There are many ingredients that go into creating healthy relationships:
But maybe nothing is more important than having healthy emotional boundaries. If so, then the questions we ask are, “what are healthy emotional boundaries?” and “how do we create them?”
Emotional boundaries are rules or limits that we create for ourselves. We create emotional boundaries when we specify what we consider to be appropriate ways for people to behave with us. And what are the consequences if they behave in ways that we consider to be inappropriate?
When I was a very young boy, if I misbehaved my mother would tell me, “You can go play in the attic and come back down when you decide to be good.” She was letting me know what her emotional boundaries were—basically I had to be pleasant—and she let me know the consequence if I didn’t honor her boundaries—go to the attic.
The attic wasn’t such a bad place, it’s where I had my trains set up. I experienced great consistency from my mother and I felt empowered because I knew what I had to do in order to enjoy her companionship.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, my wife, Hannah, has pretty much the same boundaries as my mother. She expects me to be pleasant if I want to enjoy her company. Of course she has other boundaries too—but most of them aren’t that different than the ones I grew up with. I’ve always been expected by others to behave well, but also encouraged to speak my mind.
Since I no longer have a train set in the attic, I have more motivation than ever to be “good.”
Emotional boundaries live on a spectrum from rigid to wishy-washy. Neither extreme works very well. If we have rigid emotional boundaries we limit our ability to connect with people. If we have wishy-washy emotional boundaries—anything goes—we overwhelm ourselves and never find a safe haven. In both extremes we limit the possibility for intimacy.
I tend to have fairly strict emotional boundaries. So I need to continuously reevaluate if I’m being too rigid. Because my emotional boundaries are rather strict, two things happen. First, the relationships I do have are healthy relationships—deep, sustainable, and profoundly rewarding. Second, I’ve chosen to sever other relationships—even with family members—because I was unwilling to tolerate behavior that I experienced as disrespectful.
As a result, I comfort myself greatly with the relationships I do have and I disappoint myself to have lost connection with some other people, including family members.
If you’re trying to establish emotional boundaries, here are some questions that may be helpful. I’ve provided a couple sample answers to each question:
What do you need from the other person so that you feel safe?
I need for you not to raise your voice or swear, even when you’re upset, just talk to me.
If you need to walk away from me because you’re upset, please let me know when you’ll be back.
What do you need from the other person so that you feel respected?
When I express a concern or a need that I have, please don’t make that conversation be about you.
Please don’t tell me my opinions are wrong or suggest that I’m not being truthful.
What do you need from the other person so that you feel valued?
I want you to really hug me when we hug, and not have it feel like a casual, autopilot kind of thing.
I want you to ask me for help before you become overwhelmed.
What makes it easier for you to hear criticism about you?
If you’re upset with me, please don’t bring it up after 10:00 o’clock in the evening.
When you’re critical of me, I still want you to treat me like I’m your friend.
Answering these questions is a way for you to start defining your emotional boundaries. Notice that these are fundamental needs that we all have—to feel safe, respected and valued. Figure out how you satisfy these needs—what do you require—and then let the people you are closest to know.
The reason I suggest that you tell people who you are close to what will make it easier for you to hear their criticisms of you is because inevitably they will have criticisms, even though they love you. So, how can they express their concerns in a way that will make you more likely to hear them?
Emotional boundaries evolve over time. The longer we are with someone—a partner—the more trust we establish, hopefully. As this occurs, our emotional boundaries may become more flexible in certain areas. But, there are some things that are simply non-negotiable for people. It really helps to be clear about what those are so that you never mistakenly cross those lines.
And, what if someone does cross your line? What are the consequences? This subject deserves it’s own article, which I will write in the weeks to come. But think about the consequences—because without them, boundaries don’t mean much.
If you want to open yourself to a fascinating exploration of emotional boundaries, I suggest you watch the 2012 movie: Sessions. I experience this remarkable movie as a beautiful, yet unusual, example of clear emotional boundaries.