Don't throw the ball back (on setting healthy boundaries and getting free) - Sarah Mae
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Don’t throw the ball back (on setting healthy boundaries and getting free)


“Don’t throw the ball back.”

Those were the words that released me. Those were the words I will never forget because they gave me something I could grasp and use to get away from verbal abuse and manipulation. 

It was my junior year of college and we had a guest lecturer for the day. The speaker was a bald man with a black mustache and a black leather jacket, and he was there because he was some kind of alcohol counselor. I sat up a little straighter in my chair that day, wanting to hear anything and everything he had to say because my mom was an alcoholic and I wanted to know how to deal with it. I don’t remember what he talked about during the class, but I do remember going up to him after and asking him if I could talk with him. We stood in the hallway and I told him my story.

I told him about the fact that I had a mom who was an alcoholic and who knew she was an alcoholic and had no interest in changing. I told him how it drove me crazy, how being around her or talking with her made me feel like I was crazy. We were so tangled up with each other. I told him how I always felt guilty around my mom, like somehow I always did everything wrong; I could never do things right or please her. I told him how she would call me names how she would always make me feel like I wasn’t doing enough; I felt like a total screw up. I asked him for advice. That’s when he said, “Don’t throw the ball back.” 

“If I have a ball in my hand and I throw it to you, are you going to catch it?”

“I guess.” 

He said, “Okay, well, you made that choice; you caught the ball. Now you have another choice to make: you can hold the ball, drop the ball, or throw the ball back.” He told me this ball throwing situation is what was going on with my mom. He said we were engaged in a game of toss. She would throw out a ball of verbal abuse or begin to manipulate me, and I always responded by throwing the ball back; I engaged with her. “Mom, I tried, I really did. I don’t know what you want me to do!” Ball toss. “Sarah, if you would have just…” Ball toss. “Mom, you’re really hurting my feelings…why do you have to be like this?” Ball toss. “Get a grip Sarah, you are way too sensitive.” Ball toss. On and on, back and forth, a seemingly never-ending game. 

“If you don’t want to play the game anymore, stop throwing the ball back.”

I could choose to “stop throwing the ball” in different ways. If she called and started being verbally abusive to me or manipulating me I could hang up the phone. I didn’t have to go see her if it wasn’t going to be a healthy situation. I could walk away. It was okay to get away in order to get healthy and clear my mind and figure out what was true and what wasn’t. I had always felt like I had this responsibility to make things right, but I was completely ineffective because I was still trapped in unhealthy behaviors and tangled thinking.

I was an emotionally unhealthy person trying help an emotionally unhealthy person.

And it wasn’t working. Of course.

That today I decided to stop throwing the ball.

My eyes were opened to the fact that I wasn’t crazy, that manipulation was a real thing happening, and that I needed to get healthy before I could love her well. 

So I walked away for a time. I stopped playing the game. If she started in on me over the phone, I would just say, “If you keep talking to me like this, I’m going to hang up.” If she continued, “Sorry mom, I have to go.” And hang up. No goodbye. Just, ended it. This really ticked off my mom. And of course I felt guilty about it, but eventually, I didn’t feel guilty anymore.

Because I started to see things more clearly. I was beginning to understand what manipulation was and how it was affecting how I viewed myself. I saw how our tangled mess of manipulation was destroying us. It was destroying me. 

I took about six months away from her, no phone calls, no visiting, just space to think and pray and seek counsel and begin the path of unwinding all the years of manipulation.

First the revealing, then the healing.

I had to see what was going on in me, just under the surface of things, in order to get free.

Here’s what happened when I stopped throwing the ball back:

I was able to get untangled, which helped me to get on a path to clarity and emotional health. I learned more about manipulation and how to spot it and not feed it.

I learned about the lies I was believing about myself (“I’m stupid, I’m ugly, “I’m not good enough”), and how in my own efforts to protect and comfort my tender heart, I acted in sinful ways.

God uncovered deeply wounded places in my heart, and He invited me to let Him care for those places and gently bind them up. And in the wounds there was loss, and I had to mourn and lament. But I learned this throughout all of it: If you want the healing to start, you have to face the deepest wounds of your heart. And so I did, but I didn’t have to face them alone.

After the facing and the pain and the revealing and the healing my heart began to get whole.

At first, as I went through this process of healing, things got worse with my mom, but then, they got better.

They got better because I learned how to set boundaries and love her without being entangled with her.

I was able to forgive her.

I was able to really love her.

And I learned how to love myself, even when it hurt. Even when the lies popped up. Even when her words stung.

I loved her. I loved myself (in a healthy way). And God worked miracles.


I’m working on my next book, The Complicated Heart, and it’s on unhealed wounds and painful relationships and dealing with the junk that is blinding us to emotional and spiritual health. Would you share with me in the comments what you would like to see addressed in the book? I so value your thoughts and stories and hold them all so tenderly. Thank you.

Also, if you’d like to follow along with the process of this book and the unfolding and untangling of it all, follow @TheComplicatedHeart on Instagram. I’d love to see you there.

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  • amyfritz

    I need this. Thank you, Sarah Mae.

  • Alessandra

    Beautiful. I just love everything you write. It draws me in. Thank you.

  • Susy

    Your Instagram posts are filled with so much raw emotion…it made me want to hug you and made me need a hug for the strings it began tugging…the strings of some possible undealt-with pain…and then I did something I knew I needed to do but so didn’t want to…I texted my dad…and then answered my phone…

  • Tami Rodriguez

    I’d love tips of specific hows to set those boundaries (like your example of “mom if you keep talking like that Im going to hang up”). Especially ideas as our parents age and need us but it’s not healthy for us to be with them too much. And how to deal with the guilt of setting the boundaries you know are needed…especially on a Christian level (honoring our parents, being love etc…). Dealing with the internal voices of “a good Christian would love regardless of their behavior” even when you know being mistreated is not what God is asking of you.

    • Beth

      I sooo agree. Implementing boundaries while still “honoring” our elderly parents who need us is so very difficult. Guidance needed!

  • Katie W.

    I’d love to see a section on -what’s normal and -what’s not… when to seek therapy for rejection and insecurities. I know everyone struggles with their own insecurities from relationships that have impacted them negatively. At what point does one move beyond the Bible and prayer and also add therapy to overcome this? Thanks!

    • Lori

      I think the Bible is the umbrella, and counsel falls within it. Receiving counsel is biblical! It’s totally a part of total health and I think everyone in this world would benefit from it. It doesn’t have to feel like a massive commitment or anything, because it’s really so healthy and normal. 🙂

  • Dana

    Wow. Sarah. I will be praying for you as you write this book, reliving it to tell it, and as you continue to heal; and for those who wil read it in hopes of healing, too.

  • CB

    Sadly, this book is needed by many including me. Some of the issues I would like to have addressed are: how to not pass on unhealthy patterns to my kids… How to explain to my kids the strained relationships… How to hold healthy boundaries but still allow the person in your adult life… How to forgive even if they never change or apologize. Thank you for what you do. I look forward to reading this one.

  • Brenda Veinotte

    Setting boundaries with inlaws that continue to stab you in the back. Such a hard thing when we are called to love and honor them.

  • Holly

    I’m in the time of separating myself from that person and working on me. I’d love to hear more about when you felt like you were ready to get back into that relationship and the baby steps to go into it again. I don’t feel ready yet but don’t know that I ever will.

  • Samantha

    What if it’s your husband that is verbally abusive?

    • JD

      I’d like to hear more on this also.

  • Michelle

    I am in a relationship with a recovering drug addict. He is clean but still tries with the guilt and manipulation. I have learned over time not to throw the ball back. I feel it’s a drug addict way to manipulate and make you feel crazy and guilty all the time. I figured out that I don’t have to play the game. As he recovers from drugs, I’m recovering from him. Thank you for this article it hit home.
    Love, Michelle

  • AM

    This is so very important. I grew up with a narcissistic father, and was estranged from him when he died, because I set those boundaries in place that would keep my family and I safe. Grieving is hard. In a sense, I mourned his loss before he actually died, and in another I’m grieving the loss of what could have been had things been different.

  • Michelle perez

    I absolutely loved this. My mom is also an alcoholic and she knows it and she has no desire to change. Our relationship was very toxic. After a huge blowup 16 months ago, I walked out of her house and basically her life. Have not had any type of relationship since. She has even taken herself out of my children’s lives. She’s just the lady that sends cards and money for birthdays and Xmas. It’s really sad, but I feel God allowed a peace within me to be able to distance myself from her and to not be consumed with a feeling of loss over the relationship. Normally it would stress me out daily not talking to her and trying to figure out how to make everything better to satisfy her, but no more. For the most part, I’m at peace with it but there’s a part of me that always wonders how a mother can cut off her daughter and a grandmother her granddaughters. So I’m really really looking forward to your new book!! It’s definitely something I need!!

  • Elise Daly Parker

    Loved this post Sarah! My mother was not an alcoholic, she was mentally ill and refused to get help. We her five children were the problem…she was fine, according to her. My counselor described her bahavior as like a dry alcoholic…you never knew what you’d get. So I get you I just wish I had better boundaries back in the day. Now my mother has Alzheimer’s and she is a mere shell of herself, but she’s actually sweet. Go figure!! At least we now have a peaceful relationship.
    Recently I have returned to the Boindaries books first released in 1992. Powerful insightful stuff. I look forward to your book too. Sounds like it’s needed!! Bless you on the journey!

  • BBL

    In a recent Sunday School lesson we heard a testimony on forgiveness and how, in forgiving someone, it’s also important to forgive the effects of someone’s sin on your life, i.e., what you are missing or never will know/enjoy because of his/her sin against you. Did this affect your boundaries and how you set them?

  • JW

    Thanks Sarah! My husband and I are estranged from his dad who we refer to as a rage-aholic. He was very physically abusive, with a charasmatic personality and is an expert manipulator (and did I mention, he claims to be a Believer). My husband didn’t have the courage to walk away until we got married. When we starting walking back our relationship with him we got a lot of push-back from our Christian community and when we finally severed ties for safety reasons we were looked down upon for not honoring him. They didn’t see the side we saw and we chose to “honor him” by not disclosing our reasons – which brought us a lot of flak. We just honestly didn’t know how to navigate this!
    So I would love some biblical support for defending distance from a toxic parent and tips on how to communicate that to others. Also we still struggle with how to talk about this situation with our kids, so tips there would also be helpful. Thanks!

  • Jenni

    helping a friend through an abusive neighbor/fellow church member breakup. being Christians together complicates things! knowing when to say “we are sisters in Christ BUT” is so hard.

  • EvaBohemia

    Love this! A perfect way to gain clarity regarding the touchy topics we all must face in life. My ex was a manipulator and I don’t know how many times I threw the ball back until one day I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. Sometimes we have to severe ties to those that see no wrong in hurting us or in their actions.

  • Laura Hurd

    I’ve never felt like I had a mom.
    She worked as an RN and her job was her life.
    I didn’t realize this until I had my own children.
    Only God could have given me the wisdom to raise my sons- because I was never mothered.

    Even now, my mom still seems to be looking for herself.
    She is not living out her role as a grandmother to any of her grandchildren.

    I guess the reason I can mother my children is the clear and precise insight on what I did not want to be as a mom by watching my own mother and feeling that emptiness.

    Now, sadly, she is teaching me the same way in the type of grandmother I wish not to be.
    Only this time, I am fully aware of what’s going on.

    No one should ever have to learn these life lesson’s in their 30’s.

    This is what moms are for.

    Praise God for allowing me to set boundaries.

  • Sherri

    I have been praying, asking God to hit me over the head with how to proceed with my parents… I am a 52 yr old momma who hasn’t done it all right, but I think I”ve done pretty well…. but not in my parents eyes… the pain keeps happening… and then I hear your message on “stop throwing the ball back”… that is the answer I have been praying for… I feel guilty for not calling, and yet the hurt is too deep,, the relationship to dysfunctional at this point,,, God is letting me have time to heal, so I can love them in a healthy way… this is the answer to my prayer…

  • Rachel Dow

    Your new book sounds wonderful. Thank you for offering to include “us”. I too grew up in an abusive home ( physical & verbal) And now things are “better” and yet I still daily struggle with guilt. My Father has changed much over the years & I know I have forgiven him for the abuse, and yet he still uses guilt like a super power. I have learned not to “throw the ball back” and yet it still hurts/hunts me… I truly believe that if I confronted him about his use of guilt, he’d look at me blankly. He doesn’t have a clue.. So what to do? How do you honor your parent when they are in a state of denial & 70% of the time “fine” and yet weekly you get hit with a dose of guilt? (example: I am a homeschooling mama to 2 & last week my kids & husband were sick, this happened just after we were without power for 4 days! Yet when I am on the phone with my dad he ends the conversation with “Just nice to know your thinking about me…. If you can just remember to call me & let me know your thinking about me”.. Agh! What do you do with that?!?!)

  • Tasha

    I would love to see you address how you forgive the people that have done all of those things to you. What daily steps you had to take.

    • Laura Rutherford

      Me too!

  • debbieinak

    Looking forward to your book! I have not had a relationship with my mom in 16 years. I stopped throwing the ball back and it has untangled me and healed me for the most part. But I still now and again have to deal with the angst of who she is (especially because she lives in my town and I see her from time to time). I would love to read in your book about how to go on in life when there will be no change in the other person…it’s like having to constantly forgive and accept that it is what it is.

  • Laura Rutherford

    I would love to read about forgiveness – broken down into clear, simplified step by step instructions; how to forgive someone who has hurt or damaged or abused you in the past, and how to forgive someone who continues ongoing hurt and pain.

    Thank you.

  • Rh

    Hard stuff.
    When you crave a true mother – the relationship, the wisdom, the giant hole left in your soul, who do you turn to, what do you do?

    Thoughts on other forms of “disease” besides alcoholism that get past on to the next generations.

    How to be the generation that stops the cycle.

    What to do when this happens in a church going Christian family. (I’ve gotten remarks from well meaning people when trying to navigate these waters that I need to honor my mother and father…)

    There’s just a lot of hurt and baggage involved in a family system. How do we begin to deal with it.

  • Anne Viktor

    Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. I’m interested in the book you’re writing. It would be helpful to learn how to have a healthy relationship with a spouse who emotionally manipulates/blackmails. We’re both committed Christians, and he’s a good man, but his past wounds have profoundly affected the dynamic of our relationship, and I can’t just stay away from him like you did with your mom! It isn’t even extreme manipulation, but it is subversive and a steady drip. Not sure how to get this boat headed in the right direction.

  • Kristen

    Sarah Mae, thank you for sharing this! I could so relate and I’m REALLY looking forward to your book! I would love to read about setting those boundaries. It’s tough! Thank you again!

  • Krista

    Childhood pain and siblings. Like your sibling accusing you if the very things they are doing. And treating you as they remember you from 20+ years before, not allowing you to be a different person who’s grown and changed. So then forgiveness when you’ll never see that.

  • Lori

    Sarah Mae, God blessings all over this piece of your heart you share with us. Part of my story I still struggle with is loving these difficult people also while grieving the loss. For me it’s some unhealthy family members. Although they are alive they are not active members in my life. I feel like I’m chasing them or begging them to love or care about me. Most of this began with my dad walking out and pretty much not caring about me or my mom and siblings. It’s a grieving I just can’t seem to shake or get over especially as I watch them care or spend time with others. It carries shame from my childhood from people within the walls of the church and also feeling like a nomad as I felt I came from no one because when my parents divorced I lost the relationship with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I feel like I belong to no one on this earth except my husband, daughter and son. Thanks a bunch for reading all of our stories. Praying for you as you write. Can’t wait to read it!!

  • Elody

    I’d like you to address how to heal when it’s a Christian who’s wounded you. My issues involve my former trusted mentor. In moving away from this person, I also have drifted away from the body of Christ. I’ve found healing and encouragement outside the Church. I don’t think that’s how it should work, but I’ve found more freedom as I’ve surrounded myself with non-believers.

  • D BC

    Thank you for your heartfelt words which are so helpful in grasping our relationship with God. It must be closer than any relationship on earth because in His Perfectness only He, by our our love for Him, our faith in Jesus and our trust in the Holy Spirit, can free us from the imperfectness of ourselves and others.
    Please address in your writings how a seemingly great relationship of 35 years between mother (me) and only daughter (only son not a part of this request) can literally disintegrate virtually overnight. Accusations that, whatever it is that has caused my daughter to stop speaking, seeing or remembering me in any way, I have been doing something since the day she was born and if I go back in time and analyze every single thing I have ever done as her mother during her lifetime, I’ll know why she wants nothing more to do with me, ever. That was 4 1/2 years ago and although I and other relatives have asked what it is, she and her husband refuse. Her mother and father-in-laws have used the analogy with her and their son that even a criminal is arraigned before a judge. Although it is widely known what that criminal has done, the charges being brought against the criminal are read and documented to and for that criminal. So, there is no doubt what the accusations are for the crimes he is alleged to have committed. Why can’t they at least give me what the justice system is obliged to do in a criminal court? In addition, it would be fair, by that same justice system, to discuss the matter, present the case, allow for cross examining and rebuttal with the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. I have asked people to pray for this situation as I do myself and, Lord knows, I have researched, analyzed, considered and “beaten this horse to death” in my mind and on paper. To no avail, there is nothing I can come up with that would not be considered “normal” parenting…no history of any type of abuse, no drug/alcohol excesses, no psychological disorders, abandonment or dysfunction. I must have been very different for her and her memories of experiences growing up, and I appreciate and respect that, but without something tangible to work with, I am at a total loss in how to correct it. I have apologized for whatever it is, told her I appreciated and respected her perspective and even sent a certified letter, after a year, that I had been in psychotherapy with a counselor (at my daughter’s request), signed by myself and the psychoanalyst and asking for a neutral meeting with them. Nothing will move them. Therefore I have totally backed-off, as advised, yet continued to remember my four grandchildren’s birthdays and Christmas but seeing them only from a distance at family gatherings. When I have mentioned this situation to others, I have been amazed that everyone either had a similar experience themselves or knew of someone who did. I was shocked! So I ask you to try to address this very real happening in people’s lives that even apparently evolves for no reason.

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