Emotional Boundaries

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 best 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 healthy friendship. It's a reflection of poor emotional boundaries.

For me, emotional boundaries have been one of the hardest parts of my life to cultivate and maintain.

I have always been an extremist; thinking in black and whites, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, and even living to the extreme. I'm the type of person that tends to eat healthy and go to yoga every day or not at all. I will either neglect self-care and show up for everyone else all the time, or I will spend a whole week after work laying on my couch watching Netflix and claiming it's what I need to do rejuvenate.

So where's the balance?

I learned about emotional boundaries the hard way.

I was an intern working throughout graduate school. I remember feeling infinitely stressed at all times about the prognosis of my patients.

What if they relapse?

What if I can't keep them sober?

What if they end up dying?

There are numerous cognitive distortions in these three questions alone. First and foremost, I can't keep anyone sober or make them relapse. I don't have that power. I can go to the ends of the earth to try to save another person, only to be met with disappointment and shame when they act on their own will and make their own decisions.

I would feel exhausted after work. I would ruminate about peers who I knew were struggling with emotional pain or addiction issues. I would obsess about possible outcomes of their actions and what I can do to change their course or make them get better.

All the while, I was completely neglecting myself.

After numerous people I knew passed away, I felt like I had nothing to give. I felt powerless, helpless, and useless. I felt like I didn't know what my purpose was if I couldn't really help people.

But I had been looking at "helping" the wrong way. I was really internalizing how I could save others.

This manifested in my friendships just as much as it manifested in my professional relationships with patients. I struggled with emotional boundaries. And as a result, I told myself that I had nothing to give because I couldn't create the change in others that I wanted to.

The reality is that I cannot save anyone.

The reality is that all I can do is show up, make myself available, and provide the tools, and whether or not a patient, friend, or family member chooses to pick up those tools is on them.

Talk about a weight lifted off my shoulders.

So how do we cultivate emotional boundaries?

First, identify where you are lacking. 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?

In my experience, it 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.

Well, that's not very fair to someone.

Next time you are struggling, as yourself, do you want someone to problem-solve and fix it for you? Or would you benefit much more from someone simply holding space for your experience and being there for you? When you were going through a difficult time, is there someone who saved you? Or were you able to choose the tools you were going to use and dig yourself out of your own hole?

We crave the semblance of control. Acknowledging that we are powerless over other people is terrifying. For me, it was exponentially more difficult than admitting powerless over my addiction to substances.

You may be wondering, but if you're not feeling pain for another person, aren't you just detached and callous?


You'll find that you have much more energy to be useful to others and available to show up for people's difficulties if you are saving some of that precious energy. If I pour everything I have into feeling for all of my patients, I wouldn't actually be useful at all. I would be burnt out, exhausted, and rendered pretty useless in a work setting. How would I be able to then show up for my friends and family?

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, 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.

I hope this helps any of you who may be struggling with giving your all to everyone else.

We have the capacity to give endlessly, as long as we are receiving endlessly as well.


Suggested video:

Brené Brown on Boundaries


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Baltimore, Maryland