Value Protecting Your Inner Self

Among the great many truths which the late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen has taught is included the self-preservation of setting boundaries. He reminds himself in his own journal: "Part of your struggle is to set boundaries to your own love -- something you have never done. You give whatever people ask of you, and when they ask for more, you give more, until you find yourself exhausted, used, and manipulated."1 I lived like this for years: eager to be what everyone wanted me to be, even though what everyone wanted me to be differed, and drove me into conflictions, hypocrisy, fear, shame, guilt and feelings of inadequacy, a severe identity crisis, and insecurity. That had to cease for my own good.

If I were to become the man that a hundred different people wish of me I would be schizophrenic; I wound be a contradiction. I had to learn, relatively recently, that I am the one who has to answer for the choices I make, for the life I live, and not anyone else. I must drink my own cup of life, not the cup of any other, and no one else can drink my cup. I must value protecting my own heart, my own mind, and live my life honestly. Again, Nouwen writes, "The great task is to claim yourself for yourself, so that you can contain your needs within the boundaries of your self and hold them in the presence of those you love."2 How can I benefit others with my life-experiences if I am trying to conform myself to what a hundred different people advise me to be? Is that truly living? Is that honesty? Is that reality?

While there are those who vie to manipulate me, spiritually or otherwise, into being the kind of person that pleases their agenda, I refuse to consent, and I even do so for their own good as well as mine. For if I tried to please everyone, and tried to be what everyone else desired me to be, I would end up pleasing no one. I have to be me, with all my flaws and passions and desires and weaknesses and vices and talents and personality and unique presence, and to live thusly with everyone else in community. Nouwen insists: "True mutuality in love requires people who possess themselves and who can give to each other while holding on to their own identities. So, in order both to give more effectively and to be more self-contained with your needs, you must learn to set boundaries to your love."3 You and I can only live in harmony, experiencing mutuality, when we are being truthful about our inner selves.

Don't expect me to be who you want me to be; I won't expect you to be who I wish some of you to be. We can each strive to be better, to be perfect, to be the best selves we can be. We can each fight for what we believe to be right in the world, to be beneficial for others, and even disagree over those particular matters. We can even agree to disagree and be agreeable in that regard. Still, proper emotional boundaries need to be established, and I have decided to protect myself from certain people.

Some of you may intuit that I'm thinking about a few particular people -- perhaps even you! Actually, I'm thinking very generally, and from the perspective of what I've learned from Henri Nouwen. My encouragement to you today is that you, too, need to establish some boundaries to your own heart, to your own mind, and to think about those who are trying to influence you. If you sense that someone is trying to control you, manipulate you or tell you what to do in life, quickly consider establishing proper boundaries for your own good. Being a good person, being helpful to others, does not require you to do whatever anyone thinks you should do; you are not required to be a doormat, a slave, or an adult-child who is berated by so-called friends or family members or neighbors assuming a parental role.

Nouwen asks us to consider our inner life like a medieval castle with a moat and a large drawbridge. "The drawbridge is the only access to the interior of the castle. The lord of the castle must have the power to decide when to draw the bridge and when to let it down. Without such power, he can become the victim of enemies, strangers, and wanderers. He will never feel at peace in his own castle."4 You must realize that everyone is not, or should not be, welcome into your inner life. Some people cause you anxiety, stress, and sap the energy and inner joy right out of you. Do not let down your drawbridge to such toxic individuals. "It is important for you to control your own drawbridge. . . . Never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will. You might think that you are being generous in giving access to anyone who wants to enter or leave, but you will soon find yourself losing your soul."5 Consider, as well, that you too are not always good and helpful for all people.

Learn how to decide for yourself "to whom and when you give access to your interior life."6 Trial and error can be helpful tools. Only, don't linger in error, and suffer greatly. Understand that cutting off ties with toxic individuals is a healthy way to value protecting your inner self. If you respect and love yourself, and want to live a healthy life, then cultivate the boldness and tenacity to setting boundaries to yourself. Remember also that loving yourself is a biblical principle (cf. Mark 12:31; Eph. 5:29). Allowing yourself to be manipulated, controlled, humiliated and subjugated are not forms or methods of loving yourself. Embrace, practice, and value protecting your inner self.


1 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Image Books, 1998), 9.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 9-10.

4 Ibid., 84.

5 Ibid., 84-85.

6 Ibid., 84.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.