I was spending a quiet Sunday evening in my sewing room when the message alert came.
As I read it, I became nauseated. A distant relative, one I haven’t seen in almost a decade, was clearly angry about something I’d posted earlier in the day (this article for Daughters of Unloving Mothers).
My relative’s intent wasn’t restoration, but to shame me. She questioned my loyalty and love for my mother. She scoffed at my Christianity. She derided my deceased father for his alcoholism. It was pure contempt.
I was shocked by her hostility, as we’d never had anything but positive encounters before, and only a handful of times.
Since she wasn’t asking me to do anything, I could have chosen to ignore the message. I could have blocked her from contacting me. Or, I could have written an apology to try to mollify her anger.
But I hadn’t done anything wrong. The shame she was trying to put on me was definitely misplaced. So instead, I chose to set a boundary.
If you deal with others putting unmerited shame on you as well, there are ways to keep it from sinking in and doing further damage to your already wounded heart. Setting a boundary is like shame repellant.
Here are three things to remember when setting a boundary:
Remind yourself of the truth
I informed my relative of a hard truth I’d realized a few years before. The public perception of relationships isn’t always the way they actually are. In my case, I’d learned to pretend things were good in order to avoid more trouble. But that path had taken me to a dark place.
Whether the other person is able to accept the truth or not, writing it out or talking it over with someone you trust reinforces it in your mind and heart. Every situation is different, and it may not be productive to share that truth with the one who needs a boundary. Sometimes they see their mistake, and sometimes it only escalates the problem, so you’ll have to decide what’s best in each case.
Be Kind, But Firm
It’s hard to insist that you’re treated respectfully, especially if you’ve been treated disrespectfully all your life and you’re just learning how to live without the shame and feelings of worthlessness. It may take more than one draft for you to write out your needs before you share them.
In my case, I asked for respectful correspondence and that my motives not be judged before she knew all the facts. I made sure to focus on her choices, not who she is as a person. We must resist the temptation to fling shame back. Boundary setting is like spraying bug spray on ourselves; I’m not advocating an assault on the other person with a big can of bug killer.
Make Sure You’re Ready to Enforce It
If you make a firm but kind request, the other person has a choice about whether to honor it or not. If they don’t, and you keep allowing the disrespect (or whatever negative behavior meant to shame you), it will be all the harder for you to convince them you mean it the next time.
Having a plan about how to enforce the boundary (whether it be lessening or cutting contact altogether) helps you to stay clear of the shame. Remember that boundaries actually help preserve the relationship, or what’s left of it. You’re doing the other person a kindness by offering an opportunity for them to see that their behavior is hurtful.
I know from personal experience that if the other person choses not to honor your request, it can be painful to accept their choice. But we can only control our own choices, and the least painful choice in the long run is to do what you said you’d do.
Living a Shame-Free Life
Creating boundaries is a good way to begin building up a support system of people who treat you with respect and kindness.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t heal a wound if someone keeps ripping off the scab. I have found it to be true in my own life. Getting yourself to a safe place where you can heal sometimes takes acts of courage you never thought you’d muster.
Without the negative voices pulling you down, you’ll be able to hear the healing voices who want to lift you up.
It’s hard emotional work sometimes. But in the end, the person you become without the weight of shame is free to fulfill the purpose God created you for.
The process of forgiveness begins.
Healthy relationships thrive.
You learn to love freely, because you embrace the love the Creator of the Universe has given you.
If you’re struggling with throwing off the shame and learning to set boundaries in the process, please know that there’s a peaceful life waiting for you on the other side.
Want to read more on the topic? Michele Cushatt wrote a great blog about her experience as well.