What’s an emotional boundary and where can I get one?

Nov 5, 2015 | Mood

Therapists talk a lot about boundaries, but we don’t often stop to define them. So this week, as I catch more than my usual number of despairing text messages (maybe it’s the weather?), I need to give myself a refresher course. Hopefully you’ll get something out of this too.

An emotional boundary keeps you intact, as a whole person, when someone you care about has strong emotion (about you) or becomes invasive (or abusive or threatening). It sounds like…..


“I’m not available for that.”

“You feel your feelings, I’ll feel mine.”

“I need to rest now. We can talk again later.”

If you want to cultivate healthy relationships, nothing beats having a good emotional boundary. An emotional boundary protects your energy reserves when someone tries to hold you responsible for their well-being. It sounds like……

“I think I’ll be going now.”

“I care, but this is your deal.”

“I wish I could take away your pain, but I can’t.”

“I love you AND I have to step away from this.”

An emotional boundary operates inside, like a gauge that registers space, time, money, closeness, hurt. It looks like…….

You, honoring your exercise time every morning, no matter who asks you to start work early.

You, protecting your schedule, hoarding quiet space for your thoughts.

You, detoxing yourself, after a poison encounter with a destructive person…..by talking with someone who loves you unconditionally.

Like an umbrella or a rooftop, emotional boundaries protect us from what’s falling down around us. A dry spot in a rainstorm lets you keep working, keep writing, keep singing. Like skin, emotional boundaries show the separation between you and me. This helps you see who’s who: my drinking, raging, anxiety is not your fault.

In a love relationship, you need your emotional boundary, even though you may wish you could glue yourself to the person you adore. Your partner drags her issues into the relationship: old, hard-sided Samsonite suitcases full of experiences and hurts that have nothing to do with you. You drag in your own luggage. We can help each other heal, but only if both of us commit to it. No person can do the emotional work of another.

So let’s take a look around your house. What object reminds you of the boundary you need right now? A bandaid? A blanket? A helmet? A ring? Grab whatever represents the delineation you most need right now. A pair of gloves to remind you you’re dealing with someone who bites? A small wooden box to house your good heart?

Oh, and writing helps with this. Putting just a few words on paper every day causes the right boundaries to form. I can’t explain it – it just does.

Call me if you’d like help to install some emotional boundaries, or refurbish your old ones.


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