friendship: safety & boundaries aren't dumb psychology words

friendship blog safe people* this is the next post from friendship summer camp.  it’s interesting that even as i share these here i can hear a voice that says “where’s the scripture in here? are we really going to talk about psychology stuff? come on, let’s talk about theology and church instead!” (hmm, mind-reading?).  but i will hold to what i keep learning–this stuff doesn’t drop out of the sky.  these skills help us become more loving human beings and i think that was always the idea!

* * * * *

we use the word “safe” a lot at the refuge; it doesn’t mean easy & comfortable & whatever-goes.  it means becoming people who are healthy enough to hold painful real stuff, strong enough to say hard things, and present enough to create security.   becoming a safer person & finding safe people to be in relationship with is no easy task. most of us weren’t taught these things in church or our families so we’re trying to figure it out as grownups, often the hard way.  these skills aren’t pop psychology or non-biblical; rather, they are practical reflections of loving relationship.

there are some characteristics of safe people and unsafe people that we need to look out for as we form and nurture friendships.  in these moments i think it’s way easier to point the finger at other people and say “they’re not safe or they’re not this or that” instead of heeding Jesus’ advice to consider the log in our own eye first.  every day i am reminded of how much i need God’s help & wisdom to become a safer person.  that really was the challenge at sacred friendship summer camp–what is God stirring up in us personally related to being a friend?  not–how can other people be better friends to us?

also, just because we or another person possesses unsafe qualities (or not enough of the safe ones) doesn’t mean we should write them off completely.  we are all learning and a work in progress.  but it does mean that we need to be aware of them so we can engage from a place of maturity instead of defaulting to unhealthy patterns.

here are some characteristics of unsafe people, adapted from henry cloud & john townsend’s excellent book, safe people:  

unsafe people:

  • think we ”have it all together” instead of admitting our weaknesses
  • are defensive instead of open to feedback
  • are self-righteous instead of humble
  • only apologize instead of changing our behavior
  • avoid working on our problems instead of dealing with them
  • demand trust instead of earning it
  • blame others instead of take responsibility
  • lie instead of tell the truth
  • remain stagnant instead of growing
  • resist freedom instead of encouraging it
  • can’t take no for an answer
  • flatter us instead of confronting us
  • condemn us instead of forgiving us
  • stay in parental roles instead of relating to us as equals
  • unstable over time instead of being consistent
  • gossip instead of keeping secrets

while it’s important to reflect on how we “don’t” want to be, it’s more important to cultivate the good stuff.  here are the qualities of safer people.

safer people: 

  • accept us just like we are
  • love us no matter how we are being or what we do
  • influence us to develop our ability to love and be responsible
  • give us an opportunity to grow & stretch & practice
  • help us feel comfortable being “ourselves”, to be on the outside what we are on the inside
  • allow us to become the us that God intended
  • use their lives to touch ours and leave us better for it
  • help us be more like Jesus
  • help us to like & love others more
  • make the relationship more important than opinions
  • receive instead of just give
  • are humble & willing to say what we need
  • are honest, kind & don’t pretend
  • work through resistances instead of giving up

when i read through this list, i am reminded of how grateful i am for the people in my life who have shown me what safer looks like and keep challenging me to walk in this direction.

one critical of safe people is that they honor boundaries properly.  boundaries are where we end and others begin. a lot of us have really cruddy ones because we confused no-boundaries with love or we have been shamed into believing we have to give all of ourselves or we’re not being godly enough.

here are some things that we sometimes think about boundaries:

1. we are bad or mean or unloving for setting them.

2. we will not get the love we want & need if we set them.

3. others will reject us if we set them.

4. we really have no idea what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to boundaries in friendship.

there are many types of boundaries, but some of the primary areas include:  personal space, words (yes, no, what we want to share and don’t want to share), time, and emotional connection.

some of us have really fuzzy boundaries and need to learn to tighten them to have healthier friendships; and others of us have really tight boundaries and may need to loosen some of them to pursue greater connection with others.

just talking about safety & boundaries always helps me re-group a little.  i read the book boundaries 18 years ago and still every time i pick it up i’m convicted, in a good way, because it reminds me that this process of becoming a healthier person takes a lifetime. it’s part of our ongoing spiritual transformation and we can keep getting better at relationship through practice & God’s help.

what are you learning about safer people & boundaries these days? 




Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • unfortunately a lot of the unsafe people are the Christians who believe THEIR interpretation of the Bible is inerrant!!!

  • Your two categories are to me, spot on. I’ve been in situations where unhealthy actions and words have been spoken and they stick. I am learning now to better discern these unhealthy situations and people and to give them a wide berth; this has not always been so.

    For myself healthy relationships are difficult to form because I lost trust of people through the unhealthy relationships. This is hard to conquer…but I refuse to give in to the fear and mistrust and will eventually learn to trust again.

    Thank you for your insightful blog.

    • thanks, jacquie. when trust has been violated and we have been in some unhealthy relationships, it is really hard to re-engage and try again. it takes a lot of guts. i do think that we can go in with new eyes & open hearts, though, and that helps a lot. i know for me, especially after my really-jacked-with-my-heart-and-head church experience, i have hard a hard time trusting again, but i can at least talk about it openly. that helps. peace.

  • You always amaze me, Kathy! Thank you for being open, honest,and an excellent writer! You are quite a voice for us humans and the Father, who loves us.

  • I can’t tell you how much I needed this…for two reasons! The first reason is the guilt I’ve felt the past few weeks for having boundaries with someone I work with that has manipulated our relationship many times. I feel better having boundaries, but also feel guilt that I’m not being enough of a “good Christian”…whatever that means!

    The second reason is that my husband and I have been talking about how to be more intentional with those around us. This gives me lots to think about as we listen to the Spirit.

    As always, thank you for your wisdom and for making me not feel crazy.

    • i am so glad the timing was good! it is so interesting that for so many of us healthy boundaries usually comes with guilt at first! but it goes with the territory and i am glad you are getting some clarity. thanks for sharing, it helps me not feel as quite as crazy, too!

  • Thank you for these two lists, Kathy. I am discovering that safe friendships, sacred friendships shine light on the unsafe boundary crossings of others. A friend is dealing with some recent unsafe behavior of her family members. She stood firm. She got angry and asked them to leave her new house rather than cave in, seethe under her skin and pretend nothing happened. We can distance ourselves from acquaintances. Can we, should we, distance ourselves from unsafe family? That’s a tough one for my wife and I, both being blessed with functional families. All we could think of doing was to repeatedly affirm her defense of clearly stated boundaries … and to continue to pray for her and her family.

    • oh these unsafe family things are so hard because it is different from friends somehow. but it doesn’t let everyone off the hook and we still have to make sure that we try to love and live in relationship with these people in new ways. the costs are sometimes really high. i agree that it seems that the only thing we can do as friends in these moments is exactly what you are doing.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot lately not just about boundaries in terms of time, expectations, etc, but the even deeper boundary of realizing where I and others begin and end. I had not actually “become my own person” or had my own beliefs, convictions, preferences … they were either the beliefs, values, and preferences of my family … my faith community … my friends … my husband … or my children. I am taking huge risks in developing “a mind of my own” … but in the process, interestingly, those other relationships are benefitting. It seemed so dangerous and risky, but eventually my life kinda depended on it. Ever learning, and I hope ever growing.

    • that is big work, my friend, big work. so good! and i agree, sometimes our lives really depend on it, uncovering who we really are.

  • We have a saying around our house – “Christians never apologize. They just keep pretending they are always right.” In my entire lifetime, I can think of only one or two exceptions to that saying. Sadly, my “unsafe people” list is filled with the names of “Christians”. I’m trying to learn from what I’ve seen and follow Jesus instead of imitating Christians.

    • it is interesting to me, too, that my unsafe list tends to include some of those relationships, too. weird, really, and sad, too.


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