Emotional boundaries are limits that keep us safe. They represent the bottom line of what we will and will not accept or do.
Healthy emotional boundaries keep us mindful of our responsibility to ourselves and keep us from feeling responsible for others’ feelings.
They let us know who we should let in (and just how far) and who we should keep out.
It can be difficult to envision healthy emotional boundaries, so I like to think of them as different barriers within a gated community.
Imagine yourself living in a beautiful and well protected gated community. You live in a warm and cozy house. This is the place you feel safest. The people you invite into your emotional home are the people you most enjoy. They love you and you love them. When you’re with them you feel good, accepted and understood.
The next boundary in your neighborhood is your front porch. Imagine yourself greeting someone at the door of your home. You close the door behind you and invite them to visit with you in a space on your front porch. This space feels less vulnerable and open than your home.
This space may be reserved for people you don’t know well. Or people who have a tendency toward the negative. These people may be more critical or judgmental than the people you invite into your home. They may use manipulation and guilt to get from you what they want. By keeping them outside your home, you stay more cognizant of your boundaries and aware of red flags that may come up as you interact.
Now, you take a short walk to the perimeter of your neighborhood. You wave to the security guard and she opens the gate for you. You greet your next visitor warmly but with reserve. You know this person. She seems to really care for you, and yet, you always feel bad after spending time with her. So you talk with her for a bit, keeping the conversation light and superficial. She hints that she would like to visit you in your home, or at least your front porch. But you know better.
You hold your boundary politely, but firmly. You are actively guarding against manipulation, shaming, guilting and blame in this interaction. This comes quite naturally to you here at the gate. You are conscious of your feelings, your communication and what you choose to own in this interaction.
The next day, you are having coffee and reading the paper when your security guard buzzes you. There is someone here to see you. It’s someone you know well. In fact, you have a long history together. This person has been abusive to you. You’ve attempted to share your feelings with this person before. You’ve tried to let them know what it was like for you to be abused by someone you loved and trusted. This did not go well. This person became angry and blamed you for the abuse.
You recall your experiences with this person and inform the security guard that you are not taking visitors today. Your security guard shares this information with your visitor and you go on with your coffee and paper.
Guilt begins to creep in. Maybe this person only wants to talk with you, or apologize even. But you remind yourself that you are responsible for protecting yourself emotionally and you are not responsible for the emotional well being of your visitor. You choose to focus on enjoying your coffee and the paper.