Emotional boundaries:  Why they matter, how to have them

Emotional boundaries: Why they matter, how to have them

emotional boundary

Boundaries are important. Every day we utilize them to understand the world, cooperate with others and stay safe and healthy. As you’re driving, you pay attention to the white or yellow lines on the road to avoid accidents. At a large sporting event, you follow the signs and barricades to ensure that a large crowd of people stay orderly and enjoy themselves.

Just as we need boundaries in our dealings with others, we need them for ourselves. How do you keep yourself feeling safe and healthy when you relate to others? How do you continue to grow as a person and enable yourself to give and be present to others without hurting or exhausting yourself? How do you create the happiest and healthiest relationships? All of these are accomplished by creating and holding emotional boundaries.

What is an emotional boundary?

An emotional boundary is a set of rules and/or behaviors that are designed to keep you emotionally healthy. Emotional boundaries can be small and flexible or large and rigid, depending on the person you’re dealing with.

Even a happy and healthy relationship requires emotional boundaries. Your partner may be the most wonderful person around but you still might want some time to yourself occasionally. When you take time for yourself, you’re setting up an emotional boundary that keeps you feeling happy and keeps your relationship healthy.

It’s also easy to consider having really strong emotional boundaries. If someone is speaking to you aggressively or sexually without your consent, you will likely create a strong emotional boundary automatically. You will minimize your engagement with the person and your language will likely become much more businesslike and black-and-white. Your interactions will be focused on protecting yourself from being hurt by the other person.

The harder boundaries are the ones that aren’t so obvious or so easy - relationships where you actually care and want to be part of the person’s life but they push too much, or make you feel bad, or overwhelm you. Some examples:

  • John appreciates having Tom as a friend but finds that Tom asks way too many personal questions and often uses what he learns against John. John can feel ambushed and betrayed. He doesn’t want to end the friendship but he needs to rethink how he interacts with Tom.

  • Susan loves her Uncle Joe and has many happy memories of him in her early life. In recent years their political views have shifted in different directions. Susan respects Uncle Joe for his opinion and even would be willing to have a dialog around this but Uncle Joe berates and insults Susan for her political views and can’t seem to carry on a civil conversation around this.

  • David lives several hours from his mother and has visited regularly since he moved away for college. He finds the visits exhausting but does want to stay close to her. When he suggests that his next visit might be shorter, his mom uses passive-aggressive language to express her displeasure, which leaves David feeling guilty and manipulated.

How to create an emotional boundary.

When dealing with relationships like these you may be tempted to completely cut off the relationship or seriously curtail it. Sometimes cutting off these relationships is the only way to move forward and for you to feel safe. And sometimes it feels meaningful to have a relationship with someone but know that it needs to change for it to be sustainable. What can you do if you actually desire to have a relationship with someone, but can no longer allow it to continue as it is?

Ask for what you want in the context of your values

It can be helpful to consider why you want to put the effort into this relationship in the first place and use this as the context of why you’re making the effort to put in an emotional boundary. Why does this relationship matter to you and how does it relate to your values? There are lots of ways to do this but I think it is good to start by stating your intentions and why this person matters and the relationship is meaningful to you. “I really want to spend some time with you.””You’re important to me and it’s important that we can talk to each other.””I love you and we need to change how we do this so that we both feel better.”

Declare what you need, or the behavior that you will no longer tolerate or your expectations for the relationship. Declare the consequences of your requests not being honored. You need to get black and white here and talk about observable behaviors. Here are some examples:

  • When Tom asks John something that feels invasive, John states “I always love talking to you but that’s not something I want to talk about.” John doesn’t give an explanation or try to backpedal.

  • When Uncle Joe starts insulting Susan because of her political beliefs Susan firmly tells him to stop. She says “I’m willing to talk to you about this stuff but I’m going to stop this conversation if you continue to call me names and insult me.”

  • David calls his mom and lets her know that he’s booked his flight and is looking forward to seeing her. He also lets her know that he’ll be there for a three day weekend. Mom becomes tearful on the phone and tells David he should do whatever is best for him. David acknowledges that this might be disappointing to his mom and that he still looks forward to seeing her for the three day weekend. David does not apologize for his decision.

Stay firm in your convictions.

In all these examples there is now a disruption in the dynamic with the loved one. When you make a statement such as “I can only visit you for the weekend” even though you’ve always stayed for a week, you have changed the way things have always been (at least that’s how it is perceived in the other’s mind). Your loved one will likely protest this disruption in some way. You will need to stay the course in what boundaried behavior looks like for you. In the examples above, all three individuals had to hold firm to what they have stated.

Manage your feelings

When the other person reacts negatively, this will likely introduce difficult feelings for you. You may feel anxious or guilty or angry or a variety of other feelings. While you still may feel right in what you are asking for, you may feel the urge to compromise on what you truly want rather than have to feel the difficult feelings you are experiencing. Of course, this will lead you back to the old dynamic that is problematic. You will need to be able to have and express your feelings, and soothe yourself in the moment. Relaxation breathing can be helpful here, as well as mindfulness.

  • John feels uncomfortable for making his statement to Tom and yet knows it’s the right thing for him. He takes a deep breath, acknowledges how awkward this feels for him and tries reconnecting with Tom by changing the subject.

  • Susan noticed how uncomfortable she feels for being so firm with her uncle but also knows she can’t have this continue. She will likely have to process this later but she also knows that she needs to hold to her convictions and if her uncle continues insulting her that she might have to strengthen her boundary and actually leave the room.

  • David feels guilty, just as he always does. He acknowledges this and reminds himself that he does want a close relationship with his mom but one that is based on honesty and expressing needs, and not on feeling manipulated by guilt. He refrains from acting on the guilt and keeps breathing to stay calm.

Find some compassion for your loved one.

This may not be easy but consider the other person and their struggles. If they are being aggressive with you or demanding, what might be driving that? This is not to excuse their behavior but to see the suffering and struggle they may be experiencing that leads to their behavior. Remember this is a person you actually want to have a relationship with: can you hold some space to see their suffering and see their wants and needs? This doesn’t mean giving in on what matters for you, but holding some compassion for the loved one can help you as you navigate keep your boundaries.

Creating and holding emotional boundaries is hard work. And it is also the foundation for a healthy and meaningful relationship where both individuals can grow and flourish. If creating a boundary feels overwhelming, start small. Identify one small shift that will allow you to feel like you are engaging in the relationship with a loved one in a healthier way.

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