Safe Haven Counselling

Emotional Boundaries: What They are and How to Create Them

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.

Brené Brown

Boundaries. It’s a word that gets flung around a lot on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook. We’re told we need boundaries to avoid burnout, people pleasing and to keep our lives in balance. We have a general idea of what this means, but often there’s confusion about what exactly emotional boundaries are and how to set and maintain them.

Emotional Boundaries 101

There are several different types of boundaries, including physical, emotional, intellectual, material, spiritual, financial and time. This article deals with the subject of emotional boundaries only.

I like to think of an emotional boundary as those limits we set with ourselves and others to enable optimal mental health. Imagine drawing a circle around yourself and keeping all of your emotions within your circle where you are free to express them but they are yours to own and be responsible for. Now imagine someone else in their circle. They too hold on to their emotions and take responsibility for them. But what would it look like if you no longer had your circle and they no longer had theirs? You would be taking responsibility for their emotions and they for yours. You wouldn’t know where you end and they begin. This is where we get into trouble with co-dependency, caretaking, and emotionally abusive relationships.

As you can imagine, our emotional boundaries closely mirror our values, worldview, and beliefs. Emotional boundaries show up predominantly in our relationships and may look like setting expectations around the behaviours we will and won’t accept. For example:

  • “It is not acceptable to me that you call me names.”
  • “If you yell at me I need to leave the room.”
  • “When you make fun of me it makes me uncomfortable. Please don’t do that.”

These are the kinds of emotional boundaries that demand respect and consideration in a relationship. We are able to set these boundaries when we first honour and respect ourselves.

In other cases it may look like learning to say no so we don’t give too much to others and nothing to ourselves. This tends to be a big problem for people pleasers. Here’s an example:

  • “I am willing to help out when I can but I also need to take care of myself so I have to say no this time to take care of me.”

Personal Boundaries Versus Boundaries with Others

Most of the time we think of boundaries as those limitations we set in our relationships, but often the boundary needs to be within ourselves. Let’s take, for example, an individual who works a nine to five job and doesn’t get paid overtime. Every day they wake up and check their emails and schedule for an hour before going to work. When they come home, they eat dinner and then spend their evening plugging away at a work project. Many of their days look the same and they have little time to relax and be free of work. This is both a time boundary and an emotional boundary.

Is the necessary boundary here one that must be set within the individual or the employer?

Likely, the answer is both. The more we give, the more people will take and expect of us. First we must create a boundary with ourselves that respects our need for work-life balance, self-care and self-respect. We then must communicate that need to our employer. Whether the employer respects our need is a different matter. The issue then becomes more about reasonable expectations and whether we are willing to sacrifice our mental and physical health for our job.

Some people find it easier to set boundaries with others than with themselves because it doesn’t require self discipline. Others, however, find that setting ones own boundaries is far easier because there is no risk of conflict. Whichever comes easier for you is a sign that you might need to work on the other type of boundary setting.

Diffuse, Rigid and Flexible Emotional Boundaries

In psychology we refer to three types of boundaries: diffuse, rigid, and flexible.

A diffuse boundary is one that is very blurred or open. A person with diffuse boundaries may be a people pleaser and have low self-esteem. They may be dependent on others and dislike having control or authority. Often those with diffuse boundaries are afraid of losing people and will say ‘yes’ even when it harms them to do so. If a boundary is set and then crossed, a person with diffuse boundaries will often defer to the other person.

A rigid boundary is one that, by contrast, is too closed. Those whose boundaries are rigid want to have control and authority; to be respected and seen as superior. They hate to show any signs of weakness and tend to see situations as black or white. Those with rigid boundaries are apt to use guilt and manipulation to maintain control over themselves and others. If one of their boundaries is crossed, they may respond with anger or withdrawal and will try to make the boundary even more difficult to counter.

A flexible boundary is exactly that: flexible. No matter what boundaries we set for ourselves and others there needs to be the option for those boundaries to change with circumstances and need. Those with flexible boundaries contribute ideas and take risks. They can adapt to change and respond from a place of self-trust and security. They respect themselves and build relationships with others who feel the same. If their boundaries are crossed they are able to assess the situation objectively, letting go of those people who repeatedly disrespect their boundaries, while holding grace for those who may have done so inadvertently.

Your Boundary Setting Barometer

Where do you feel like you fall in the above categories of boundary setters? If you identify as being a rigid or diffuse boundary setter, it may be helpful for you to think of swinging the pendulum more towards the centre. As a people pleaser who struggles with diffuse boundaries, think of one area of your life where you tend to say ‘yes’ but would love to say ‘no.’ This may be at work or in friendships, or in your romantic relationship. Pick one area or person where you would like to see change and begin with just one boundary.

For those rigid boundary setters, it may be scary to think of loosening your boundaries to let other people or risky situations take control. The challenge for you is to loosen those boundaries and to see if shifting them in a more flexible direction makes space for more intimacy and freedom in your life. This will be a big challenge so start small. I recommend considering how your boundaries may currently be keeping you away from deeper connected relationships and restricting your life experiences. The desire to change something can only come from an awareness of how that thing may currently be holding you back.

If you feel like you have a fairly good sense of your emotional boundaries and fall somewhere in the middle of rigid and diffuse, check in to see if there are any areas of your life where you struggle with boundary setting. It may be that you do great in your personal relationships but terrible in the workplace. We all tend to have some people pleasing tendencies, simply because we are human and seek connection. Where do you tend to people please the most and is it holding you back in any way?

Final Thoughts

Setting emotional boundaries may be a totally new concept to you or you may have been practicing for years. Wherever you are with them, the idea of creating a circle around you (this could look like a bubble or piece of string) is helpful in thinking about what you want to belong to you and allow in, and what you want to keep on the outside. This can be a helpful exercise to do with a therapist as, depending on your life experiences, you may be confused about what is healthy to keep on the outside and what is healthy to allow in to your circle.

Questions? Please ask away in the comments. I would be happy to have the conversation with you!