Boundaries from the Inside Out – Part 2 (of 4)

» Posted in Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Personal Growth | 2 comments


Jane was in my office, exhausted.  She had just spent a sleepless night worrying about her teenage daughter’s latest drama with her group of friends.  Yet again, she came to her session feeling completely overwhelmed, unable to focus on working through her own struggles in her marriage because of what was happening with her daughter.  After coming for more than six months, she still could not seem to make any personal progress because of the constant interruption of her daughter’s problems – or so she thought.

Yes, Jane suffered from anxiety and she did have a teenager who seemed to get herself into one emotional pickle after another.  But what Jane really struggled from – and what was holding her back — was what I call a lack of internal boundaries.  She was an incredible mother, very loving and engaged with her children.  A sensitive and empathetic person, she provided a safe place for her children to process through their emotional angst.  But her problem – and that of many people who are similarly wired to easily sense and empathize with people’s emotions – was that she too readily absorbed the emotional pain of others and then had a hard time letting it go.  And so we can end up enmeshed emotionally with others, unable to separate our emotions from theirs.

Even for those people who aren’t as sensitive as Jane, many of us still struggle with having appropriate internal boundaries.  Here are some examples:  blaming others when you’re upset or lose control of your emotions; expecting that others (e.g., your spouse or your friend) are supposed to help you feel better and it’s their fault when you don’t; feeling hurt because your friend or partner doesn’t seem to sense and then meet your emotional needs; having a hard time letting it go when someone spews anger at you; taking responsibility to make someone else happy or protect them from emotional pain; trying to fix a situation for a loved one who is suffering; or stepping in to placate or calm your partner’s or friend’s emotions.  Any of these sound familiar?

What do I mean by internal boundaries?  It’s the invisible fence you erect between your emotions, thoughts, and reactions, and that of someone else’s emotions, thoughts and reactions.  It’s taking full responsibility for YOUR side of the fence, while letting go of the responsibility for the other person’s side of the fence.  You take care of the weeds on YOUR side of the fence, and you leave your neighbour’s weeds for him or her to address.  Yes, it’s true, if they choose not to weed their lawn, their weeds could spread to your backyard.  But if you’re vigilant to weed your own lawn, plant healthy grass, and regularly fertilize and protect your lawn, their weeds are less likely to spread to your backyard, regardless of what they do or don’t do.

Before you can take steps to do some weeding, it’s important for you to recognize when you’ve been neglecting your own backyard.  Here are some signs that your internal boundaries – your fence – need repair:

  • When someone around you  is emotionally upset, you fret about it, having a hard time letting it go.
  • You regularly allow others to download on you, and then find yourself carrying their emotions and feeling overwhelmed.
  • You get angry and blame others for causing you emotional distress.
  • When a loved one is going through a hard time, you experience personal anguish to the point where it consumes you.
  • You blame others for worrying you and causing you sleepless nights.
  • You’re more upset about someone else’s problem than they are and spend way more energy trying to fix it than they are.
  • You get so frustrated by someone else’s unwillingness to deal with their problems that you can’t seem to stop stewing about it.
  • You try to control how others feel or respond to you so that you won’t feel so distressed.
  • You try to manage other’s decisions/choices so that you won’t worry about them.
  • You accept the blame for how others feel and you take steps to try to fix it or placate them.
  • You invest a significant amount of time and energy taking care of others and their emotional needs to your own detriment.

Emotional boundaries are one of the hardest limits to understand and implement because they are internal, rather than an external line you draw between yourself and another person.  In emotionally challenging situations, it’s far easier to walk away from that person (external boundaries) than it is to let go of the emotional storm that’s brewing inside of you (internal boundaries).  But these boundaries are essential to your emotional health and well-being.  Caring for others does not mean losing yourself in their problems.  And receiving care from others doesn’t mean losing sight of your own thoughts and feelings.

For Jane, she needed to learn how to be intentional about setting limits with how she handled her daughter’s emotional angst – recognizing that while she could listen empathetically to her problems, it wasn’t her job to reduce her daughter’s emotional pain or solve her relational problems.  Being a warm listener and providing empathy could go a long way toward calming her daughter’s emotional storm (as I’ve said in a previous post, empathy is key to calming the brain).  But she needed to learn that in many instances, that was all she could do to help her daughter, who was at the age where she needed to take responsibility for her own emotions and relational problems.

After listening to, comforting and providing wise guidance to her daughter, Jane needed to let go and step back from carrying the responsibility for her daughter’s emotions.  Rather than trying to fix the situation or spend precious emotional energy fretting about something over which she had no control, Jane needed to give all of this over to God and then go about the business of taking responsibility for her own emotions.

If Jane’s story resonates with you or you recognize that you have a hard time defining your own internal boundaries, please choose to take steps to change this pattern in your life.  For more specific guidelines on how to do that, check out my previous two part series (Managing our Emotions, Part 1 and Part 2).

To learn more about how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, stay tuned for the rest of this four-part series coming over the next two week on October 30 and November 6, 2012.  If you missed the beginning of the series, check out Part 1!


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  1. Merry
    I am loving your blog. I can see parts of
    myself in everyone …not sure what that means :).
    Keep up the great work. You are helping many.

    • Thanks, Lorie! I was wincing as I was writing this series because I had to admit that I could see parts of myself in this as well! But what a great reminder of the importance of boundaries and also a release not to have to carry the world’s cares on my shoulders.

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