When I was a teenager, my mother spent hours on the phone every day with two women she claimed were her friends – except the “friendship” was one-sided, never reciprocal. It was my mom who would attentively listen and sacrifice her time to sympathize with their troubled lives (which they had no intention of changing). She did this in the name of being a “good Christian.”
Many of us, as a result perhaps of skewed parenting or flawed interpretation of the gospel passage, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (see Matthew 5:44), have developed what I call a martyr complex. This means we view ourselves as doing good by accepting abuse or maltreatment from others.
There is a difference between Jesus’ role modeling how to “turn the other cheek” or allowing Himself to be brutalized at the hands of those who hated Him. We are certainly called to take our own Calvary journeys, but the danger of literal interpretation applies here.
Suffering and False Humility
We can view suffering as something to abhor and avoid or something to accept. Some Christians opt for a sense of self-righteousness in seeking out suffering and then claiming the higher road. This is actually false humility, which can be mixed with psychopathologies like codependency, mood disorders, or personality disorders.
Saints who self-flagellated or imposed extreme mortification of the flesh upon themselves are not role models for those not yet spiritually advanced. This is another source of confounding: how are we to know if we are called to extreme suffering? It is prudent to accept the sufferings God permits us to undergo rather than seek out pain.
The Role of Trauma in Setting Boundaries
Many have been abused and are recovering from trauma related to this abuse. God does not ask of us to accept abuse. This is not love. We can, out of self-respect, verbally communicate to those who have hurt us our intolerance of name-calling, threats, intimidation, or manipulation. This is best done by offering specific examples of behavior: “I do not deserve to be cursed at. I’m leaving now.”
When we do this calmly, without resorting to blame or rage in our delivery, we are practicing the self-love described in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:31).
Authentic Love Does Not Harm
Love does not harm. We do not need to put up with other people’s dysfunction and believe it is answering the call to true Christian charity. Sometimes we do not set appropriate emotional boundaries with others out of fear of abandonment or rejection, past ostracism, or being shut down so that our voice is not heard or validated.
But such “acceptance” is not motivated by love. Instead, fear and our own unhealed wounds drive us to allow others to treat us inhumanely. Charity would have us pray for and be courteous to such people, but we do not need to engage in conversations or develop “relationships” with them.
Relationship necessitates mutual respect, honest dialogue, receptivity, and empathy. When these are missing, we can gracefully excuse ourselves without losing our sense of identity. God does not want us to perpetuate unhealthy patterns of behavior, in ourselves or in others. True healing of the mind, body, and soul cannot occur without us returning to God daily in prayer, asking Him to reveal our wounds and subsequently bringing them to Confession and the Eucharist.
Healing can begin when we establish what we are willing to tolerate in others and what we will not. From there, the heart may take a lifetime to mend. But with the assistance of clarity from the Holy Spirit, we can achieve it.