Emotional boundaries are a crucial part of maintaining personal health and overall well-being. These personal boundaries also can play a big role in improving the health of our relationships. In this article, you will find an overview of what emotional boundaries are; the purpose of emotions and their role in setting emotional boundaries; how to use emotional boundaries; barriers to setting emotional boundaries; myths about boundaries; and why we need emotional boundaries.
What are Emotional Boundaries?
Emotional boundaries are boundaries put in place based on the premise that an individual’s emotions are their own responsibility, and their emotional well-being is within their own control regardless of what might be happening for another person.
The Purpose of Emotions
We often look at emotions as being good or bad. It’s okay to feel happy but we try to ignore, avoid, or push away feelings like sadness or fear. This is unhelpful for three main reasons:
Firstly, these emotions typically don’t go away completely and will find some other way of seeping in. In children and adults, suppressed emotion can perpetuate unmet needs and transform into depression, irritability, body aches and tension or resentment within our relationships.
Secondly, the more we push away our difficult emotions, the less able we are to deal with them when they come again—because they will come up again. Disappointment and sadness are an inevitable part of the human experience.
Lastly, we are also ignoring an important message our body is trying to signal to us when we ignore our emotions. It is very important to learn that our emotions serve a purpose, and it is important to tend to them. Here are the 3 main ways our emotions serve a purpose:
Emotions motivate us. They act as signals to how to act in a situation.
Emotions communicate to others. When we share or express emotions, it helps others understand us better and helps us understand others better.
Emotions signal a need. They tell us what we value and what is important to us or what we may need in that moment in time. If your emotions are signaling that you are overwhelmed, that means you need to take a break or problem solve a better way to approach the situation.
What You Need to Set for Emotional Boundaries
Self-attunement. It is important that we as individuals can practice self-attunement and improve our awareness of our emotional and physical cues on a regular basis. If you aren’t practicing self-attunement, you are probably missing important cues that would signal the need to set an emotional boundary.
Permission. Give yourself permission to focus on yourself and make your safety and comfort a priority.
Personal responsibility. Take ownership over your own feelings and don’t be made to feel responsible for others’ feelings.
How to Execute Emotional Boundaries: Verbal or Non-Verbal
The exact execution of boundaries can vary. I often share with clients that emotional boundaries can be executed 3 different ways depending on you, your safety, the situation, and the type of relationship. Here are 3 ways emotional boundaries can be executed with some examples.
1. Verbal: Communicate the boundary with an explanation.
This can be a very helpful way to set an emotional boundary in different situations. One situation this can be helpful is within close trusting relationships that you want to have a meaningful connection (i.e., romantic partner, family member or friend). Another situation this can be helpful is with relationships you want to build trust or practice transparency (i.e., employer, professional relationships). Lastly, this can be helpful in a situation or with a person that you anticipate the boundary will need to be reinforced again in the future.
Example with partner: “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. It’s difficult for me to talk about our to-do list right after finishing meetings at work. I’m going to take a minute to collect myself in the other room and I’d like to talk about this again later today or another time”.
Example with co-worker: “I am going to answer phone calls between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm and anything outside of that, I’ll reply the following day. I want to be transparent so you know what to expect and so that I can practice a healthy work/life balance”.
Example: “I don’t feel safe or respected when you yell or call me names. If you raise your voice, I’m going to take a break from the conversation until we can speak with each other in a respectful way”
2. Verbal: Communicate boundary with no explanation.
This can be a helpful way to protect ourselves and set a boundary when we are in a situation with someone who the relationship is more surface level or someone who we may not feel emotionally safe with. Reasons for this could be that we are dealing with someone who is not appropriate to get detailed with our feelings, someone we don’t trust, someone who has been difficult, disrespectful, abusive or overbearing, or generally someone who we have decided that it would be unhelpful or harmful to give an explanation or be open with our feelings. This could be anyone ranging from family member, friend, acquaintance, or someone at work.
Examples: “No.” “I can’t help you with this”. “I’ll get back to you on this”. “I’m going to have to call you back later” “I can’t have this conversation right now”. “I’m going to take a break and come back in a little while” “I need some space”
3. Non-Verbal: Take action without verbalizing or communicating.
This way of setting an emotional boundary is really meant to prioritize your safety and well-being and less about improving the specific relationship. Sometimes we have to make decisions to prioritize ourselves, protect ourselves or preserve our resources without involving another person.
Example: You may not answer a phone call when you are stressed, busy or hurting about something. You may stop texting someone back if they are being aggressive or hurtful. You may take longer in the shower or the bathroom while the family is visiting because you need a moment to relax or disconnect from the situation.
Barriers: What Can Get in the Way of Setting Boundaries
While using emotional boundaries is incredibly important, there can be a lot of reasons why it is hard to set them. Below is a list of common things that can get in the way of being able to confidently enforce emotional boundaries. Individuals typically need the support of a therapist to learn how to set emotional boundaries if any of the following apply to their life or situation.
Trauma/ emotional wounds
History or ongoing situation of abuse
Other people/difficult people
Challenging family dynamics
Longstanding role you have played in your life (i.e. people pleaser, helper, caretaker)
Lack of support
Unhelpful beliefs (“I’m not worthy.” “My worth is dependent on—what I can do for others, my accomplishments, if others are happy, etc”)
Myths About Boundaries
1. MYTH: Setting boundaries is selfish.
TRUTH: Boundaries are necessary.
TRUTH: Everyone is responsible for their own emotions and emotional well-being.
2. MYTH: Setting boundaries is telling someone what to do.
TRUTH: An individual can only control themselves and boundaries are about what they do. Example: “I am going to walk away and come back when I feel calm”.
TRUTH: Boundaries are not demands or threats. “You need to leave. You have to tell me your sorry” are not boundaries; those are commands.
3. MYTH: Boundaries hurt relationships.
TRUTH: Boundaries help relationships.
TRUTH: Boundaries help us understand each other better and how to treat each other in a respectful way. Boundaries can help us feel safer and more connected in relationships.
TRUTH: We can practice communication, empathy, respect, and care with someone AND still practice emotional boundaries to protect ourselves.
4. MYTH: Boundaries should be the same for everyone.
TRUTH: Boundaries can and should look different for different people and situations in your life. You will have different emotional boundaries with your partner than you do your co-worker or an acquaintance.
TRUTH: Boundaries can change over time or based on different situations.
Why We Need Emotional Boundaries
No one else is responsible for taking care of our emotions. We hope that people will care and respect our needs, but it is our responsibility as an individual to take ownership of ourselves and wellbeing. Below is a bulleted list of some of the reasons/ benefits of setting emotional boundaries.
To protect our emotional wellbeing and safety.
To preserve our resources + energy.
To improve relationships.
To teach people how to treat us.
To create more sustainable ways of interacting with our day and people in our lives.
To model for others and especially those who look up to us and learn from us the importance of taking care of ourselves and emotional well-being (i.e., children, students, staff, colleagues).
Have Compassion, Be Patient, and Seek Support
Emotional boundaries are essential in promoting personal health as well as promoting healthy relationships. It is also important to note that it can be a real challenge to implement emotional boundaries. It can be difficult to practice self-attunement, find the balance between personal needs and external demands and to overcome any of the barriers I listed earlier in this article. If you find that setting emotional boundaries is difficult, it is important to have compassion for yourself, have patience, remember it takes practice and don’t be afraid to seek support.
Melissa Forero, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at Lukin Center Psychotherapy, focused on trauma, relational issues, and emotional regulation, as well as treating adults and adolescents with anxiety and depression.
Melissa tailors her treatment to meet the individual needs of her clients through a combination of processing and solution-focused approaches. She strives to create an environment in which clients feel heard, cared for, and empowered to build resiliency for long term health and wellbeing. She believes in the power of human growth and healing through a framework of evidence-based practices and a strong therapeutic relationship.
Melissa has worked with clients within a variety of outpatient settings and different levels of care, and she has provided both individual and group psychotherapy to adolescents, adults, and their families. She has extensive experience in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), a comprehensive and evidence-based treatment for distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and emotional regulation.
Throughout her studies, Melissa received both nationally and internationally recognized awards for academic excellence and leadership skills. She also served in numerous local and international intern and volunteer positions. Melissa earned a dual bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and master’s degree (MSW) from Columbia University in New York City.
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