The Importance of Boundaries in Healing


Shelby was working as a first responder when she signed up for a Tribe group that met at the church she attended. She said very little during the first few meetings but slowly began to open up as the program progressed. She shared with the group that she was going through a divorce from her high school sweetheart after discovering that he was cheating on her. Not only did Shelby’s husband have no intention of ending the affair, but he’d announced that he was leaving her for the other woman. Shelby also told the group about how her father had died when she was a child, a point at which her young life changed had forever.

When the eight-week Tribe session ended, Shelby inquired about receiving additional help through individual therapy. In the individual sessions that followed, she told me that one of her barriers to healing was alcohol. Her drinking problem began years ago at age thirteen when her father was first diagnosed with cancer. Alcohol became her coping mechanism—a habit that persisted for many years.

Shelby’s father passed away less than a year after he was diagnosed, leaving her devastated. She went from being daddy’s little angel to receiving little to no comfort from other family members. She generally felt dismissed and forgotten, essentially unheard by the rest of her family.

The only attention Shelby did receive came from those in her social circle. They were impressed by how much alcohol she could down, so she embraced a new identity as a party girl. Her ability to consume liquor became a badge of honor. She was convinced that she was more fun to be around when she was drinking. The further she drifted from her family, the more time she spent with her high school boyfriend. With no father figure in her life, this young man became Shelby’s anchor. He did everything with her and supported her when her family didn’t. His firm commitment to her in high school made his later betrayal that much more devastating.

After her husband left her, Shelby experienced a degree of anger she hadn’t felt since her father’s passing. She was angry at God over her dad’s death; she was angry at her family for not supporting her; she was angry at the man she had loved so much; she was angry at herself for not getting over all of it. As we continued with Shelby’s treatment, we worked through her anger, her alcohol use, and forgiving both her ex-husband and her family.

Shelby, however, denied that her drinking was much of a problem. Many people will continue in a state of denial until they have no other choice—until the realities of life force them to consider the seriousness of their situation.

In Shelby’s case, she refused to acknowledge the impact of her alcohol consumption until she was charged with driving while under the influence. This became her lightbulb moment, although probably not in the way she would have liked. She lost not only her job as a result but also the house she had recently purchased. At first, she responded with more anger—anger at her ex-husband, anger at God, anger at herself. Yet hitting rock bottom led her to study the Bible more. And the more she poured herself into Christian teachings, the more she was able to let God soothe her anger.

For years, Shelby had used alcohol to numb her feelings, but now she was determined to deal with her emotions and memories head-on. She eventually realized that she could both have fun and be fun without drinking. For the first time in years, Shelby experienced her emotions free from the haze of alcohol. She felt empowered, more confident, and healthier overall. When she let go of the anger she felt toward her ex- husband, it was like a great weight was lifted from her chest. Most important, she let go of her anger toward God. She realized that He was for her and not against her.

He had actually been with her, loving her, all along.

For years, Shelby believed that drinking helped her integrate into her community—that it was actually a benefit to her relationships. She felt like she needed this community. Therefore, her alcohol consumption was a major barrier to healing. Once that barrier was removed, Shelby was able to deal with the whirlwind of emotions stirred up by the loss of her father, her husband, and her career. She learned to distinguish between her true friends—the ones who wanted the best for her—and her “party” friends. She established boundaries in her relationships to help preserve her health and to keep herself from situations where she would succumb to temptation.

Shelby continued to improve as she found supportive people who cared about her. She gave up her party-girl persona and adopted a new identity as a beloved daughter of

God. She reconnected with her family and shared how she was hurt by their actions following her father’s death. Her family members sincerely apologized, and Shelby was able to achieve reconciliation and improved relationships with them. She eventually obtained an even better job than the one she’d had before, and she remains sober to this day.

Shelby overcame her relational barriers and achieved healing by . . .

Developing boundaries.

Clear and consistent boundaries are vital to building healthy relationships. Since alcohol was a major barrier for Shelby, developing healthy boundaries meant she needed to associate with people who didn’t encourage her to drink—people who respected her needs and concerns. (A great resource on the importance of defining and enforcing these borders is the book Boundaries by psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend.)

Feeling heard.

It is important to know that others hear us, see us, and accept us. Shelby needed encouragement in her ongoing fight for wholeness. She needed to know that she was an integral part of her community and society and that her voice mattered. When people feel unheard, they either shrink further into isolation or end up fighting for others’

attention, often in maladaptive ways.

Finding a safe space.

Everyone needs to decompress at some point, and that usually requires a safe space to vent freely. For those with a history of trauma, feeling trapped typically induces an intense drive to fight, flee, or freeze. Feeling trapped is a reminder of previous trauma—moments wherein escape was impossible and the unconscious desire to survive kicked in. At these moments, executive functioning,

planning, clarity, and decision-making skills go out the window. Shelby found a safe space in the Tribe group, where she could talk about her relationship troubles as well as her

alcohol use. Before she opened up to the group, Shelby didn’t realize just how often she turned to alcohol as a means of escape. Once she learned to share her struggles at Tribe, she was also able to find quiet, safe spaces at home where she could reduce the noise, refocus, and connect with God.

Pursuing purpose.

Shelby needed to know that God was for her and had a purpose and plan for her specifically. Most of us want to know that we are valued in our community and are appreciated members of society. This is even more important when considered through the perspective of eternity. Shelby needed a reason to wake up in the morning, to work hard, to do what was right. Once she found that reason in God, it was no longer devastating when people failed her or her plans went awry. Shelby found a greater purpose and mission. When people recognize the goodness of God and the truth that He delights in them, their need for attention and affirmation loses its power and fades into the background.

Forgiving and being forgiven.

Achieving reconciliation with God and others is key to maintaining the health of our souls. The more we compare the depth of our own darkness to the unconditional forgiveness that God offers, the more we open up to forgiving others. Forgiveness is like debt. Each time someone wrongs us, they accrue debt toward us. We can choose to hold them to that debt or let it go. We hold them responsible for it by withholding things like love, attention, acceptance, respect, and appreciation. The longer we withhold forgiveness, the greater the weight of the debt, as well as the risk that the debt will eventually bury us in resentment and bitterness. Shelby needed to forgive her family members, including some who had no idea what they’d done, in order to find freedom. She needed to let go of her past in order to demonstrate God’s grace to others.

unshackled book

Adapted from Unshackled by Dr. Elizabeth Stevens. Copyright © (Copyright Year). Used by permission of Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

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