Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Interpersonal Boundaries: A Therapist's Secret


"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."

John 6:3

I am going to let you in on a therapist's secret. It's this: you can't change another person, no matter how much you ask, beg or plead. They just won't do it. If you don't believe me, ask a spouse or a parent of a heroin addict. They'll tell you. They will have tried crying, screaming, threatening, and even manipulating their drug addicted loved one to no avail. People don't change because you ask them too; they only change when and if they want to.

Jesus knew this. You never saw him asking someone to change. He didn't try to stop Judas from selling him out (John 13:26-30). He didn't throw Peter out of the group of disciples despite Peter's immaturity (Matthew 16:22-24). He didn't even tell Martha to leave her sister, Mary, alone (Luke 10:38-41). He understood this principle and followed it. You would think that if anyone could get people to live a better life and to be nicer to those around them, it would be Jesus. After all he was "God in flesh." All the angels were at his command (Luke 4:10). He had complete control over the wind and the waves (Matthew 8:27) , why not control those around him? But he didn't. He did tell the woman caught naked and having an affair to leave her life of sin, but I don't believe that he was saying that she must change her life. Jesus showed mercy and made a recommendation. She could have taken the advice or disregarded it. Jesus didn't visit her later to see if she was being obedient. He respected her free will and left the decision to sin or not to sin up to her (John 8:1-11).

If this secret is true, then how are you suppose to manage all the hurtful and irritating people in your life?

You may not have the power to change others, but you can limit how much contact they have with you and reduce the amount of influence they have in your life. I can already hear the questions that come from this statement. How are you supposed to limit another's intrusiveness when he or she is a regular part of your life? You already have asked this person not to make comments on your life style decisions, without success. So, what are you suppose to do?

There are two ways to prevent other people from hurting you. The first method is limit your physical contact with them. This works well with individuals who are peripheral to your life. In graduate school there were professors who were known for their expertise but also for their brutal treatment of students. I consciously chose not to take their classes, despite the fact that I may have missed out on some excellent teaching. When it is possible, this is the simplest way to control difficult people.

This method doesn't work well, however, when the hurtful people are close family members or co-workers. You can decide to avoid these people, but this isn't always possible or necessarily the best course of action to take. A second and sometimes better method to manage others' intrusiveness and hurtfulness is to limit the power you give them to affect you. I have to admit this is hard to do. It means developing thicker emotional skin (see December 10th blog for more info on this topic).

Jesus was great at this. He was not bothered by the Pharisees' hatred of him. He never needed his disciples' approval before he made a decision. He didn't need the crowds to love and adore him. He didn't derive his sense of confidence and direction from the opinions or approval of those around him. He only cared about pleasing and obeying his Father, God. If we all learned to base our needs for affirmation on God, like Jesus, then we would not be hurt and insulted by those around us, even those closest to us.

This is real emotional freedom.

So, how do people change? I will talk more about that in my next blog.

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