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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Creating Emotional Boundaries as a Form of Self-Love

During the month of love, it's easy to focus on showering the relationships in your life with love and affection, but it can be hard to turn those efforts inward. Part of caring for yourself is setting emotional boundaries. Emotional boundaries are important for establishing a sense of self-worth and a sense of self-love. You might imagine your emotional boundaries as a protective bubble. This bubble keeps your emotions in and others’ emotions out.

Emotional boundaries give you the ability to witness others’ emotions without taking their emotions into your bubble as your responsibility to react to, fix, or solve. They enable you to discern where your emotions end and another person’s emotions begin.

Without emotional boundaries, others’ emotions flood into our bubble like ink into a pool of water. As a result, we become highly reactive to others’ emotions.

From this place of high reactivity, we often:

  • Adopt their emotions as our own

  • Do whatever we can to ease their anger, frustration, anxiety, or guilt—even if the actions we take aren’t aligned with what we want or who we are

  • React very strongly and negatively to even the slightest hint of others’ disapproval, disagreement, or frustration

  • Have difficulty maintaining our own emotional reality when someone else feels differently

  • Become scared, defensive, or angry when others don’t feel the same way we feel

Being highly reactive to others’ emotions can feel exhausting⁠—like navigating a tiny boat in stormy waters, completely at the whim of the unpredictable sea.

When we strengthen our emotional boundaries, we regain a sense of stability in our lives. Small emotional differences between ourselves and others no longer provoke visceral and destabilizing reactions within us. We begin to experience more spaciousness, and in that spaciousness, we begin to prioritize our own emotions⁠.

Strengthening your emotional boundaries is a long-term process that takes time and commitment. One way we can practice is by changing our patterns of reactivity in our existing relationships with family members, partners, and friends.

Step 1: Notice Your Reactivity

The first step in changing any habit is simply to notice when the problem behavior arises. The pattern of being highly reactive to others’ emotions is so deeply ingrained that it takes practice to become aware that it’s happening.

You might make a habit of beginning to notice when you:

  • React very strongly to others’ emotions

  • Regularly get involved in others’ conflicts or disagreements

  • Feel responsible for fixing others’ problems

  • Feel especially prone to guilt trips (even if you’ve done nothing wrong)

  • Struggle to disagree with others

Practice noticing how you feel in your heart and body when this reactivity arises. Take a mental note:

  • “I feel tightness in my chest and discomfort in my heart when my coworker complains about their hard workday.”

  • “I feel on the verge of tears when my partner expresses a minor disagreement, like preferring to go to dinner at a different restaurant than the one I suggested.”

  • “I feel broiling anxiety in your stomach when my adult daughter tells me about the argument she had with her partner.”

Step 2: Remember Your Bubble

With this new awareness, you can begin altering your reactions. When you notice yourself becoming reactive, you might ask yourself: “Is this mine?”

This simple inquiry helps us check in with ourselves and determine whether we’re feeling an emotion grounded in our own experience, or whether someone else’s emotion has infiltrated our bubble.

If your answer is “No—this isn’t mine,” take a moment to visualize your emotional boundaries surrounding you. You can visualize a translucent bubble, a golden force field, or a sturdy fence. Whatever you are most comfortable with. Visualize yourself safe and protected in the center of your emotional boundaries, and remember that their emotions are outside of your bubble—and as such, not yours to manage.

Step 3: Act Non-Reactively

Finally, we practice being less outwardly reactive in real time.

In the early stages of our practice, we may have to work on acting non-reactively even if our hearts and minds still feel emotionally charged. With practice, though, this becomes habitual⁠—and the potent emotions subside more quickly.

Here is an example of what this process can look like from start to finish:

After months of searching for a new job, you were finally offered a position at an agency in a neighboring state. You’re leaving town in two weeks for the new position.

Your parents are deeply disappointed that you’ll be leaving the town you grew up in. Whenever you get together, they despair at how lonely they will be when you leave. They ask guilt-inducing questions like “Who will go shopping with your mother when you’re gone?” and “Two hours is far too long to have to drive!” They’ve even asked you if you’re sure you want to take this position and “leave them behind.”

In the past, you’ve been profoundly impacted by their guilt trips. Sometimes, you’ve even changed your decisions to accommodate them. But now, you’re working on your emotional boundaries.

When your parents make a statement intended to provoke guilt, you pause and notice the anxiety in your body: Tightness in my chest. Shortness of breath. Racing heart. You remind yourself that their despair doesn’t belong to you and isn’t yours to manage.

You imagine yourself surrounded by the golden forcefield that is your emotional boundary. You remind yourself that, within the force field, you are excited about this move. You’re proud and hopeful about this transition.

Instead of engaging with your parents in a defense or justification of your move, you then act non-reactively by saying, “I know y’all are disappointed, but I’m excited for this exciting moment in my career.” You give yourself permission not to engage in a discussion intended to guilt you back into staying. If their unhelpful comments continue, you might even exit the phone call or leave the gathering on your own terms.

At first, this process of establishing emotional boundaries can feel uncomfortable because it’s very different from the over-functioning role we’ve played previously.

You might find yourself feeling guilty when you release yourself from the task of finding solutions for other's’, dwelling on others’ problems⁠, or feeling incapable of relaxing when those near you feel uncomfortable. A part of you might struggle to access what you want to do or feel, because you’re so accustomed to living on others’ emotional terms.

This discomfort is a great sign that you’re at your growth edge. No healing process is without its growing pains! Keep going, and remember: The key is practice. You are strengthening your boundary-setting muscle, and every time you choose a new way of reacting, that muscle gets stronger.

Keep in mind that complete emotional detachment is not the goal of emotional boundaries. We’re not meant to be robots. It’s only natural to feel a little sad when your loved ones feel sad, or to be troubled by a loved one’s struggles or anxieties.

Reactivity becomes problematic when we feel like our reactions to others’ emotions dominating our lives⁠—when our ability to understand what we feel and what we need feels clouded—or when we find ourselves unable to participate in our relationships as independent, differentiated people.

Emotional boundaries are not about going from feeling everything to feeling nothing. They’re about finding a middle ground: ⁠a space where we can feel and respond lovingly to others’ emotions without letting those emotions dictate our own realities.


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