setting limitsSetting Limits Helps More than it Hurts

A butterfly comes from a cocoon. Most of us know this. I heard a story about a man who helped a butterfly out of the cocoon. The butterfly’s remained deformed and it could not fly. I have since read several versions of this story. However, I was curious about the validity of the claim. It turns out that struggling to get out of the cocoon caused redistribution of fluid into the wings, allowing them to be strong enough to fly. What does this have to do with setting limits?

Taking on the butterfly’s problem would actually rob him of the ability to fly. We often think of setting limits as “being mean.” Someone asks us to do something and we say “yes.” We say “yes” when we want to say “no.” We say “yes” when we know it’s the wrong thing to do – for us and the person asking. Taking on all of someone else’s problems eventually handicaps that person. Don’t be afraid to set limits.

What does setting limits even mean?

Great question! Setting limits simply means, “I will go this far and that’s it.” It means having a boundary. Setting limits means that I understand what I can and cannot do and I also understand that others need to struggle through some things in order to be able to fly, so to speak. Setting limits allows the other person to learn, practice, and ultimately solve problems.

Why am I no good at setting limits?

Another great question that could have a number of specific answers. Allow me to be more general…

Setting limits successfully requires that I be comfortable with what I want, understand what you want, and be okay with conflicting desires. The truth is, if I need to set a limit, it will be because my desires conflict with your desires. When we’re not good at setting limits, it is usually because of fear. We’re simply afraid. Here are some common fears I hear from people in regard to setting limits:

  • He won’t like me
  • She will be mad at me
  • I will be a disappointment
  • If I can’t meet others’ needs, I am a failure
  • We’re all supposed to help others and if I don’t I am selfish
  • If I don’t help them, no one will
  • I will lose his friendship
  • She will never get any better if I don’t help

All of us have difficulty setting limits at some point. The person who chronically puts themselves (and possibly others) in bad situations needs to identify their primary fears and challenge them. Some of the statements above may very well be true. However, they also say more about the quality of the relationship before the limit was set than they do about the act of setting limits.

dayspring counseling setting limitsWhat is the value of setting limits?

There are two sides to this. On one side, setting limits allows you to have healthy boundaries. It keeps you from giving with resentment. It allows you to truly love and care for others. Giving out of fear does little more than generate resentment inside of you. With appropriate limits, you can choose to give, feel free in giving, and avoid resentment.

On the other side, there is the butterfly who needs to have strong wings. When we don’t have boundaries for others, we take all of their problems. When we do this (and most of us have), we are actually taking something away from the other person. We are taking away the opportunity to learn, to grow, to develop wisdom, and practice problem solving. If you want a butterfly to fly, let it struggle out of the cocoon. In other words, when you don’t have good boundaries, you are ultimately handicapping the other person. Being “nice,” as we call it, may actually do harm in the end.

Give out of love and never out of fear.


Have you had problems setting limits with others? What has helped you develop better boundaries?