After four decades I’m starting to learn about boundaries. My partner came into my life and introduced them to me. The hippy party scene where he’d spent some years taught him about self-respect in a way that Christianity hadn’t for me in a half life time. Quite the opposite in fact – I grew up in a loving evangelical charismatic Christian household, but now see that having boundaries wasn’t encouraged. At church we were told what to do a lot: dance and show your worship; raise your hands up to God; shout out your praise!; let go of your inhibitions; pray out loud in tongues; close your eyes (and those of you who are feeling a certain way stand up to be prayed for); fall over when you’re being prayed for; turn to the person next to you and tell them that God loves them; turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself, and on…

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Then there were freakishly terrifying passages in the Bible telling me that if I carry on deliberately sinning, or if I let my thoughts lead to actions too many times, well then it’s hellfire for me.  As a child I lived in constant low level stress; the worry that I might not ‘get in’, that I might not hear those promised words ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’. I made repeated prayers to God to please don’t let go of me, and felt a grinding worry for non-believing family and friends.

But there was a ‘Get Out of Hell Free’ card – I had to ‘die to myself.’ Denying my selfish desires was vital to nurturing a successful relationship with God – something I longed for. Two tools to help in this struggle were obedience and accountability – so I did my best to obey teachings from parents and church leaders and I kept open, accountable and malleable to guidance and direction. Only now I realise that my sweet and sincere love for God led me to a place where I was vulnerable to bending to others’ wills, suppressing my ‘sinful’ self and allowing my personal boundaries to be trespassed. When I confessed my sins, well-meaning people told me I needed to alter my behaviour. I allowed not-always-appropriate people to know personal details, who would then check up on me, and rebuke me (if fitting) and pray behaviour-inducing prayers over me. Subsequent failure to change induced a shame-cycle of repeated ‘sinning’, feeling like a failure, hiding and lying which felt terrible and only compounded things.

It all came to a head (after so many years, I do wonder why I couldn’t get here earlier) when my second marriage ended, and the church leader and his wife called round one day ‘to love and support me’. Lol. The visit took place shortly after my ex-husband had moved out and I was feeling anxious. Within a few minutes of them arriving, our time together had deteriorated into a conversation rather more interrogatory than supportive. The pair of them seemed to need to make themselves feel better, demanding more information, deeper information than I’d previously given about exactly why my marriage had ended, and they chastised me for not telling them earlier (no doubt so they could try to intervene) given that they are family. I was rapidly manoeuvred outside of my comfort zone, sharing stuff I didn’t plan to share, feeling on the back foot and anxious. Their tenacity and projected authority broke down my boundaries guarding what is private and what is precious and so I shared to the extent where I divulged information about the fact that I’d started seeing someone else, the compatibility of my marital sex life, of myself as a sexual person. I shared this with my pastor. Yes, I told my pastor what I’m like in bed.

After they left there was a big dust cloud all inside my heart and mind. Gradually after the dust settled I started to see a bit more clearly and the throbbing unhappiness and discomfort started to make itself felt. I realised I felt violated as a result of this interaction, and as a result, over the weeks I started to revisit my childhood, my upbringing and my experience of church to understand just why this happened and why I hadn’t been able to stand up to it.

Although I regularly experienced a sense of discomfort I never surfaced the idea that I had boundaries as a human being that needed respecting, first and foremost by me. I’m all for us stepping outside of our comfort zones, and being challenged and lovingly pushed to grow and self-better, and it’s scary and exhilarating. But those aren’t boundaries – boundaries are when your spirit seems to say ‘no’ or ‘not today’ and if we do it anyway we feel out of kilter or compromised, or if we let someone else do it to us we feel invaded. We have a spirit and a conscience and most of us yearn to do good. It’s okay for us to look inside for guidance, and even to find it, inside just us and with God (and a little sprinkling of gentle human feedback).

It was impossible for me to stand up to the church leader that day because no one had ever taught me that I was allowed boundaries. My upbringing paved the way for men (in particular) to walk roughshod over my boundaries, trespassing in all kinds of ways. It led to me only recognising in my forties that I should have boundaries, and not having the skills to ensure they were respected. The pastor’s wife wrote in a letter to me that my encounter with them  ‘was exactly what I needed to hear right now’. Upon reflection perhaps that’s true, perhaps it was time for me to finally see how things needed to change.

– Emma Ellenn

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