Why We Need Boundaries: Recognizing When You Just Can’t Change Things

by | Dec 5, 2018 | Resolving Conflict | 23 comments

Boundaries with Family Members at Christmas

December means Christmas. Christmas often means family. And family often reminds us that we really need boundaries. 

I like to dedicate the Wednesdays in a month to a particular theme, and this month I wanted to talk about boundaries with family members–including some with your spouse. And I had this great post all planned out to go out today.
But then I hit a huge snag. And I’d like to tell you about it, because it taught me a good lesson, too. Besides, it’s a good story.
A few months ago my husband and my mom and I decided that we’d really like to travel to Costa Rica. Mom had done some mission trips there in the early 2000s, and really wanted to see the country with us. And my husband was all on board because he’s a huge birdwatcher, and the birds are incredible there. My mom’s 75, but she’s in amazing shape (it’s kind of pathetic, actually. She gets less winded walking up hills than I do). So we’ve decided that we’re going to do a lot of trips in the next little while, while she’s still active. (That sounds way more morbid than I meant it to).
We saved up some credit card points, booked our flights, and headed down for 8 days.
We had an amazing time, and I want to make it clear that the story that I have to tell should in no way reflect badly on Costa Rica. I honestly think Costa Rica is the best country we’ve ever vacationed in. In many ways it’s perfect. It’s not really third world at all; there’s a thriving middle class. The country is actually getting better. The roads are better. The schools are amazing. They’re doing everything they can to preserve the environment. The people are friendly. And the prices are still relatively low.
Plus there are sloths. We saw sloths! Not in a zoo. And we saw so many birds!

I’m not going to post the pictures, but Keith has a ton on his Flickr account. You can see monkeys and crocs and lots of birds (and me) here.
Anyway, it was probably the best trip I’ve had south. I’m not a sit-on-the-beach kind of gal. I’d rather do things. And all the nature trails in the rainforest at one of our resorts just made the place a paradise.

I highly, highly recommend this little nation.

And the way that they’re preserving the rainforest is just great. (by the way, I’m now dedicated to buying organic bananas and pineapple, when I never was before. That’s what’s killing the rainforest).

Anyway, all was well until it was time to return home with Air Canada.

We were supposed to depart Monday morning at 9:20 am. At 4 am my husband got a text that the flight was delayed 8 hours, so we stayed in our hotel for the morning and headed to the airport about 2. Soon the flight was delayed another two hours. Then another. They obviously had no idea what was going on.
It turns out it was due to “weather conditions”–you know, that weather when the sky is sunny with a lovely breeze. Planes were landing and taking off all around us, but Air Canada had diverted the night before because of fog, and was trying to bring their plane back to San Jose, and kept circling, but didn’t land.
They gave us vouchers for dinner (at one of two restaurants in the airport; there were 300 of us to line up in single lines at two fast food restaurants). They wouldn’t tell us anything. And finally, at around 8:00, Air Canada texted everyone to say the flight was cancelled. The crew on the ground then scrambled to figure out what to do with us. They rented huge buses to take us to hotels. They had the families with kids or people over 65 go on the first bus (thank you, Mom, for being a senior citizen!), and everyone else took later buses.
All the buses went to one hotel, where there were two agents to check us in. Each bus took about an hour to process. We got our room at 9:15. Apparently some people didn’t get theirs until 1. They were standing in line at the hotel until 1 in the morning when the flight had been cancelled at 8. And many of them had been at the airport since 6 that morning, since they hadn’t received the text that the flight was delayed beforehand.
They gave us coupons to eat breakfast at Denny’s, which was 24 hours and attached to the hotel. And then announced that the shuttle would pick us up at 6:45 am to take us to the airport for the 10:45 flight.
(Our bus wasn’t actually informed of the shuttle time. We were told “it might be 7 or 8”. So we came down at 6:20 and found that most people had already eaten. We thought we’d be early, and instead we were the last on the buses after going to Denny’s. They told us they would notify us of the shuttle time; they didn’t. Some people had to be woken up.)
All 300 of us got to the airport at roughly the same time, and had to wait in this massive line at the airport.
It was all just so very frustrating. There was no reason that Air Canada couldn’t have sent us to four different hotels to make check in much faster. There was no reason that they couldn’t have sent buses at staggered times, so that those who got their rooms at 1 didn’t have to leave their hotel until 8:30. Seriously, we all just stood in line at the airport for 2 1/2 hours, because we all got there at exactly the same time. It made no sense. It was easier on them, but much harder on us.
One family was travelling with an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old, and my mom made friends with the 3-year-old and occupied her during many of the waiting periods. In fact, we really bonded with many of the travellers.
Boundaries with Family Members: Our trip to Costa Rica
But it was still very, very tiring. The most aggravating thing was that Air Canada wasn’t up front with us all day on Monday. They kept saying, “the plane will be landing in 20 minutes,” but the plane never materialized. And at a certain point it was clear they’d have to cancel the flight anyway, because the pilot can’t fly for that many hours in a row and would have to take an 8 hour break. They should have told us. They were obviously trying to prevent a riot, but it would have been much better just to be honest.
I truly hate Air Canada at this point. We had a horrible experience with them flying to Nairobi in August for our missions trip. The flight itself was fine; checking in took 6 hours, and it was entirely the fault of how the employees were organizing the airport. It was ridiculous. If I can avoid Air Canada in the future, I definitely will. Their employees do not use common sense or go above and beyond.
And that really brings me to what I want to say today.
Many times on my trip I had to keep repeating to myself, “this is not my issue.” Whenever I see something that is a problem, I automatically try to fix it. On the trip it usually was nothing major, and I just had to train myself to not get involved. But in this whole airline fiasco, what was really grating is that they were making things worse, and it was so obvious how it could be done better.
It was obvious how the check in at the hotel could have been done better. It was obvious how they could have arranged us for shuttles better. Yesterday, at the airport, it was obvious how they could have processed us more quickly. And I just wanted to go and try to organize things myself. But that wouldn’t have worked.

Sometimes you have to endure things because, even though it is clear to you that others are being stupid, there is absolutely nothing you can do to change things.

I had to decide that instead of stewing (done that) or standing up on a chair in an airport and leading a revolt (did that in Nairobi back in 2006; it worked too); or demanding certain things of airlines (done that plenty of times); I was just going to relax as much as possible and talk to those around me in line. So we got to know the couple heading back to Newfoundland; the couple who had a guest home in Costa Rica; the man whose son had been treated for a brain tumour at a Toronto hospital when Keith was working there; this family with the two kids. We just got through it.
At Christmas you will likely encounter some family members who are doing really stupid things. It will be obvious to you how they should change to make their lives work better. The younger brother who just needs to stop playing video games and get a job. The sister who needs to stop dating jerks–or break up with the one she’s with. The mother who needs to grow a spine–or maybe the mother who needs to start being nicer because she’s pushing all her grandchildren away. And so on and so on and so on.
Sometimes people make stupid choices.

But when we carry the weight of other people’s choices, we don’t change anything.

We just add to our own burdens when there’s nothing that we can do.
I have a family member that I love dearly who has made some poor choices. I so want this person to thrive in life, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. I keep texting and reaching out. I want this person to know that they are loved. But I can no longer obsess over it, because it isn’t good for my mental health. I can pray and I can love, but I can’t change anything.
Creating Healthy Boundaries: Sometimes you have to let go

God put in us a deep desire to see justice done.

He created us with a purpose, to have a life where we make a difference, use our gifts, and learn to love.

Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.     And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy     and to walk humbly with your God.

We were created to act justly. When we get frustrated at Air Canada for not being upfront and for creating problems for people (seriously, how could they have let older people stand in line for four hours until early morning, and then another 3 at the airport)? That isn’t part of justice. That isn’t part of how the world is supposed to work. When we see it as wrong, it’s because we do reflect God’s values.
But it’s what we do with that information afterwards that counts. Sometimes things are bad, but we can’t do anything. And then it’s time to just relax, talk to those around you, and love those you can. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t try to overthrow the Roman government, even though it was wrong. He just made a difference–a huge one–by loving those around Him, and by letting God’s will be done in His death.
I actually didn’t have all that bad a day at the airport on Monday and yesterday. I knit. I read some books. I got to know some good people. And it was okay.
Let’s talk this month about how to let go when you can’t change things. And maybe I’ll write that epic post that was supposed to be published today soon!
What do you think? Have you ever been in a frustrating situation that you can’t change? How do you step back? Let’s talk in the comments!
P.S.: Don’t fly Air Canada!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Sheila Wray Gregoire

    It’s like Air Canada is the United Airlines of Canada! Which is ironic since they’re the ones who share the points, etc. They’re linked. (I watched all the United Breaks Guitars videos again last night, too, since this whole thing reminded me of that!).

  2. Phil

    Good morning Sheila – Grace and I took a trip holy cow like it was over 20 years ago when we were still dating. We flew from Allentown PA to Kansas City Missouri. The connection flight was in Pittsburgh. (Hi Joanna!) That flight was the worst flight I have ever been on in my life! The turbulence was unbelievable. Sometimes it felt like we were dropping 10 ft and it would slam us around. It was pretty scary actually. They ended up diverting us to like Erie or something. We didn’t get to Pittsburgh until well after our connection flight and the storm had pretty much screwed up and shut down everyone’s flights for multiple hours. 200 people standing in line to try to get vouchers for hotels. The people were coming off the line from the desk with nothing. They weren’t going to do anything for us. Best we knew we were stranded in the airport for the night. So we went outside and made friends with people by complaining! We pooled our money and I found a cabbie who had connections and he said he would find us a room. This is way before the days of whip out your cell phone and google it. This guy had all the hotels in his cell phone because he worked them. He called and got us a hotel. It was a hike of 20 mins or so because everything around the airport was jammed from all the passengers from the entire airport. Then we had the guy come back and pick us up at 5am. We only got maybe 5 hours of sleep but you know what? So valuable. It cost us $60 for cab fees and $100 for the hotel but so worth not trying to go with the flow. I hate flying. I used to fly a lot before and a little after 9/11 but all my tricks don’t work anymore and ALL the airlines suck lol. Except Quantas. When we get into mass issues with planes we run. I will eat the costs myself for the peace and serenity whatever I can get to avoid the crap. Anyway – that is what we are doing this Christmas LOL. We are staying in a hotel to stay clear of family issues. We will be in town and if family wants to meet with us that’s great! If not we certainly understand and will see you next time! You know what’s funny about this year? We decided to stay in a hotel and our inlaws followed suit and actually decided to pay for our stay! YEAH! Gratitude folks. I should be grateful for all the gifts God gives me and the ability to do the things we do. This story falls under another post. Give a gift of a trip. We were not headed North this Christmas. We have been up there enough this year. My Daughter asked to see her grandparents and her friends for her birthday. How could we say no?

  3. CJ

    How do I keep myself from jumping in to fix everything?
    Repeat after me: Not my pig. Not my barn. Or if you prefer…Not my Circus. Not my Monkey.
    It doesn’t always work 😉

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Love that!

    • Carrie

      It doesn’t always work, but it helps.
      Not my monkey, not my monkey….

    • E

      I have to ask myself, ‘is this in my hoop?’ I got that off an interview on the God Centred Mom podcast ages ago, I can’t remember the interviewee, but it was all about ‘stay in your own hoop’.

  4. Thalia

    This is a great message. I had to put these boundaries in place with my mother after my second child was born about two years ago. I was stressed all the time trying to manage the life and choices of another grown woman. Stepping back and focusing on my life and letting go of that control (which I didn’t want anyway) did wonders for my mental and emotional health.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, exactly! You can’t fix your mother’s life. And your kids need you now. I think the other good thing about letting go of control is it lets you truly enjoy people where they’re at. When you’re always feeling responsible for making them get better, then you can’t enjoy them for who they are. I’m always amazed at how much Jesus enjoyed imperfect people. He wasn’t always saying, “You need to fix this.” He just enjoyed them. Now, when asked questions He also corrected people, and He certainly corrected his disciples. But He also spent a lot of time just hanging out with people. That’s cool. We forget that, I think.

  5. Ashley

    I am much too bothered by stupid people! I should bookmark this!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think it’s the curse of the ENTJ personality (at least in my case that’s the problem!)

  6. Susanna

    Thank you for this post, this is somthing that I’m struggling with a lot. It’s really hard to let go and to understand that God doesn’t need my help and he can take care of it without me stressing about it

  7. Sarah Nelson

    “It will be obvious to you how they should change to make their lives work better.” Really? Does one person really, truly know another person so extremely well that they can be afforded the audacity to know how to fix another person’s life? Like my mother, who, even though I am happily married almost 28 years with 3 wonderful children and a blessed life, still believes she knows better how to make my life perfect from the disaster she oddly believes it to be?
    I find way too many people falsely believe they have the answers for others around them; that if so and so would just do this his/her problems would magically disappear. That is arrogance. No one, absolutely no one, fully understands another person’s life. No one has the right to pass judgment on another. Biting your tongue doesn’t make it okay, doesn’t make it Christian acceptance. Judge not lest ye be judged. Take the log out of your own eye before removing the splinter from mine. I take serious issue with anyone who thinks they have the knowledge to fix someone else and try to put a Christian spin on it. To be Christian is to love, accept, empathize, have compassion for, be present, and sacrifice for. That’s it. God fixes. Not us.
    This started off as a great article. Boundaries are important. They start with the ears, are drawn in the heart, and have the potential to bring people together. Once human judgment sets in, the boundaries get erased.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Sarah, I understand what you’re saying, but sometimes we just do feel like we know how to fix someone’s life. We just do. I think that’s human nature, and also comes with experience. That doesn’t mean that we’re right; only that it seems blatantly obvious to many of us. (Of course, we could very well be wrong; and there are often things that we don’t know about that would change the dynamic).
      But the point is the same. Even if you do feel that you know how to make things better, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. So it’s better to step back and just enjoy people where they’re at.

  8. Clairetta

    This week was the last straw. We had to make a very difficult decision to stop all communication with my stepson, who has been abusive to the point of causing heartbreak, especially for his father.
    I won’t go into detail. I will only say this, and this is, biblically, correct, it is correct to judge others when they are not Christians and someone decides to live his life only to hurt and bully others. He claims to be more loving than we are, even though we took him in 8 times. Each time, he would start out being respectful, but shortly, he would start up again and try to take over our whole household.
    We tolerated his behavior for 18 years, which started with him trying to poison me with his medicine. NO more. We deserve peace and quiet, not constant turmoil. Hopefully, some day, he will come to understand that trying to bully people into accepting his life choices will only cause separation and constant upheaval. Until that time, he will continue to be miserable. Sadly, again, it is his choice.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Clairetta! That must be such a sad situation, especially for your husband. But you’re right–you can’t change someone, and sometimes they do have to feel the consequences of their actions.

  9. Janell

    Sorry, Sheila! This isn’t a comment for you…but I showed Keith’s pictures from your Costa Rica trip to my kids and they loved them. We had just been talking about sloths (!) and I knew right where to find a picture. Thank him for us!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Will do! Some of the sloths we saw were just sleeping (which is what they usually do), so we were thrilled to see the one awake and looking at us!

  10. Lena

    I would love some good advice about dealing with difficult in-laws. A mother in law who doesn’t accept you and absolutely adores her son (to the point of interfering and going way past marital boundaries, all in the name of being “helpful”). A father in law who bullies and manipulates my husband, but who is impossible to talk anything through with. The holidays definitely bring out the worst, but these are things my husband and I are dealing with regularly, and we need some tips! Boundaries sound heavenly! 😄

  11. Anon this time

    Hey Sheila, thank you for this timely message. I’m having to trust God in a situation where I feel like I’ve done all that I can. Sadly, my brother and I have cut communication with each other. We have had a broken relationship for years. I’ve really tried to apologize and make right my wronging him in the past. He brings up things that happened when we were kids over and over. He has full-blown meltdowns at the drop of a hat. This past time he was literally rolling on the floor crying and yelling. Each time he has a meltdown like this I apologize for what I’ve done and each time I felt like this time might bring closure…but it never seems to help. If anything this has escalated over the years.
    I feel terrible about it but I had to draw the line, for my own mental health’s sake. Its hard for me to do so because I truly feel that if you’ve done wrong, you should be the one to apologize and put forth effort to fix the relationship. But I feel that I’ve been trying for years and his outbursts only escalate. Each time is so deeply painful and troubling for me, because I still feel guilty about hurting him in the past. (I want to clarify that he feels I was mean to him and bossed him around and he felt belittled…just so that you know this doesn’t involve physical or sexual abuse!)
    My husband and I did not celebrate Thanksgiving with the rest of my family and now I’m thinking we probably won’t do Christmas with them either. Its a hard decision because my family does a big Christmas celebration every year with specific traditions and such. I really don’t want to upset or offend the rest of my family, but I also don’t want to see my brother. Obviously we could just try to call a truce for the holiday, but I don’t trust that he’ll stay composed and the worst thing ever would be an incident in front of everyone. Plus I want to be relaxed for Christmas, not tense. At the same time it makes me really sad to be away from everyone else. My husband isn’t particular at all with holidays – he grew up in a split home without must tradition or regularity even, so he doesn’t care what we do.
    Sorry this is an incredibly long comment. What do you think Sheila? How many times should you apologize to someone who isn’t willing to work towards forgiveness with you? When are you no longer guilty for things you want to make right? Also, my parents and our other siblings know what’s going on, but my extended family do not…should they be explicitly told what is happening or should I just say that I’m spending Christmas with my husband’s family?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s hard! I think what your brother is doing right now sounds very manipulative. If he feels as if you haven’t done enough to make amends, he can tell you. But having meltdowns doesn’t do anything. Sometimes you do need to draw boundaries, and I’d just make it clear to your own family why you’re doing this. That’s so tough!
      As for who you should tell, I think it’s okay to say, “we’ve chosen to spend Christmas elsewhere this year, but we’ll miss you and we’d love an opportunity to get together another time” or something like that. I think if you spell it out with people who aren’t directly involved, that can get very messy. But giving people the message, “we love you and we want to see you” is still a much needed one!

  12. Brievel

    “Sometimes you have to endure things because, even though it is clear to you that others are being stupid, there is absolutely nothing you can do to change things.” That’s a lesson I have to learn over and over and over… 😛
    I make it a point to not fly – ever – but if I were to do so I would use Southwest Airlines. They’re the only ones I hear anything good about anymore.


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