I’ve been there—have you?
My cell phone rings and my heart sinks. It’s Jasmine*–poor Jasmine. In need of yet another short-term loan as she lives in perpetual crisis.
Or it’s Trevor, asking for help at the last minute. Again. His poor planning has become a standard joke in our young adult group.
Or maybe it’s Trinity, who wants to tell me all about Susan and how she isn’t qualified to lead the children’s ministry.
Or it’s Pastor Surefire—judgmental Surefire, for whom I never seem good enough.
Or it’s Charlie. Please Lord, not Charlie. He has the strangest way of giving me spiritual advice—a “prophetic” word, he calls it—and yet making me feel just two-inches tall.
Do any of these people sound like one of your friends? Or maybe you are that person. Yikes.
As long as we recognize unsafe people and draw firm boundaries with them, we can minimize the pain they cause us and perhaps help them move forward in their own process of growth.
But people who get involved with unhealthy religious groups often have very poor powers of discernment. They also often lack healthy boundaries. I sure did. The result is a constellation of relationships which cause pain, sorrow, and guilt.
How can we recognize an unsafe person?
It is important to realize that there are different types of unsafe people. Some are abandoners—they start a relationship but can’t finish it. Others are critics—they act like a parent to everyone, judge others, speak the truth without love, and know little about grace or forgiveness. Still others are irresponsible—they fail to follow through on commitments, act like children, rarely delay gratification, and can take care of neither themselves nor others.
People like this are unsafe. They harm people around them through their words and actions. Christians who want to relate to these people must erect healthy boundaries to keep from enabling them and to avoid getting bitten by “sheep gone wild.”
Here are two lists to help determine whether someone in your life is a “safe” or “unsafe” person. These criteria come from the book Safe People by Christian psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend. If you struggle with poor discernment and lack of boundaries in relationships, I highly recommend that you add this book to your personal library.
I.) Unsafe People
A.) Personal Traits of Unsafe People
- Think they have it all together instead of admitting their weaknesses.
- Are religious instead of spiritual.
- Are defensive instead of open to feedback.
- Are self-righteous instead of humble.
- Only apologize instead of changing their behavior.
- Avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them.
- Demand trust, instead of earning it.
- Believe they are perfect instead of admitting their faults.
- Blame others instead of taking responsibility.
- Lie instead of telling the truth.
- Are stagnant instead of growing.
B.) Interpersonal Traits of Unsafe People
- Avoid closeness instead of connecting.
- Are only concerned about “I” instead of “we.”
- Resist freedom instead of encouraging it.
- Flatter us instead of confronting us.
- Condemn us instead of forgiving us.
- Stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals.
- Are unstable over time instead of being consistent.
- Are a negative influence on us, rather than a positive one.
- Gossip instead of keeping secrets.
If these traits define one or several people in your life, perhaps you need to draw some healthy boundaries with these folks in order to avoid them taking advantage of you. Townsend and Cloud’s book, Boundaries, can help you do this.
Remember that Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” It is not enough to identify unsafe people—we also want to surround ourselves with safe people who can spur us on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:23-25).
II.) Safe People
- Draw us closer to God.
- Draw us closer to other people.
- Help us become the real person God created us to be.
- Abide with us in a manner that shows they are present, connected, and empathic.
- Show much grace. This means you will not be “shamed or incur wrath” for whatever you are experiencing.
- Walk in—and speak—truth. Safe people not only show us grace, they also confront us in a loving manner with the truth of God.
While these lists provide a bare-bones outline of safe and unsafe people, there are also qualities about us that may cause us to gravitate toward unsafe people. In a future post, we will look at what characteristics make us vulnerable to unsafe people.
*Not their real names.