Understanding emotional boundaries, what they are and how to hold them is one of the most prominent and critical themes that regularly presents in my clinic as a psychotherapist.
For so many of us they were likely never formed, as we may have been raised in a household or culture where the very opposite idea heroed – to be selfless. If we break that word down of course we get ‘self-less’, a lack of self, an absence of self, the abandonment of oneself. As frightening as this is this is something that multiple generations were either explicitly told was a great act or conversely learned in the unspoken that to have needs was to be considered selfish and deeply self-centred.
You can understand then why our challenge is not just to learn what emotional boundaries are and how to hold them but also what stops us from doing so, mainly the impact we assume responsibility for on others when we do.
The truth is that learning to hold emotional boundaries has very little to do with the other at
its core. It is about you establishing a relationship with yourself, within which you understand what you need and is OK with you and what you don’t and is not.
Simply put, emotional boundaries keep us safe and protect our needs which can be mental, emotional, and physical.
To bring this to life in my clinic I often use my shirt as an example. It can be easier to recognise the essence of something through the physical first as the material world is one in which we tend to connect more readily than our sometimes unconsciously hidden emotional.
We all understand what a physical boundary does, it is a deliberate delineation between where one thing begins and ends and where the next begins and ends.
So, let’s say I meet my friend for lunch. I am wearing a new shirt I bought a few months ago. I love it. The fabric feels soft on my skin, the price was right, and I think the colour looks great on me, so off I go feeling good in myself and my shirt.
Upon meeting my friend, she comments on my shirt, she loves it. Of course, it feels good that she likes it, but know that she didn’t gift me liking it. I liked it a few months ago when I chose to buy it in the store for all the reasons I did.
In that example we aren’t too threatened as she liked it, but now let’s turn that around.
I meet my friend for lunch, and she hates my shirt! In fact, she is so embarrassed by me in it, she asks if I have a jumper to pull over it. In this example, if I do not see myself as separate from my friend, if I have no emotional boundary keeping my thoughts, my views and my values separate to hers, what is likely to happen in me? I suspect I would collapse. I would feel shamed, I may even tease that out to my entire outfit and my ability to ever make a positive dress choice moving forward.
I may hand over the truth of how I feel about my shirt to my friend and my view or beliefs about my shirt are long gone and replaced by hers.
And this is exactly what can happen to how we feel about ourselves when we are do not
have strong emotional boundaries.
Can you imagine being out in the world boundary-less and at the mercy of which way the others wind is blowing. Not only exhausting but dangerous and this becomes much more serious when we look at this dynamic in intimate relationships, places of work and extended family dynamics where we may have been raised to silencing our truth for fear of upsetting the other and or the consequences of doing so.
Overlay this with one of the basic rules of human behaviour, which is when we don’t get our needs met, we become resentful and now we have a whole group of us who are neglecting the truth of what we need and wondering why we feel just a little bit angry most of the time as we forge ourselves for the other.
At this point in the article, I invite you to take a deep breath if this is deeply resonating with you in your life. I reassure you that you are not alone, most of us were never taught to hold boundaries and in fact became who we needed to be because for a period in our lives it served us not to hold them, it wasn’t safe or appropriate to do so.
There can be a lot of grief in us as we recognise the origins of where we first turned away from ourselves and why we needed to do so. There can also be a big tussle between the part of you who wants to evolve and stand in his or her truth and the part who is so conditioned to hold such judgement against doing so and placing all the value on the others experience.
This is such a huge topic as before we can even hold a boundary, we must have a health sense of who we are and what it is we do actually want and need, and it may be that we need to spend some time here first connecting back into ourselves before we know what or who it is we are actually trying to protect.
The journey of re-educating ourselves to recognise our needs and reclaim our worth was the core of my six-week course ‘Reclaiming I Matter’. I always say, this is the course I wish I had found to teach me what I wish I had known!
However, the good news is it is never too late to start and like physical muscle we can learn to recognise, strengthen, and grow our emotional muscle and ultimately live less resentful, happier, and healthier lives.
As a PACFA registered Psychotherapist, I specialise in supporting people journey deeper into their own truth and sense of right and wrong. From my consulting room in Bowral in NSW or online from the comfort of your own home, I work with you to look inward, reclaim your inner power and find true joy again. Get in touch with me to start your journey back to yourself.
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