Setting Emotional Boundaries in Relationships

By Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC

verified by Psychology Today

Setting good personal boundaries is critical to creating healthy relationships, increasing self- esteem and reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Boundaries protect your personal self by setting a clear line between what is me and what is not me. A lack of boundaries opens the door for others to determine your thoughts, feelings, and needs. Defining boundaries is a process of determining what behavior you will accept from others and what you will not.

Boundaries include physical boundaries, as well as, emotional boundaries. Physical boundaries include your body, personal space, and privacy. Violations include standing too close, inappropriate touching, even looking through your personal files or your phone. Emotional boundaries involve separating your feelings from another’s feelings. Violations include, taking responsibility for another’s feelings, letting another’s feelings dictate your own, sacrificing your own needs to please another, blaming others for your problems, and accepting responsibility for theirs. Strong boundaries protect your self- esteem and your identity as an individual with the right to make your own choices.
Relationship Boundaries

Boundaries are your own invisible force field and you are in charge of protecting it. As important as this may sound, most of us have a difficult time setting healthy boundaries consistently. At times it is difficult to identify when our boundaries are being crossed. We may even fear the consequences to our relationships if we set them.

To identify when your boundaries are being crossed, stay tuned into your feelings. Red flags include, discomfort, resentment, stress, anxiety, guilt and fear. These feelings stem from feeling taken advantage of or not feeling appreciated. Think about the people who you feel this way around. Do the following statements ring true: I can’t make my own decisions, I can’t ask for what I need, I can’t say no, I feel criticized, I feel responsible for their feelings, I seem to take on their moods, and I am often nervous, anxious or resentful around them.

Unhealthy boundaries are often characterized by a weak sense of your own identity and your own feelings of disempowerment in decision making in your own life. This leads you down the road to relying on your partner for happiness and decision making responsibilities thereby losing important parts of your own identity. An inability to set boundaries also stems from fear; fear of abandonment or losing the relationship, fear of being judged or fear of hurting others feelings.  I have found  The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Dr. Patricia Evans helpful in identifying broken boundaries.

relationship boundaries broken

Our lessons about boundaries begin early in our lives, first in our families and then in our peer groups. These early boundaries are internalized as our way of asserting our own needs and wants, as well as, in taking responsibility for others needs and wants. How comfortable we are standing up for ourselves, verbalizing our feelings and expressing our needs starts very early in our development.   Steps to build better boundaries begin with knowing and understanding what your own limits are. Who I am, what I am responsible for and what I am not responsible for. I am responsible for my happiness, my behavior, my choices, my feelings. I am not responsible for others happiness, other’s behaviors, other’s choices, and other’s feelings.

Want to change your relationship but don’t know where to start?  Read my review of the Marriage Fitness program here.

Emotional Boundaries and Boundary Traps

Emotional boundaries fall into the categories of time, emotions, energy and values. Be aware of boundary traps in relationships. The following scenarios may seem familiar. Start by recognizing which boundary traps you commonly fall in.

  1. I am nobody if I’m not in a relationship. My identity comes from my partner and I will do anything to make this person happy.
  2. This is better than the last relationship I was in.
  3. I spend all my time involved in my partner’s goals and activities. There just isn’t enough time left to do what I want to do.
  4. My partner would be lost without me.
  5. If I just give it more time, the relationship will get better.
  6. Most of the time the relationship is great…Ok well occasionally it is and that’s enough for me.

Setting Emotional Boundaries

Make a commitment to yourself to put your own identity, needs, feelings and goals first. Healthy emotional boundaries come from believing that you are OK just the way you are. Commit to letting go of fixing others, taking responsibility for the outcomes of others choices, saving or rescuing others, needing to be needed, changing yourself to be liked, or depending on others approval.

Make a list of boundaries you would like to strengthen. Write them down. Visualize yourself setting them and finally, assertively communicate with others what your boundaries are and when they’ve crossed them. Remember, this is a process. Start with a small, non-threatening boundary and experience success before taking on more challenging boundaries.

Boundaries to start with:

  1. Say no – to tasks you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do.
  2. Say yes – to help.
  3. Say thank you with no apology, regret or shame.
  4. Ask for help.
  5. Delegate tasks.
  6. Protect your time – don’t overcommit.
  7. Ask for space – we all need our own time.
  8. Speak up if you feel uncomfortable with how someone is treating you or your needs are being infringed upon.
  9. Honor what is important to you by choosing to put yourself first.
  10. Drop the guilt and responsibility for others.
  11. Share personal information gradually and in a mutual way (give and take).

relationship boundaries healthy

If you are shifting the dynamic in the relationship you may feel resistance from the other person. This is normal and OK. Simply stick to your guns and continue to communicate your needs. Use the ”broken record technique” and repeat the same statement as many times as you need. Healthy relationships are a balance of give and take. In a healthy relationship you feel calm, safe, supported, respected, taken care of, and unconditionally accepted. You are forgiven without past offenses being brought up repeatedly, seeming acts of revenge or passive aggressive behaviors from the other person. You are free to be who you are and encouraged to be your best self.

Find yourself battling over the smallest issues which only lead to even bigger issues?  Read my firsthand review of the Marriage Fitness program here.

Good boundaries are a sign of emotional health, self-respect and strength. We teach people how to treat us. Set high standards for those you surround yourself with. Expect to be treated in the same loving way you treat them. You will soon find yourself surrounded by those who respect you, care about your needs and your feelings and treat you with kindness.  My favorite book that I often refer clients to for positive relationship building is  The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

See my Reading Recommendations


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