ll gain credibility through increased effectiveness.

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Boundary Setting: A Practical Guide. To learn more, please click here.

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Hi, I'm Jim. I've been through the emotional wringer. I've been a successful pastor and leader and a loving father, but I've also been suicidally depressed. I'll teach you the techniques I used to heal myself, and give you the tools to reclaim your life and move forward!

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