Sometimes one of the best ways to help and support your loved ones deal with their pain and problems is by drawing emotional boundaries around yourself. Now, this might sound selfish or even straight-up wrong, but it’s actually necessary, for you and also them.
Do you ever feel like you’re taking on someone else’s problem as your own?
I was recently talking to a close friend about how she’s been doing. When asked this question, she responded with, “This last month has been absolute hell.” She proceeded to tell me about how two of her close friends were struggling with relapse and relationship issues, and how other friends have an immense amount of toxicity and drama in their lives right now.
I inquired, knowing what her answer would be, “So what does that have to do with you?”
She looked confused. Obviously, her friends being in a state of pain, discomfort, and instability has an impact on her. But for her life to feel unmanageable as a result of others’ pain is actually not a reflection of a healthy friendship. It’s a reflection of poor emotional boundaries.
How Do We Cultivate Emotional Boundaries?
Step 1: Identify where you are lacking emotional boundaries.
Is it with a specific friend, family member, colleague, or all of the above? Is there a tendency to become more invested in people who are struggling with a specific issue that you have had experience with? What is the ultimate goal? What is the emotional trigger underneath the behavior?
In my personal experience, the emotional trigger has typically been that I think I know what’s best for another person. I start to take on their pain as my own, and I miss my opportunities for genuine empathy because I am thinking about how I can best help/save them.
Step 2: Identify what is blocking you from detaching.
One of my favorite quotes is by the poet Rumi: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Thus, the second step is to identify what it is internally that is blocking us from detaching or setting a boundary.
Do you feel “stuck”? Have you inadvertently signed up for a caretaking role in this relationship or in your friendships? Are you telling yourself that, “They’re my family—I can’t detach from them”?
It is incredibly empowering to remember that we do not need to sign up for any relationship (aside from some exceptions like employers, coworkers, etc.) that we don’t want to. If you are miserable at work, what is blocking you from looking for other employment? If you are in a one-sided friendship, what is blocking you from walking away? If you feel responsible for the wellbeing of others, what is blocking you from accepting that you don’t have that kind of power or responsibility?
Step 3: Do everything you can do break those barriers down.
I personally have found therapy incredibly helpful in this regard. Work through the barriers—don’t try to go around them. Journaling, intention setting, prayer, or conversing with healthy friends can all be helpful tools. We often cannot think our way out of our own emotional experiences; we need a sounding board.
Step 4: Find grounding tools that help you maintain your boundaries.
I love energy work. I was once told to picture an opaque bubble around me when I’m dealing with someone who is in pain. I can show up for that person, be present and aware, and hold space for their experience, but their energy is not penetrating that bubble.
Whether it’s someone who is sad, angry, toxic, negative, grieving, or any other emotion on the human spectrum, I do not need to let it get into my bubble. I can be grounded, secure in myself, and present for that person.
But if I don’t have those boundaries in place, my relationships will undoubtedly become enmeshed and unhealthy.