Here are a few of my thoughts and experiences learning about…
HEALTHY EMOTIONAL BOUNDARIES
The concept of having healthy emotional boundaries is basically understanding that your feelings and experiences are yours alone, and that other people’s feelings and experiences are theirs alone. At any given moment, even when two of us are together and doing the same thing, our bodies, souls, emotions, and experiences are unique to each of us. We all perceive things differently. Having healthy emotional boundaries means that we have learned to understand this, and that we can usually differentiate our feelings and motivations from other people’s feelings and motivations. We learn how to stay secure in ourselves when in positive or negative relationships and interactions with others. We learn when to step in, and when to step back, when to be helpful, when to protect ourselves, and how to allow others to be themselves. Healthy emotional boundaries develop and mature over our lifetimes. We begin literally as part of another human being, and from then on, little by little, day by day for ever and ever, we learn that we are a separate person, a whole person, who also needs to connect with other whole people. Needless to say, this can be one of the trickiest and most important parts of our maturity to master, because it impacts our most important relationships.
The accompanying chart, “Boundary Styles” by TherapistAid, illustrates how boundaries can be too porous (overly involved with others and can’t say No) or too rigid (detached and inflexible, trouble agreeing with others). Healthy emotional boundaries help you connect and communicate more authentically with your loved ones. Healthy emotional boundaries help you express your true needs and wants, they allow you to accept and honor the needs and wants of others, and they help protect you from undue influence or manipulation from others.Emotional boundaries are like an extension of our skin.
The purpose of the largest organ in our bodies, the skin, is to let the good stuff in, and keep the bad stuff out. Emotional boundaries are like skin for our sense of self and well-being.When I was very little and would get a scrape or cut while playing, my grandma would say “Oh I wish I could take that pain onto me,” and she said this in a kind and Midwest-Christian-y kind of way. I knew what she meant, that she valued me and would put my comfort ahead of hers. And that’s a nice thing to help a child feel. When I think back on this, I see that during these moments, she just naturally did other things as well. For example, she was always calm if I got hurt, she would bandage me up and I never felt a little scared like I would have with my mom, and when she said the thing about her taking my pain, it didn’t feel weird and “sticky” like it might have felt with my mom. In this memory (and subsequently this deeply intellectual analysis) my grandma had good emotional boundaries, regardless of what her “sayings” were. With my grandma, if I got hurt, that would be all that happened. She would fix me up and send me off. I got hurt, the parental unit tended to me, I felt safe and ready to play again.
However, when someone doesn’t have healthy emotional boundaries, let’s say the mother in the example above, if I got a skinned knee while playing, it could mean a million different things. It could mean her entire day was now ruined because we will be late; it could mean we can’t replace those tights because-we-are-broke-because-men-don’t-fulfill-their-responsibilities; it could mean that she’s embarrassed by whatever normal childish thing I was doing (I should be more mature) or maybe it was even a chance for her to be charming and witty with anyone around us; but it was always, always more than just my skinned knee.
My mother was also extremely loving, adept, and hard-working and she would say all sorts of nice and encouraging things when I was hurt or in distress. She could see and care about me in those moments and do the right things, but the weight of her internal anger, shame and delusional thinking hung more heavily in the air than anything else, ever. A skinned knee was never just a skinned knee. A skinned knee, like anything and everything else, impacted my mother’s open and exposed emotional nerve endings, and she would react accordingly – with overwhelming emotions and drama. Anything that happened to me, big or small, good or bad, became a backdrop for the emotional and sometimes physical havoc that would ensue.
On the other end of the spectrum, is how one client once described his parents: “They were paint-by-numbers parents.” He meant that they did all the right “behaviors” of parenting, but without any deep emotions or the sense that they connected and understood his experiences. Other clients have described it as, “I never really had a conversation with my parents about anything other than dinner or sports” and “we were like separate islands in our rooms.” Like living with friendly strangers.
As with most everything else in life, we seek balance between the two extremes.
When I have had to watch my children go through something extremely unfair or hurtful, it has stabbed me to the very core of my being, making me nearly ill wishing I could “take their pain onto me.” But thanks in part to my grandmother, it has always felt a bit like a tonic, like a freedom, to remember that a skinned knee or broken heart is just that, even when the pain is crushing. The pain I am experiencing for them must not overshadow the primary pain that they are experiencing themselves. If I can manage my secondary distress (“This is an outrage!”) I can better help them cope with their painful and disappointed feelings.
Here’s another way to think about it, one that most, if not all, parents understand. It’s related to our responsibility for managing our darling children’s behavior, all day, every freaking day. Here is how it manifests: One minute you are a normal adult rationally speaking to your children and then one “No” or “You’re not my boss” too many, and you find yourself screaming at the top of your lungs like a lunatic. Turns out the “health” of our emotional boundaries can be impacted by external stressors such as hunger, fatigue, stress, and most of the developmental stages from infancy through adulthood.
Just like we try to keep our exasperation in check when dealing with our kids’ difficult behaviors, we need to keep our feelings in check in other situations as well.
When Being Helpful Goes Wrong
One of the most troubling and ironic ways that unstable emotional boundaries cause problems in relationships and families is around expectations for being “helpful.” But how could being helpful to loved ones be bad, you ask? If you have to ask, and of course if you don’t have to ask, I hope it will be helpful for you to read on. Because you totally know someone like this, and it might be you! (It’s everyone, sometimes).
If you have porous or “leaky” emotional boundaries, hearing your loved one’s pain may be so uncomfortable for you that you feel you have to “DO” something about it. Or you must convince the other person that they need not feel that way. Or you may try to minimize the problem. You may become so distressed by the other person’s problem that you feel anxiety yourself.
When emotional boundaries are weak, it can feel intolerable to see someone else struggling with their issues or circumstances. (I’m talking here about basic life challenges, not torture, abuse, or man’s inhumanity to man.) It feels like you “have” their pain – as opposed to seeing their pain. And if you are in pain too, you can’t see the other person or their needs clearly. You get your needs mixed up with their needs. So, sometimes the “help” you provide is, unintentionally, an attempt for YOU to feel better, because it is based on what you need in the moment, not what the other person may or may not need.
Son: “I miss my old school”
Dad: “No you don’t honey! You said the other day you loved it here!”Dad wants his son to be happy, but his guilt about moving the family may get in the way of connecting with his son and exploring normal mixed feelings.
In a way, it is like trying to convince a child that the shot won’t hurt. It is distressing to see your child cry or be scared, so we try to convince the child to not be distressed. “It won’t hurt.” In reality, of course the shot will hurt, and the child knows this. Emotional boundaries allow us to acknowledge the child’s feelings as real and understandable, so that we can offer meaningful support and encouragement. “Shots do hurt but it’s quick, I know it can be scary at first.” We want our children to understand that they can tolerate and get through painful times (in age-appropriate ways of course). We certainly don’t want to teach them to distrust their feelings of fear and pain in order to not upset you.
It won’t hurt! It hurts.
It’s delicious! It’s not.
You didn’t like math anyway! You did.You’re being paranoid! You’re not.
He’s a great guy. He’s not.
And then one day you aren’t sure anymore.
In the adult world, let’s say your adult daughter is telling you about a fight she had with her husband. You become so upset and uncomfortable that you feel you must “do something to help”. So, you call the husband’s sister, explain what happened, and ask her to “talk” to her brother. When this backfires and now everyone is mad at you, you find yourself saying, probably not for the first time, “Well I was only trying to HELP!”
Basically, what happened is that your nervous system thought something bad was happening to you, so you tried to alleviate your own pain by “taking action” by trying to get someone to intervene. That action makes you feel like you are “helping” thus reducing your stress. But it turns out it wasn’t helpful at all, because, unintentionally, it made your daughter’s problem worse and more complicated.
You don’t do this on purpose, you truly want to help. Healthy emotional boundaries help you care for your loved ones more effectively. Emotional boundaries help your loved ones know they can rely on you for understanding, support and help when needed. Weak or “leaky” emotional boundaries can make it hard for your loved ones to trust that you won’t “take over” their problem, or minimize their distress, or try to help without asking first. Emotional boundaries also show our loved ones that we respect their capabilities, problem-solving abilities and privacy.
Let’s say the adult daughter in the example above also has weak emotional boundaries. She and her mom are very close, talking and texting several times each day. When mom’s help backfires and the daughter is angry and humiliated that mom over-stepped her bounds, the daughter is then likely to feel intense guilt when mom bristles and says, “I was only trying to help!” The daughter may feel unable to rationally express her distress with her mom, because mom is now the hurt party. Now the daughter is not only in distress with her husband, but she is also in conflict with her mom because she doesn’t know how to hold her own emotional boundary, and mom is now mad at the daughter for being ungrateful and angry.
Poor emotional boundaries go both ways. For example, if the daughter actually tried to get her mother to intervene on her behalf -- a mom with good boundaries would say, “Well that’s not really my place and I’m sure you and your husband are capable of handling this.”
If everybody had healthy emotional boundaries the conversation might look like this:
Daughter: OMG my husband is a jerk and I’m so mad etc., etc.
Mom: Oh no, that sounds awful! Men! What set you both off? Yep, I can relate. Well, my advice is (insert your advice here if you’d like) but that’s just me. What are you going to do? That makes sense. Good luck, fingers crossed for you both, keep me posted!
This is brief and things are more complex than this, but you get the point.
Healthy emotional boundaries allow us to be there for our loved ones with support, understanding, wisdom and guidance (not interference) and they keep us from trying to get others involved when it is not their problem.
These sorts of misunderstandings and missteps happen in all families sometimes.What we thought was helpful, wasn’t.We can seem ungrateful when someone is trying to help.We can totally over-react and under-react.We can act a-fool.
When these things happen, our emotional boundaries help us to accept that what we did or said fell short, we can apologize even if we meant well, our loved ones can appreciate our good intentions, and we can all give each other a break for being off the mark at times. We remember that if our intent is to be helpful, then we need to know if what we are doing is or isn’t helpful. We don’t get mad or hurt that the other person didn’t find our actions helpful, because it is generally understood in families that we are all trying to be helpful and caring.
However, when there is a pattern in a family with one person often saying “I was only trying to help!” – and then getting mad or hurt that anyone could fault them for that – it’s a good hint that the person could probably strengthen their emotional boundaries so that people say “Thanks!” instead of “WTF!”
Healthy emotional boundaries help us be more sensitive to what another person is going through. Healthy boundaries help us be better listeners, and thus more thoughtful responders.
A pediatric ICU nurse in a cancer hospital was asked how she could bear to watch children die and families grieve:
“Of course, it is so terribly sad. But that is their life, that is what is happening to them now. It isn’t happening to me, I am there to help.
What about Rigid Boundaries?
Rigid emotional boundaries often manifest as stubbornness and an emotional emphasis on feeling independent. There is a right way and a wrong way so there is nothing to discuss – and certainly nothing to “feel” about it.”
A person with rigid emotional boundaries may offer help because of duty and responsibility, NOT because they want to be all up in your business. However, asking for help themselves may feel intolerable, because needing help feels too vulnerable and exposed. Being helped, even in small ways, can make a person with too rigid emotional boundaries feel “weak.”
It’s kind of like -- If I let someone get close, then I will have no protection -- If I ask for help, that means I have failed -- If I apologize, that means you have won.
Ever met someone who simply cannot comply with a plan if they didn’t have a say? A client once described how their father took his carload of family members on a dangerous and extremely long route to the campsite, because he could not allow himself to follow the multi-family plan to caravan on the safe and direct route. He endangered and frightened his family rather than be influenced by someone else.
Offspring from the too rigid/no emotions family can have a hard time accepting their own strong feelings, and they may mistrust others who show strong feelings and seek emotional intimacy.
Find the two leaky emotional boundaries in the following:
My husband and I were invited to a community event on an evening that my husband usually works. We wanted to attend, so my husband arranged that evening off, and I RSVP’d that we will be there. A few days later, the hostess emailed me to say “Pat (a friendly neighbor, also invited) told me that your husband works on the night of the event, so she said you probably can’t attend so I thought I better double check.”
RESPECT OTHERS’ CAPABILITIES
When we have to say something that we think will make the other person sad or disappointed we may avoid it to “not be mean.” But think about that for a minute:
Why do we equate something sad or disappointing with “mean”? If, for example, you must tell me that you are breaking up with me, and I don’t want that, I will be sad. I will be sad, but unless you have added that I’m stupid and ugly and you hope I die a miserable death, you haven’t been “mean.” You’ve been brave (and kind, because you left off the stupid and ugly part). You have said something difficult for you to say and difficult for me to hear. That’s not mean, that’s life, and sometimes life hurts. We need to respect each other’s abilities to say hard things and to hear hard things, even when it’s painful all around.
Please don’t drag it out by trying to convince me that I shouldn’t feel however I’m feeling. “It’s not you, it’s me,” as though, therefore, I shouldn’t be sad, therefore, you haven’t been “mean.”
Ask yourself: Am I trying to make someone not feel bad about something that feels bad?
Healthy boundaries help us cope as best we can when reality gets tough, so we don’t drag it out and make the sad situation all the longer and harder. It’s why we have the expression “Just rip off the band-aid” so there is less fear and angst and prolonged pain. Trust people to handle their own feelings and experiences. And trust yourself to face yours.
Overheard from a 20-something:
“No way, I could never tell him I don’t want to see him again, I could never be so mean!
“I just ghosted him instead.”
Everyone is uncomfortable saying hard things. But never let your discomfort keep you from respecting another person’s right or need to know. Boundaries help us manage our own feelings of discomfort, so that we may communicate authentically and as equals.
In short: Don’t try to manipulate another person into not feeling sad or mad.
It can’t be done, and it is disrespectful to the other person.
Most people respect each other’s boundaries most of the time. For most people, an invitation that says “plus one” means just that. It is not for us to decide something for another person: “Oh she doesn’t mean that for us, I’m sure she won’t mind if we bring our kids. I’ll tell her they won’t eat so it won’t be an additional cost for her.” Healthy boundaries allow us to take things as they are, without the need to decipher “what they really mean.”
Sometimes I hear people say, “I set a boundary, but my person crosses it all the time! It doesn’t work!”
People with good boundaries are comfortable respecting other people’s boundaries. However, that doesn’t mean it is their responsibility. It’s your boundary and you are responsible for it.
If your dad won’t stop putting down your ex-husband in front of your kids, even after you’ve asked him to stop several times, then it is your job to hold your boundary: “Dad we need to go now, as you know it’s not good for the kids to hear this stuff. Let’s try again next week.” If next week he continues with “Hey I’m only saying what’s true! He’s a loser and the kids need to know it, why can’t you face reality?” you may need to say something along the lines of “Whether or not he’s a loser is not the point, and I have already asked you to not discuss it in front of kids. If it’s too hard for you to resist talking about him, we will need to stop coming by, but it is totally your choice.”
But then dad says, “Oh now you’re keeping me away from my grandchildren because you’d rather defend your ex-husband over me! I’m entitled to my beliefs, and you can’t tell me what to say or not say!”
‘Dad, I want the kids to spend time with you. And of course you can say and think whatever you like, and you’re right about my ex, he is a loser! I’m asking you to not talk about that in front of the kids. Even if you think that’s an unreasonable request, are you willing to give it a try?”
If you are clear but kind, without shaming him for his feelings, it will likely be easier for him to comply with your request.
If he complains but complies, great! He can tolerate making an uncomfortable change, and you can tolerate that he’s grouchy about it for a while.
If he still doesn’t comply, it is sad but true that your kids are not completely safe at his house, because he is unable to separate his bitter feelings about their dad from the joy of being with his grandkids. And that’s his right, and his loss, and you need to protect your kids.
Don’t Take the Wrong Things Personally
Another benefit for strong emotional boundaries: Not taking the wrong stuff personally.
When we don’t have strong emotional boundaries, we can mistake benign normal events as hurtful. I remember the first time after a big family dinner that the young adults decided to go out to a pub downtown. It took me a second to realize I was not invited (nor my husband, but my feelings were all about ME, they don’t want ME to come along?? I’m COOL!)
Even though we had all been having a great time together, which is why I initially saw myself as part of the “group”, they were experiencing the same fun, but not the same expectation. They were having fun with family and then wanted to go out with their own group of friends. When I saw it from their perspective – it was obvious they weren’t rejecting me, they were just doing what young people do, i.e., seeing their social life with friends as very different from family gatherings. I was able to smile stoically and wave them all off –then laugh with my husband that WE ARE SO OLD now!
We all know someone, maybe it’s you (it’s everybody sometimes) that gets their feelings hurt more often than others. This is often due to porous boundaries, like the example above, where a person takes a simple difference in preference as a personal slight. On the other hand, rigid boundaries can keep us in our hurt feelings longer than necessary.
Back when the kids were little, a good mom-friend acted very cold to me at a school event. I was super surprised and asked her what was wrong. She said “Well, what’s wrong with you? You can’t even say hi to me at the store! I was waving and waving at you in the parking lot.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so I asked her when and where, etc. Yes, I said, I was there at that time, but I hadn’t seen her. I said, “If I had seen you, I would have waved!” She replied that there was no way I couldn’t have seen her, she was waving madly at me from across the parking lot, so obviously I was intentionally ignoring her. “But why would I do that? I wouldn’t just ignore you on purpose!” She said, “Well that’s what you did so YOU tell me.” Her emotional boundaries were so rigid, that once she felt and thought “I’ve been wronged” that was it, it was now the truth, and her emotional skin would simply not let any other information in. Emotional boundaries that are too stiff can make it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to let in even comforting news.
Too rigid emotional boundaries keep us from being influenced in positive ways by another person.
Too rigid emotional boundaries keep us from connecting with others.
Too porous emotional boundaries make us too vulnerable to the influence of others.
Too porous emotional boundaries make us feel overwhelmed and overwhelming in connection with others.
Healthy emotional boundaries help us keep an open mind and our wits about us.
Don’t allow others to be responsible for your feelings. Of course, we are emotionally affected in many good and bad ways by those around us, but emotional boundaries help us not misplace “blame”:
“After all I did for him, my son is an artist, not a doctor. How could he do this to me!?”
“I could never go to art school. It would hurt my mother too much.”
“Your bad attitude made me cheat on you.”
“My bad attitude made him cheat on me. Why am I like this?”
“I wouldn’t have failed the test if you hadn’t made me do my chores!”
“I’m such a bad mom, I feel so guilty that he didn’t pass the test.”
With healthy emotional boundaries, we are far less likely to blame others or assign them responsibility for our feelings and actions. Healthy boundaries help us trust ourselves to manage our own uncomfortable feelings.
Likewise, healthy boundaries help us not fall victim to being blamed for someone else’s feelings, meaning, just because someone says you are to blame for their feelings doesn’t mean you are. Strong and healthy emotional boundaries help us counter irrational beliefs about ourselves and others.
One day, early on in a relationship…..
Girlfriend: Hey, did you eat? Want me to make you some lunch?
Boyfriend: Um, no, that’s ok, don’t go to any trouble.
Girlfriend: No trouble at all, I’d love to make you a big sandwich.
Boyfriend: That’s so nice of you to say, but you don’t have to.
Girlfriend: I know I don’t have to. I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t want to. But I don’t want to make something unless you want it!
Boyfriend: I just don’t want you to think I expect anything like that.
Girlfriend: AND I JUST WANT YOU TO ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION.
Boyfriend grew up in a home where everybody said nice things even if they didn’t mean them, as a way of being “polite.” He often assumed nice gestures were “polite” but not real. His lens was that everybody made offers they didn’t mean, so it was your job to be polite back and refuse a kindness.
Communication need not be a puzzle to solve. Life gets easier when we can trust our partners to say what they mean and mean what they say, and vice versa.
Healthy emotional boundaries also help protect us from being manipulated or exploited by others. Healthy boundaries help us build confidence in trusting our emotions in relation to reality. For example, they help us know the difference between infatuation and reality, and to act accordingly. They help us acknowledge the difference between someone’s words and their deeds, because we trust what we see and feel. People with damaged emotional boundaries often trust another person’s opinions, needs, words and desires over their own instincts and what they know to be true. This is often what is happening when someone stays in a relationship that they know is not good for them.
A woman in a long and very unhappy relationship with an extremely immature, manipulative, hostile, withholding, punitive, vindictive serial cheater who does not work, and humiliates and gas lights her every day and calls her a cheater because see “looked at another guy” literally 25 years ago says,
“I know exactly what he is doing, I see him do it, but, you know, he just gets in my head.”
This intelligent woman’s emotional boundaries are virtually erased, leaving her to grapple only with his insane thoughts, feelings and fantasies while being unable to trust her own eyes.
Many more pages can be written about emotional boundaries; the above is just a sampling of some common issues that arise in many families. You will have plenty of your own examples. Each person’s sense of emotional boundaries is impacted by numerous and often unrecognized factors – childhood experiences, family communication styles, gender, culture, socio-economic status, age, you name it, a lot is involved. Every parent and every child has gone through the process of first being completely bonded in pregnancy and infancy, to inch by inch allowing and helping the child to separate and eventually leave the nest. And what helps and supports one child, may hold another back. 99% of parents want the best for their children and 99% of parents do the best they can, but that doesn’t mean you can’t end up with all manner of wacky boundary issues. A lot can go right and a lot can go wrong in the “individuation” process as a child grows up. If your boundaries need a little recalibration, join the club. Refining how we nurture our relationships and care for ourselves is a lifelong learning journey. There are no right and wrong answers here, and there is no one “way” of having or even perceiving emotional boundaries. So, give yourself time to explore, be curious, and practice.
Here are some questions to consider as you explore the state of your emotional boundaries.
Is this happening TO ME or to someone else?
Am I about to help someone behind their back?
If I am feeling left out, how can I soothe myself?
Am I avoiding a conversation because I’m trying to figure out what the other person will say or do?
Do I say Yes automatically? I can take a moment or a day to think about it.
Do I say No automatically? I can take a moment or a day to think about it.
If I’m not sure how or if I can help, did I ask?
Is it “mean” to want or not want something – or is it just awkward to talk about?
Do I get hurt feelings when a close person doesn’t agree with me?
Do I feel disrespected or unloved when a person close to me doesn’t follow my advice?
Do I avoid saying certain things to certain people because “they can’t handle it”?
What exactly does “they can’t handle it” mean? The world would end? They’d have to be committed to an insane asylum? They would murder or banish you?
Or would the other person just make a fuss or pout for days?
Am I not saying something important to me because the other person might take it the wrong way?
Am I about to talk myself into believing something I know isn’t true?
When I get a bad vibe from someone, do I think, or act like I think, “what an awful thing to think about someone”?
Do I spend a lot of time “handling” another person’s reactions or making sure they don’t get upset?
Do I tend find fault with people and things?
When someone has a reaction different from what I expected, do I get mad but try not to show it?
Maybe I’m just sad, or disappointed about something, or feel “unloved” for some reason, but am I acting mad because it’s “their fault”?
Do I often question or ignore my feelings because I’m concerned about how the other person will react?
Do I push people away too fast?
Do I generally feel the need to defend myself from minor slights?
Do my feelings seem to get hurt too easily?
Do I trust and admire people too fast?
Do I overthink everything?
Is it my way or the highway?
Sometimes we fear judgement from others so much that we judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever would.
Unless you are saying or doing something obviously despicable, people probably aren’t judging you.
And sometimes we fear upsetting someone so much that we take on far more angst and worry before they even know what’s going on.
Unless what you are about to say will literally destroy the other person, they can probably handle it, even if they don’t like it.
Our boundaries get healthier as we learn to identify, sort out and accept our own feelings as our own, and as we develop the confidence to express ourselves kindly and clearly, and to hear others kindly and clearly. I think the key is to stay curious about ourselves and others. It’s all very tricky and there are a million shades of grey, which is why we learn about ourselves and make adjustments all throughout our lives.