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.

NH data links childhood trauma, adult health

By Holly Ramer, Associated PressPosted Dec 10, 2018 at 1:26 PM 
Updated Dec 10, 2018 at 1:26 PM 

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Nearly half of all New Hampshire adults say they experienced stressful or traumatic events in childhood, and data released Monday show those experiences are hurting their health today.

While only 10 percent of adults with no adverse experiences during childhood reported being in fair or poor health, that percentage was 17 percent for those with at least one such experience, according to statistics presented at a news conference by the New Hampshire Department of Public of Health and Spark NH, the governor’s early childhood advisory council. The statistics examined the relationship between health indicators in New Hampshire adults and their exposure to what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences, which includes things like abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence and growing up with relatives who have substance use disorders.

Among all New Hampshire adults, 49.5 percent reported at least one such experience, according to a 2016 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women were more likely to report such experiences: 53 percent of women and 46 percent of men said they had at least one adverse experience during childhood, and women made up 62 percent of those with four or more.

Reports of poor health increased with the number of adverse experiences, as did tobacco use and poor mental health.

“Addressing and preventing adverse childhood experiences is a public health priority,” said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health Services. She noted that the CDC estimates the annual cost associated with adverse experiences during childhood is more than $124 billion nationwide.

“In addition to being a moral imperative to address, ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are costly to us all,” she said. “Billions of dollars in productivity loss, billions of dollars in health care expenditures, billions of dollars in special education, child welfare and criminal justice.”

The news conference was attended by Democratic U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who said they were hopeful the statistics would spur policy changes.

“We’re not spending money where it can make the difference the quickest,” Shaheen said.https://d-33377068282130891627.ampproject.net/2006112352001/frame.html

Hassan described asking her mother, a teacher, why some students struggled despite their high academic capacity.

“My mom said, ‘All kids need to know they have a grown-up in their corner,'” she said. “I’ve always thought our job in public life is to be the grown-up for all of our children.”

Officials said the data, which were consistent with national statistics, highlighted the need to help not just children but also parents and other caregivers because adults who were raised by parents with mental health or substance use problems had worse outcomes later.

Laura Milliken, director of Spark NH, said the private-public partnership will use the new information to continue its advocacy for quality early childhood education programs, home visit programs and family resource centers.null

“If we care about New Hampshire’s stability and prosperity, then we need to create the conditions in our communities that can reduce risk for everyone now and into the future,” she said. “One of the key ways to reduce risk is to ensure young children have stable, responsive relationships and enriching experiences at home and in the community.”

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?

As psychologists continue to help those suffering from the impact of COVID-19, they should watch for signs of their own distress or burnout. By Rebecca A. Clay Date created: June 11, 2020

Psychologist Heidi Allespach, PhD, of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, knows that the big hearts that propel people into psychology and other caregiving careers also put them at risk of developing compassion fatigue. Ironically, she explains, caregivers can become so over-empathic that they find themselves growing numb to their patients’ suffering. That’s why she urges the medical residents she teaches to develop what she calls a “semi-permeable membrane” around their hearts. “Without enough of a shield, everything just comes in,” says Allespach. “And being overwhelmed with the feelings of others can feel like drowning.”

Now Allespach and other psychologists are worried that psychologists are facing increased risks of compassion fatigue as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

Compassion fatigue occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma, explains Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University. It is an occupational hazard of “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart,” he says, and represents the psychological cost of healing others. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go and invades your thoughts,” he says.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t just make it difficult to feel empathy for your patients, says Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, of Coastal Carolina University. One component of the condition is burnout, which is associated with too much work and not enough resources to do that work well. Burnout can result in depression and anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, less enjoyment of work, and more arguing. Another component of compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress, or indirect exposure to trauma via helping others. “I sometimes refer to this component as ‘empathy overload,’” says Schwanz, adding that symptoms include anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, numbness or feelings of having nothing left to give.

To keep compassion fatigue from developing or to address it if it does, compassion fatigue experts suggest that psychologists do the following.

Recognize the signs

“Psychologists and other people in helping roles really do forget that they’re vulnerable,” says Schwanz, explaining that psychologists are trained to be empathic but also to put their own emotions aside. If psychologists suspect they are experiencing compassion fatigue, Schwanz recommends they assess themselves with the free Professional Quality of Lifemeasure developed by psychologist Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD. This self-report tool covers symptoms, such as loss of productivity, depression, intrusive thoughts, jumpiness, tiredness, feelings of being on edge or trapped, or inability to separate personal and professional life. The measure also assesses compassion satisfaction—the positive emotions associated with helping others, such as happiness, pride and satisfaction.

Make self-care part of a routine

Psychologists should adopt the mantra of flight attendants: “Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,” says psychologist Amy M. Williams, PhD, of the Henry Ford Health System. Good self-care means developing a routine that makes each day predictable and that includes what Williams calls the big five of self-care: adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, physical activity, relaxation and socializing. The schedule should also include five minutes for a self check-in each morning to assess tension in the body and worries in the mind. “Don’t do it 10 minutes before bed, when the mind spins off into worry,” she suggests.

Examine beliefs about self-care

It’s not enough to just go through the motions of self-care, emphasizes Schwanz. It needs to be a legitimate attempt. “In our society, we applaud people who work themselves to death, who neglect their own self-care to help others,” says Schwanz. “We rarely applaud people for taking the day off.” Psychologists may have internalized this message, viewing self-care as selfish, says Schwanz, who is studying such beliefs’ relationship with compassion fatigue. As a result, psychologists may not reap the benefit of any self-care efforts they make, because they engage in behaviors such as worrying about work on a day off. And psychologists shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time for fun and laughter during this sad, anxious time, adds Thomas Skovholt, PhD, of the University of Minnesota. Playing games, watching funny movies and the like can replenish the energy needed to help others, he says. Even a tiny dose of positive emotion, such as noticing flowers blooming, can help.

Practice self-compassion

Psychologists are having a hard time along with everyone else, says Allespach, and that’s unusual. Most psychologists are now experiencing the same problems their patients are experiencing—worries about safety, uncertainty, financial concerns and disrupted routines. “Psychologists are usually the rocks in the river of life’s uncertainty for our patients, but right now, we’re in that river with them,” she says. “For those of us in the helping professions, we’re trying to help our patients make sense of this strange new reality while doing that ourselves.” That unusual situation can increase psychologists’ stress, says Allespach. But so can psychologists’ own tendencies, says psychologist Anna Baranowsky, PhD, founder of Toronto’s Traumatology Institute, who says psychologists tend to be “over-copers.” “They are capable of working really hard and delivering great results,” says Baranowsky. “But they are very self-demanding and very focused on the perfection of what they’re delivering, until the point of total exhaustion.” It’s important for psychologists to take time to reflect—alone, with a trusted colleague, religious leader, or therapist—on any wounds that are surfacing during this uncertain time, she says. “You want to really respect the fact that you’re human, too,” she says. “Bearing witness to another person’s suffering ignites things within ourselves.” 

Create community

Connecting with like-minded others is another strategy that can help prevent compassion fatigue. “It may not sound fancy or sophisticated, but building community is the most powerful thing you can do,” says Geoffry White, PhD, a private practitioner in Los Angeles who has worked to prevent compassion fatigue in mental health practitioners responding after terrorism and war. In addition to staying connected with family and friends, psychologists could set up Zoom consultation or supervision groups to check in with each other and prevent and address signs of compassion fatigue. “Compared with other societies, the United States has a very mind-your-own business culture, prizing independence and self-reliance over community” says White. “But anything that takes away from that isolation—peer support—will help.”

Help colleagues

The pandemic is exacerbating what was already a crisis of burnout for health-care providers, say researchers and medical professionals at Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital. They found that intensive care unit workers are facing longer shifts, increased patient deaths, lack of personal protective equipment and financial fears among other stressors (Sasangohar, F., et al., Anesthesia and Analgesia, published online ahead of publication, 2020). Those stressors can also lead to compassion fatigue. If psychologists see signs that a colleague, whether another psychologist or a health-care professional, is developing compassion fatigue, they should check in, says Schwanz. Psychologists and trusted colleagues can give each other permission to point out potential problems and keep at it despite attempts to deflect or deny, says Schwanz. Schwanz herself has a self-care buddy. They text each other to check in on each other’s stress levels and to report daily acts of self-care, such as taking breaks and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.

It’s also important to normalize compassion fatigue, adds Williams. “You could say, ‘These are crazy times, and I’m struggling,’” she says. “Then ask, ‘Is that something you’re going through, too?’” In the support groups she runs, for example, participants often admit that they didn’t realize compassion fatigue is normal, and so they were hesitant to ask for help. Once they realize that feeling this way is normal for others, she says, they are more willing to talk about their struggles and to accept help. 

Focus on compassion satisfaction

Psychologists should celebrate the positives of helping others. “There can be terrible things going on, but focus on the wins,” suggests Schwanz, citing the celebrations health-care providers hold when patients come off ventilators. Focusing on gratitude can also help, she says.

Additional information

To learn more about compassion fatigue, read “Compassion Fatigue Resilience” or The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-care Strategies for the Helping Professions. There is also a special issue of the journal Traumatologydevoted to secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

Toronto’s Traumatology Instituteoffers online compassion fatigue specialist training and other resources. The institute also offers an entry-level online compassion fatigue resiliency and recovery training for students and community members.

Get more tips on self-care by reading about how to take care of yourself and avoid burnout. Or listen to a podcast on self-care. To earn continuing education credit, read the Monitor article “Are you burned out? Here are signs and what to do about them.”