Knowing how much to give and how much to take is a tough line to draw.
If you don’t agree, it may be because you don’t realize you struggle with them. While some people are fortunate enough to understand emotional boundaries, many of us don’t. And even if we’re not giving or allowing too much, we may be doing the opposite — asking too much of others.
The only way we learn boundaries is what we pick up through interactions. But because so few of us have any good understanding, we often perpetuate bad habits and poor boundaries rather than understanding good ones.
There’s a lot of bad information on boundaries.
Even resources on boundaries beat around the bush, instead covering “how important they are” (duh) or “how to stand up for yourself” and “say no.”
But those aren’t the real issue we have, evidenced by the fact that most of us sway erratically from one end of the spectrum to the other in attempt to find balance. We find ourselves feeling unappreciated, so we get passive-aggressive to get even.
So far most resources fail to address the real issue in emotional boundaries. We know we’re supposed to say NO. We just don’t always know WHEN.
Much like logic or other types of self-awareness, it’s hard to know when our thinking is “good” or “right.” And when it’s actually flawed, we can’t see it. It’s really hard to know if our judgement is right.
Where do we draw the line?
Here’s what I understand:
Emotional boundaries are the distinction of self vs others. They’re the limit of what we will accept from or put on others to protect ourselves. This doesn’t just mean “not putting up with their shit.” It means meeting our own needs, rather than expecting others to.
Emotional boundaries include defining ourselves outside of our relationships with others (our jobs, marital statuses, etc.) and enables us to define our feelings separately from others.
Healthy boundaries mean taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while not taking responsibility for others’ actions or emotions. It’s understanding we are not responsible for what others think or feel, including how they believe we should think or feel.
Emotional boundaries are built on emotional health, self-esteem, and self-love.
Emotional health (and self-esteem and self-love) are the most important thing in a relationship. It’s all one package deal.
Emotional boundaries are as important as physical boundaries. This means we are not obligated to share our thoughts or feelings with anyone just like we are ever obligated to have sex with anyone, including our partner. (And we are no more entitled to what’s in other people’s heads, or them ours, than we are to each other’s bodies.)
Emotional boundaries protect us from intimidation, manipulation, shaming, and emotional abuse (which are always indications of unhealthy emotional boundaries.)
Emotional boundaries require emotion work, which is not the same as emotional labor. (Incidentally: frustration around emotional labor is a big, bright red flag for poor emotional boundaries.)
Our feelings often aren’t “real.” So how do we manage them?
Yes, we are entitled to feel our feelings. But that doesn’t mean our feelings are always right, reasonable, or anybody else’s responsibility. And without emotion work, they can’t define emotional boundaries.
Resources on emotional boundaries often advise the reader to simply “understand what upsets, hurts, or offends” us. One article said, “When you feel anger or resentment… determine what you need… then communicate assertively.”
That is terrible advice in the sense that it skips a step: solving our problems for ourselves first.
We need to deal with our own emotions before putting them back on others. Our feelings are our own responsibility first. We’re in control.
Part of being an adult (and developing emotional boundaries) is also about being able to discern which emotions are yours alone to deal with, and not project on others.
Sometimes people struggle to stand up for their feelings. Sometimes people struggle to understand the world isn’t responsible for soothing everything they feel. Most people struggle with discerning the difference, and bounce back and forth between the two.
So, the question here is on emotion work, really. How to manage our own emotions and discern what’s ours to fix (hint: most of it), and what’s for other people.
Here are my open questions:
1. Who decides?
Resources often brush people off with advice like: “know your boundary and then say no.” Which leaves us like, “Thanks, Doc.”
The problem is we’re so biased and bad at it, so we can’t trust our own judgment yet. So who decides? Or, better yet: how do we know when we can? What if we don’t care? Should we?
I grab fries off my partner’s plate and borrow his clothes all the time without asking. I moved across the country for him. I listen when he jumps straight to “problem-solving” when I share something.
Are those poor boundaries? Even if neither of us cares, should we? Hell, even if we think we’re happy, should we be?
2. Similarly: Where do we draw the line?
We are subconsciously socialized to empathize with other people’s feelings, but then we’re told not to take on other people’s feelings. People tell us to “stand up for ourselves,” but also “surrender to love.” They say to “say no” but never “shut down.”
We’re warned against becoming “emotionally exhausted” after talking to others, but we’re also warned against “withdrawing” or “walling others out.” People say “the opposite of love is not ‘hate’ but ‘apathy’” (or maybe “fear?”), which means loving is caring — but what’s too much?
We’re not supposed to sacrifice our dreams for relationships, but most dreams are fantasies anyway. (Would you reeaally move to a cabin in Vermont??)
When it comes to others’ emotions, it makes sense: be open to others, but don’t take on their emotions. Fine. It’s not actually as clear as it sounds in practice, but it’s fine enough on paper. (Eat the cookie without becoming it. Eat the cookie without needing to identify as “cookie eater.” Fine.)
But what about our emotions, thoughts, preferences, ideas? And how should those two come together? How do we make this all work? How do we discern and compromise?
It’s always bad when people try to change their partners.
Except it’s not always bad, because there are caveats like if their habit is objectively bad, like smoking. But what if it’s subjectively bad, or just sort of bad? Who gets to decide? Do they compromise? Should both have to give 50% if the habit is only regarding one person’s body or life? How much agency do we have over one another? And how does their agency affect our own?
What I know for sure
- Emotional boundaries are incredibly important.
- Emotional boundaries — and needs — are foremost our own responsibility
It all comes down to a better understanding of — and accountability for — our feelings and thoughts and what we truly want most, and expecting the same of people in our life.