Setting Emotional Boundaries: Stop Taking on Other People’s Feelings

The tiny buddha.com

By Alana Mbanza

“The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others.” ~Sonya Friedman

The longer I stayed on the phone, the more agitated I became. My mother was on the other end, as usual, dumping her emotions on me. I had moved to Los Angeles for graduate school in part to escape all of this—my mother’s unhappiness, my sense of responsibility, the pressure to be perfect.

When I hung up the phone, I felt an overwhelming sense of anger. At the time, I could not (correction: would not) allow myself to admit that I was angry with my mother. I couldn’t reconcile having such negative feelings and loving my mother at the same time.

After all, hadn’t she sacrificed so much for me? Hadn’t I always considered her to be my closest confidante? Didn’t I proudly declare her to be my best friend when I was younger?

Even the most positive memories between my mother and me have been eclipsed by the shadow of her depression.

As a young child, I could never understand why my mommy was so sad all the time. I cherished the rare days she was carefree and silly and held these moments close to my heart. When she slipped into a depressive state, sleeping days at a time in her dark room, I willed her to come out.

Early on, I learned to temper my behavior and my own emotions so as not to instigate or prolong her sadness. In my young mind, I made myself responsible for her and was not able to separate her feelings from mine.  

I wanted her to be happy and thought that if I was always “good,” she would be. When she wasn’t happy, I blamed myself.

Unconsciously, my mother fed this belief when she constantly bragged to others that I was the “perfect daughter.” The pressure to live up to my mother’s expectations overwhelmed me. I suppressed a lot of negative feelings and experiences in favor of upholding the ideal she and I had co-created.

That day, I turned this anger toward a safer target, my co-worker. That day at work, I blew up. I can’t remember what I said, but I distinctly remember the look of confusion on her face. My frustration with my inability to express myself made me even angrier. I excused myself, ran to the bathroom, locked myself in the last stall, and bawled my eyes out.

Soon after, I took advantage of the free counseling services on campus. Over the next several weeks, my counselor helped me realize that it was okay to feel the way I was feeling. This was a radical idea for me, and one I struggled with at first.

Because I had suppressed my own feelings for so long, when I finally allowed them to surface, they were explosive.

Anger, resentment, and disgust came alive and pulsed through my body whenever I spoke with my mother during this time. While she seemed to accept truth and honesty from other people, I tiptoed around certain topics for fear of upsetting her.

I never felt I could share the difficulties and challenges I experienced in my own life because this contradicted who I was to her. I felt I had no right to be unhappy. When I attempted to open up about these things, she often interrupted me with a story of her own suffering, invalidating the pain I felt. 

She seemed committed to being the ultimate victim and I resented her for what I perceived as weakness.

I realized that to get through my graduate program with my sanity intact, I needed to limit the amount of time and energy I gave to her. Instead, I found ways to protect and restore my energy. Writing became therapeutic for me. I found I could say things in writing I was unable to verbalize to my mother.

This won’t be an easy letter for you to read and I apologize if it hurts you, but I feel like our relationship is falling apart, and one of the reasons is that I’ve kept a lot of this bottled up for so long. I never thought you could handle honesty from me, and so I lied and pretended everything was okay because I was always afraid I would “set you off” or that you would go into a depressed mood.

You unconsciously put so much pressure on other people (me especially) to fill your emptiness, but that’s a dangerous and unrealistic expectation and people can’t and won’t live up to it. And they start to resent you for it. I do want you to be happy, but I’m starting to realize that I can’t be responsible for your happiness and healing; only you can.

Seeing my truth on paper was the ultimate form of validation for me. I no longer needed to be “perfect.” I gave myself permission to be authentic and honored every feeling that came up.

When I was ready, I practiced establishing boundaries with my mother. I let her know that I loved and supported her, but it negatively affected me when she used our conversations as her own personal therapy sessions. I released the need to try to “fix” things for her.

I took care of me.

Do you have trouble establishing healthy emotional boundaries?

Take a moment to answer the following questions adapted from Charles Whitfield’s Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self.

Answer with “never,” “seldom,” “occasionally,” “often,” or “usually.”

  • I feel as if my happiness depends on other people.
  • I would rather attend to others than attend to myself.
  • I spend my time and energy helping others so much that I neglect my own wants and needs.
  • I tend to take on the moods of people close to me.
  • I am overly sensitive to criticism.
  • I tend to get “caught up” in other people’s problems.
  • I feel responsible for other people’s feelings.

If you answered “often” or “usually” to the above statements, this might be an indication that you have trouble establishing healthy emotional boundaries.

Like me, you’re probably extremely affected by the emotions and energy of the people and spaces around you. At times, it can be incredibly hard to distinguish between your “stuff” and other people’s “stuff.”

It is incredibly important to establish clear emotional boundaries, or we can become so overwhelmed and overstimulated by what’s going around us that it’s sometimes hard to function.

Here are a few ways to begin the process of establishing healthier emotional boundaries.

1. Protect yourself from other people’s “stuff.”

I can feel when someone is violating a boundary because my body tenses up. I realize that my breathing is very shallow. I feel trapped, small, helpless.

The first thing I do is to remind myself to breathe. The act of focusing on my breath centers me and expands the energy around me. In this space, I can think and act more clearly.

When I feel myself becoming too overwhelmed, I try to immediately remove myself from the situation. Sometimes all it takes is a couple minutes to walk away and regain my balance. Other times, I have had to make the decision not to spend time with people who consistently drain my energy.

Having a safe space to retreat, practicing mindfulness and meditation, or visualizing a protective shield around yourself are other methods that can help restore balance when boundaries are invaded.

Find out what works best for you.

2. Learn to communicate your boundaries in a clear and consistent way.

For many, this can be the most difficult part of the process for various reasons. We don’t like to appear confrontational. We’re afraid that if we clear set boundaries for ourselves, the people in our lives will begin to resent us. However, learning to communicate boundaries effectively is necessary for healthy relationships.

I’m not comfortable with that. 

It doesn’t feel good to…

I’m not okay with…

I appreciate if you wouldn’t…

Please don’t…

If you cringed at the thought of using any of these phrases, you’ll be relieved to know that communicating your boundaries doesn’t always have to be with words. You can also effectively communicate through the use of non-verbal.

Closing the door, taking a step back, shaking your head, or signaling with your hands can be less threatening ways of letting others know what you will and won’t accept from them.

3. Be patient with the process.

When I first realized that I was taking on the negative emotions of my mother, I became extremely resentful and disgusted with her. Instead of taking responsibility for my role in allowing this dynamic to occur, I blamed her for every negative thing that had happened in my life.

I closed myself off from her and shut her out completely. Our relationship became incredibly strained during this time as we both readjusted to the new boundaries I was setting.

Eventually, I was able to allow her to have her own emotional experience without making it about me. I could listen and no longer become enmeshed or feel obligated to do something about what she was feeling.

Whenever you change a pattern, it is natural to feel resistance from inside as well as outside the self. As you practice, your ego may start to act up and make you feel like you are “wrong” in establishing boundaries.

Others may also become resentful of your newfound assertiveness. They may be used to a certain dynamic in your relationship and any change has the potential to cause conflict.

Remember to be kind to yourself through the process and repeat the following affirmation:

I respect and love myself enough to recognize when something isn’t healthy for me, and I am confident enough to set clear boundaries to protect myself. 

About Alana Mbanza

Alana Mbanza is a freelance writer and the author of LoveSick: Learning to Love and Let Go. Even more than a writer, she strives to be an active agent of creation, choosing to see and create life through the lens of love. Visit her website for more information about her freelance writing and coaching services.

An Open Letter to Those Who Still Give a Damn

JULY 21, 2018 / JOHN PAVLOVITZ

It’s exhausting to give a damn isn’t it?

To be a person of compassion in a time when compassion is in such great demand?

To wake up every day in days like these, and push back against predatory politicians and toxic systems and human rights atrocities and acts of treason and spiritual leadership failures and Presidential Tweet tantrums—the volume and the relentlessness of the threats can be wearying.

You may have noticed.

I think you have.

And you’re not simply carrying around these big picture, larger systemic sicknesses and political realities—but the people behind them; the names and the faces and the lives of specific human beings who are under unprecedented duress right now; people whose stories you listen to and know and are living within, people you dearly love.

And day after day, all these massive realities and these individual stories begin to accumulate upon your shoulders and in your clenched jaw and in your elevated heart rate, and in the knot in your stomach that returns every morning when you check Twitter or turn on the news or step out into your community or walk into the kitchen—and you see so many reasons for grief, places so many places compassion is so needed and yet so scarce.

And worst of all, is how many people both at distance and very close to you, just don’t seem to give a damn; how the pain of other people simply doesn’t register in them anymore.
It seems like fewer and fewer people are capable of even an entry-level empathy for the suffering around them, and you’re seriously considering joining their ranks, because of how tired you are of carrying both your own and their share of compassion for a hurting humanity.

Not long after the election I purchased a blood pressure monitor. And not one of those manual base models, either. I went high-end, top of the line; full upper arm cuff, automated pressure, digital readout—the works. I soon stopped using it though, as it was a daily reminder of how stressed I was. I don’t look at it any longer. I don’t measure my blood pressure anymore.Now I just assume it’s dangerously high.

Those of us who give a damn all have new dangers assailing our hearts these days, and it is in this time of relentless urgency and sustained trauma and prolonged fatigue and profound fracture that you and I find ourselves.

I’m not sure why you’re reading this, but it’s probably because still you’re a damn-giver; because you are a fierce lover of humanity and of the planet, and of people who don’t look or worship or sound like you. As a result you probably find yourself pissed off, disconnected, isolated, worn out, and exhausted because how few people are as moved by the need around them as you are.

Whether you’re an activist or a minister or a parent or a caregiver, or just a citizen of the planet who is moved by other people’s suffering—you likely feel the immeasurable heaviness of these days. Sure, speed and activity can mask it for a while, but if you stop long enough, the reality of the fatigue catches up to you—you can measure the toll it’s all taken on you. I want you to measure it. I want you reckon with how tired you are. I want you to hear yourself exhale with the heavy sigh of someone who feels the weight of it all.

There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending. There is in your body and head and in your midst, a collateral damage to you giving a damn when others do not, and it manifests itself in many ways: in irritability, impatience, physical illness, eating emotionally, addictive behavior, the inability to be present to the people who love you, an obsession with social media, a fixation on how jacked up everything is.

Notice these things in you today, and give them your attention.
Extend some of that compassion you’re so willing to extend to the world—to yourself.
Take some time to step away from the fray and the fight. It will still be there when you return, and you’ll be better able to face it.

Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted.
But I also know that you aren’t alone.
Millions of people are as tired as you are right now.
We too, live in disbelief at how callous so many people we know and love have become.
We too, are incredulous witnessing our elected leaders and parents and neighbors and pastors and parents and favorite aunts abandon any semblance of kindness.
We too, feel the fatigue of believing we’re doing this damn-giving alone.

You are in good company, so keep going.
Fight like hell to keep your heart soft, even while so many people have become hardened.
Yes, the world is upside-down right now, but we can make it right—one beautiful act of decency at a time.
Get some rest and keep going.
The world needs people like you.

Blessed are the damn-givers, for they will right-side the world.

Order book ‘HOPE AND OTHER SUPERPOWERS” here!

Life is Short. People are Hurting. Don’t be a Jerk

JANUARY 20, 2018 / JOHN PAVLOVITZ

I walked around today and I looked at people; those passing me in the grocery store, driving beside me on the highway, filling my newsfeed, walking by the house.

I tried to really see them.

I tried to look beneath the surface veneer they wore; to imagine the invisible burdens they might be carrying beneath it: sick children, relational collapse, financial tension, crippling depression, profound grief, crisis of faith, loss of purpose—or maybe just the custom designed multitude of the nagging insecurities and fears they’ve been carrying around since grade school and have never been able to shake.

As I looked at all these people, I wondered what kind of specific and personal hell they might be enduring, and it reminded me—so I’m reminding you:

Life is stunningly short and it is eggshell fragile.
Most people are having a really tough time.
They are almost always in more pain than you think they are.
Everyone is doing the very best they can to get through this day, and many are going through all manner of horrors in the process.
No one is immune from the invasive collateral damage of living.

And you don’t have to save these people or fix them or give them any special treatment.

They are rarely asking for such things.

The thing these wounded and weary human beings most need from you as you share this space with them—is for you not be a jerk.

It’s really that simple.

They need you to not contribute to their grieving, not to compound their sadness, not to amplify their fear, notto add to their adversity.
They need anything less than contempt from you.
They need you to embrace the vow of doctors and caregivers, of trying to do no harm to them.

This isn’t difficult, either.

Actually, when it comes right down to it, not being a jerk is about as elementary as it gets:

Don’t impose your religious beliefs on other people.
Don’t demand that they adapt to your preferences of identity or orientation.
Don’t try to take away things that keep them physically healthy or give them peace of mind or allow them access to education or opportunity.
Don’t put obstacles in a parent’s way of caring for their children or working to support them or guiding them safely into adulthood.
Don’t tell people who they can marry or how they should worship or where they can call home.
Don’t do things that make them more vulnerable to sickness and sadness and stress.
Don’t try to keep people from having things that you take for granted.

And strangely enough, it’s actually so much more work to be a jerk to people—and yet so many seem hopelessly bent on it.

Right now in America we are seeing what happens when people discard the Golden Rule; when they abandon simple decency and choose enmity, when they feel compelled to show cruelty to strangers, when another’s sorrow is of no concern.

On social media, in our school hallways, in our neighborhoods, even in the highest levels of Government, we are seeing an epidemic of malevolence; men and women seemingly driven to be hurtful and to do damage—human beings compelled to be jerks.

Friends, I wish I could find a more eloquent, more poetic, less abrasive way to say this, but I can’t.

At the end of the day, so many of the grieving, struggling, fearful human beings filling up the landscape you find yourself in today, are hanging by the very thinnest of threads.

They are heroically pushing back despair, enduring real and imagined terrors, warring with their external circumstances and with their internal demons.

They are doing the very best they can, sometimes with little help or hope—and they just need those of us who live alongside them to make that best-doing, a little easier.

These words are for me.
They’re for you.
They’re for ordinary people.
They’re for our elected leaders.
They’re for our President.

Life is short.
It is extremely fragile.
People are grieving.
They are struggling.
They are hurting.

For God’s sake and for theirs—please just don’t be a jerk.

Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’here.

John Pavlovitz is a pastor and blogger from Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Relevant Magazine, ChurchLeaders.com, and The Good Men Project. He also writes for his popular blog Stuff That Needs to Be Said at johnpavlovitz.com.