The Boundary Series, Part 3: emotional boundaries
Updated: Sep 15
Of all the types of boundaries, emotional boundaries are without a doubt the hardest to navigate. Trying to identify them can feel elusive, like trying to hold water.
We can think of emotional boundaries that are too rigid as impermeable—no water gets through. Too loose and we drown (metaphorically of course, science has made no correlation between boundary setting and swimming abilities).
When our emotional boundaries are not working for us, we are not taking care of ourselves or those we care about. When our emotional boundaries are intact, we can be both compassionate toward others and concerned with our own wellbeing. Sort of the emotional equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time—doable, but not always easy.
What are emotional boundaries?
Emotional boundaries are limits we set around our relationships with other people. In doing so, they help us feel secure, safe, and differentiated from other people. They are what prevent us from losing our sense of self in relationships. They stop us from feeling too responsible for other people. They allow us to stay true to ourselves.
Emotional boundaries mean we can be okay, even if someone we care about is having a hard time. It means we do not need approval from anyone else to feel good about ourselves. It means we know we cannot change other people.
It's not personal
Let’s say you are at work and a colleague with whom you are friendly with walks by without looking at you or saying hello. Do you:
1. Automatically assume you did something wrong and spend the day trying to figure out what it was?
2. Feel hurt/angry/betrayed because they were rude to you?
3. Come up with a comprehensive plan to repair the obviously ruined relationship?
4. Submit a complaint to your boss about their behavior?
Sure, there may be times when some or all the above may be appropriate. However, what if you assumed their behavior wasn’t personal? Maybe they were lost in thought. Maybe they just received bad news. Maybe they did not feel like talking. Whatever the answer is, odds are good their behavior just was not about you.
(I once spent half a day wondering why my office mate was mad at me after she ignored me, several times. Turns out, she had ear buds in and was listening to music—so yeah, that’s a great example of a one-sided issue.)
Not taking things personally is not always easy, but neither is always taking things personally. It takes a toll on emotional wellbeing and tends to cause a lot of problems in relationships (see all reality shows for examples of this). A good question to ask yourself is, how would you feel about the situation if you were not taking it personally?
What if when that colleague ignored you, your thought was, “hmmm, that’s odd, hope they are okay” and then you moved on. Or maybe check in with them later. Imagine being free to move on with your day, without feeling overwhelmed by emotions of hurt, anger, fear, or the other natural feelings that may accompany feeling ignored.
Navigating emotional boundaries
One of the biggest mistakes we make is feeling responsible for other peoples’ emotions. Now granted, we have a responsibility to show kindness and respect toward others (which includes adhering to their boundaries as well), but we are not responsible for how other people feel. When we try to manage their feelings, by ignoring our own needs or walking on eggshells, we are likely to end up resenting that person.
In good relationships, managing the emotional boundaries of both parties is a bit of a balancing act, not a rigid, stable dynamic. This is true of all types of relationships and it is because our emotions and our needs shift. So, sometimes, we need to take more and sometimes we need to give more.
This flexibility ensures that everyone’s needs are met, but boundaries are never violated. A partner managing a medical issue or a friend going through a divorce may shift your typical dynamic, but not to the extent that you lose sight of yourself and your own needs.
Signs your emotional boundaries may need some work
When our emotional boundaries are not strong enough, sometimes people take too much from us. For example, the friend who always talks about their issues/problems/needs but does not reciprocate. Or the family member who you feel emotionally overwhelmed by.
However, sometimes, we consistently take too much from other people. We may do this in the form of relentlessly trying to seek approval from others. A self-worth based on the approval from others is a very tenuous foundation on which to sustain a relationship. Or perhaps you cannot sense the impact your behavior has on other people. Such as arriving home from a bad day and acting angrily toward your partner or children, even though they played no part in your having a bad day.
How do I improve my emotional boundaries?
1. Connect to your own needs. Spend some time considering yourself and your relationships. Are there aspects of yourself or others that feel unhealthy/insecure/needy/overwhelming? It is hard to know what to improve, if you are not sure what is/is not working in your life. What are your emotional limits? What are your emotional needs?
2. Start with setting small boundaries. You don’t have to jump straight to the “big ticket’ issues. Phrases like, “I would rather not do that” or “talking about that makes me uncomfortable” can be helpful statements—they keep the focus on your needs, rather than criticizing someone else.
3. Avoid jumping to conclusions when someone upsets you. Stop and ask yourself if this is something that makes sense to be upset over. Are you taking something personally that you should not? For example, someone has a direct style of communication. Although you may not care for that style, their delivery probably has nothing to do with you and even more likely they have no idea that you are bothered by it.
4. Respect others. Boundaries are not about getting your own way, so sometimes we must compromise to make sure our needs are not being met at the expense of others.
5. Get support. Boundaries permeate every single relationship and interaction we have; thus, they are incredibly important. Substance use, shame, lack of self-compassion and depression can sometimes lead people to feel like they do not deserve to have good boundaries. For others, lack of assertiveness may make establishing boundaries uncomfortable. The truth is, we all deserve to feel safe, secure, and respected.
If you need help establishing boundaries, Substance Use Therapy is here for you. While the road to establishing them can be difficult, it tends to be well worth it. Boundaries are a process.
Looking for more information on boundaries? Keep reading the series. Part 4 will cover the importance of time boundaries, what they are and how to establish them. Or catch up on previous posts in the boundary series, the overview, and physical boundaries.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.