Best of Messy Grace Family Parenting relationships

How to Deal When People Disrespect Your Boundaries

How to Deal When People Disrespect Your Boundaries

My young friend Thomas has the most controlling parents I’ve ever seen (and my parents were about as strict as they come).

Tommy raised his two younger siblings because his parents couldn’t be bothered with it. He helped with homework, made sure their teeth were brushed, and got them to bed, night after night. But no one would have ever known it, because Tommy was raised to “honor your father and mother" (which meant to never question authority or complain about how hard your life is).

Tommy’s family has been a part of my childhood church even longer than me. They’re staples of the community; but because of the fear-based theology that the congregation is steeped in, Tommy’s family—like countless others—were scared of anything that felt good, smelled good, looked good, or tasted good. Because anything that good just had to be a sin.

Much like me, during ministry school (which is sponsored by our home church and hosted there), Tommy began to ask lots of questions. He also began to struggle with his mental health. But he was afraid to go to either church leadership or his parents. So Tommy’s deconstruction and his mental anguish grew alongside each other, nudging him further into a black hole of loneliness and secrecy. 

One Sunday afternoon, I got a friend request from Tommy. “Man, I don’t know if you even remember me—” (I did) “—but I could really use someone to talk to, and I think you might understand.”

Well, I had no clue what to expect, because all the background information I gave you above, I learned after the fact. Sadly, like so many evangelical families I know, Tommy’s family did a great job of playing the church game, wearing their Sunday smiles, and going home to misery, fear, and control the rest of the week.

The day Tommy contacted me, he was so distraught that he confessed his suicidal thoughts to the pastor after church, only to get a fill-in-the-blank prayer and “Call the church office sometime this week and we’ll set up a time to talk. Just keep praying, dude. God can heal the mind of the afflicted...”

No one should leave a conversation with their pastor feeling worse than when they started talking, but that’s exactly what happened to Tommy. He sat in the church parking lot for an hour, talking to someone from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, because his pastor was either too clean to get his hands dirty with an actual hurting person, or he was just that clueless.

​No one should leave a conversation with their pastor feeling worse than when they started talking. - via @iamsteveaustin

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​In the past year, Tommy has left ministry school, found a new job, and is preparing to move around the world to start over. He’s leaning into his deconstruction, and—until his upcoming move—regularly eats dinner around our kitchen table (which would give his mom and dad a stroke). 

The advice Tommy clings to after realizing his family couldn’t accept him as-is and he had outgrown his church family, is this: “Now you get to choose your own family.” And if you have a family that is no longer safe, supportive, or loving to you, I’m really sorry. But you get to choose your own family now, too.

Boundaries: Walls ​or Fences?

During my time on the psych ward, we couldn't have our cell phones and had specific times when we could make phone calls to our approved "safe people." We were only allowed to engage with our support system during those days - and I was shocked to learn that your immediate family doesn't have to be your default support system

Sometimes, family isn't safe.

So, what do you do with the people in your life you can't completely shut out? As I said in From Pastor to a Psych Ward, when you can't build walls, learn to make a fence.

How to Deal When People Disrespect Your Boundaries

​Your immediate family doesn't have to be your default support systemSometimes, family isn't safe. - via @iamsteveaustin

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Maybe you're struggling with this behavior in your parents or a lifelong friend. Or perhaps the relationship is with the church where you've invested so much time and energy over the years, but it just never quite seems to meet your needs when the going gets tough.

Today, I want to challenge you to fight back against your shame via a few positive, personal affirmations:

I don't need others to fix me.

I get to choose who I let into my deep spaces.

I will find a balance between building walls and setting boundaries.

I will not sacrifice my truth to make others feel better.

Want to take it a step further? Write these down in your journal, and add to them any time you think of a new, affirming truth about yourself.

Hear me: you deserve relationships that make you feel safe to raise controversial questions, share about your mental illness, come out of the closet, or expose deep wounds. 

You don't have to be surrounded by or deeply connected to people who don't support you. Surround yourself with people who are in your corner and believe in you. If a relationship doesn't feel safe, it probably isn't safe. And if it isn't safe, it isn't love. And you deserve love.

​Questions to consider:

  1. Who in your life right now would make up your “chosen family”?
  2. If that list is shorter than you would like (though remember, rarely do we need fifty deeply close people; two or three will do), consider letting yourself branch out a bit. Could you join a local hiking group, or a book club, or try a class at the local yoga studio, and start meeting people in your area?
  3. Who are the people (or places or organizations) that make you feel like you have to shrink back from your story? ​Make a list.

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By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.

  • Steve, this is amazing. Simple, but so profound, OH SO EASILY dismissed by those who still don’t know they lack boundaries (I did it for years). I am sharing this article and the rest of your work far and wide. Thank you.