I find that there is often confusion about the difference between a wall and a boundary. Too often, what people believe is a wall is actually a boundary, and what they believe is a boundary becomes a wall. How do I distinguish between a wall I keep walking into and a boundary that allows me to walk in light and freedom? There are some vital distinctions.

Case study of Abuse: Wall vs. Boundary

Lisa’s husband was verbally and physically abusive. She knew something needed to be done for the well-being of her family. She was faced with a few choices.

 1.    She could have constructed a wall. The phone conversation would have looked something like this:  You may not come near me, phone me, or contact me in any way. I don’t want to see you, and I don’t want to be part of your life. You’re so messed up that you can’t even see what you’re doing to yourself, to me, or the kids. So don’t even think about coming back to me. It’s not going to happen.

 2.    She could have constructed a healthy boundary. That call to her husband would have sounded like this: I’ve decided that I need to make some changes. I need to be separate from you for a while. If you can’t honor that, then I will take our children and live in a safe place. I’ve decided that conversation with you is destructive, both to the children and me. So until you’ve gotten help, I won’t be taking phone calls from you or answering the door when you come. I don’t want to file a restraining order, but if that’s what I have to do, I will. When you’re willing to get help, I would love to talk with you about our kids and our future.

The latter course is the course Lisa took, and her attitude, along with her suggestion of a possibly restraining order, was a wake-up call to her husband. He immediately saw the rules of the game had changed; he could no longer have his way with her. He had to make a couple of decisions: first, to stay away from her; and second, to get some help if there was to be any hope of them getting back together again. That was something he wanted badly, now that he saw how easily he could lose her forever. He became willing to get the treatment that would tear down the walls that kept him trapped in anger and rage. And it was all because Lisa finally set a boundary.

A wall confines you to a past that cannot be changed and to a future of more of the same. A boundary can open up the future, because it marks a change from the way things have gone in the past. Both provide some type of protection, but the protection of a wall limits all the positive outcomes, whereas the boundary has unlimited potential to secure a future of hope and healing.

On one hand, the wall means living as if the painful past must continue to be a present reality. It means living as if all the pain that was experienced as a five-year-old must still be experienced as a thirty-five-year-old. The wall gives no recognition of the fact that time has moved on. Strength has developed, and the things that were feared at five no longer have power at thirty-five, if one lives as an adult and not a child.

Fear of all men at five might be helpful for survival to a girl who was abused at that age. But fear of all men at thirty-five is not helpful at all. It locks one inside the walls of the past, creating a self-imposed but needless prison, confining a person to attitudes and limitations that have no basis in reality and need not be perpetuated.

A boundary, on the other hand, is not a wall; it is a line in the sand, a line you draw around yourself that prevents the pain and suffering of the past from perpetuating itself. It is a stance that calls for action on your part if it is not honored. It is a statement of what I will do, what I have chosen, and what will be the outcome on my part, whether or not the other person gets the help or makes the changes needed.

Walls are used to make demands on the other person or nag him about the changes he must make. This approach merely causes the other person to build more defenses. A boundary works much more positively. It challenges the other person to drop the defenses and look at what needs to be changed.

I know I cannot change my past. I can only do what I can today to make a way for a better future. Any focus I have on the past that causes me shame and distraction is going to hurt the future I am creating with my daily decisions. If I build a wall around my past, I am essentially protecting my past rather than me. A boundary does the opposite—it protects me today and leaves the past behind. That might mean I need to set a boundary that excludes someone who continues to bring up the past.

Walls are constructions of loneliness and isolation. They cut us off from building connection and community. But a boundary opens the door to connection with healthy individuals in a healthy community. It helps us break out of isolation, because it creates a healthy barrier, insulating us from the unhealthy elements of life.If I feel guilt, fear, or anger, there is a good chance I will build a wall to hide behind. The wall will prevent me from unleashing these emotions on others or prevent others from seeing them in me. If I can’t resolve these issues, I am almost compelled to build a wall that hides either them or me or both.

Boundaries are not built on guilt, fear, or anger. They are built because a person has discovered and acted on the truth. Boundaries grow out of new willingness to try something different that might move me out of guilt, fear, or anger. And boundaries require courage on my part. Brave people set up boundaries that lead them into new territory that is full of healthy options and meaningful relationships.

When I build a wall, it gives me a false sense of safety. I come to believe that, if my wall is strong enough, it will prevent me from being victimized again. But walls do not provide the safety one imagines. They can become so large that they crumble, allowing victimization to invade my life in other forms. Some people who think they are safely protected by their walls do not realize that their psyches have surreptitiously worked their way around the walls, exposing the very things they want to hide. Unlike a wall, a boundary actually brings authentic safety. It elicits the assistance of others when it is broken. It encourages connection to others. It provides the strength of safety in numbers, rather than the vulnerability of walled-off isolation.

When you hate yourself and fear the prospect of anyone finding out who you really are, you build a wall of defensiveness. But when you love yourself as a child of God, you construct boundaries that honor the person you are and the God who created you. Boundaries are built on self-respect and good stewardship of all the gifts God has given you. The wall merely shuts out the light that reveals and nurtures those God-given gifts and strengths.

Finally and simply, a wall is a barrier. It is a barrier between others and the secrets I want to hide. It is a barrier that keeps me out and the sickness in. It is a barrier that prevents my seeing all the good I could have, keeps me focused on all the wrong that has hurt me, and sets me up to repeat those damaging experiences yet again.

The wall is a barrier, whereas the boundary is a beginning. It is the beginning of a life that does not allow evil to be inflicted on me. It is the beginning of searching for what is best and keeping out those influences that would prevent me from moving toward it. It stops me from walking into walls and allows me to walk into the future with God and others in a healthy, life-giving community.

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Steve Arterburn is the founder and chairman of New Life Ministries and host of the #1 nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show, New Life Live!  the founder of Women of Faith conferences and serves as a teaching pastor at Heartland Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Steve is a bestselling author of books such as Every Man’s Battle and Healing is a Choice. The above excerpt is from his book Walking Into Walls. Steve resides with his family in Fishers, Indiana.