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Wellness > Mental Health

Emotional boundaries: why they are important, how to exercise them and what might happen if you don’t

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Have you noticed that you avoid talking to, or spending time with, your partner, a friend, family member or colleague? Or do you allow other people’s issues to dictate your mood? Do you sacrifice your time and energy to help others at the expense of your own well-being? Or simply, do you become overly invested in solving the issues of others? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may need to cultivate better emotional boundaries with those around you!

So, what exactly are emotional boundaries:

Emotional boundaries are a way to separate your feelings from someone else’s to protect your energy, your mental wellbeing, and your relationship with that person. Emotional boundaries help us to avoid the negative implications of being overly involved and invested in our loved ones’ problems. The word “boundary” itself may seem extremely daunting and you may have preconceived ideas of putting a wall up to push others away, but boundaries are anything but that! Boundaries should be thought of as a gate to which only you hold the key, allowing people to cross whenever you feel most comfortable, something which has proven to be an aid in navigating relationships.

Why are boundaries important?

When individuals do not enforce emotional boundaries, they can begin to take on the role of problem-solver and take on the distress and trauma of their loved ones as their own. When this happens, it is extremely common to see these individuals feeling burnt out, or even worse, starting to resent their loved ones for expecting them to fulfil this role on a regular basis. Some may argue it is a selfish act to enforce emotional boundaries; but, it is essential to maintain healthy relationships with those around you, while also taking care of oneself. When setting boundaries, it is important to remember that you have no reason to feel guilty for doing what is best for you. While these boundaries may upset and come as a surprise to others, they are enforced to help you navigate friendships and relationships in the healthiest way possible. Enforcing emotional boundaries has also said to reduce stress, anxiety and depression and is also able to boost your self-esteem.

But how does one set boundaries?

The first step is to listen to your emotions. By listening to how you feel it becomes a lot easier to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you when it comes to emotional offloading from those you care about. Once you figure out what triggers you or what you’d like to see less of in your relationships, it becomes your responsibility to speak up about it. So, for me personally, I am more comfortable listening to a friend vent than I am at giving them advice or coming up with a solution for them. What I usually do is gently tell them something along the lines of, “Friend, I am so sorry to hear that you are going through this right now, but I don’t think I have the emotional capacity to take this on for you and I am willing to listen to you vent or offload that stress”. By communicating your feelings of discomfort, your loved one will become aware of your boundaries and may ask you next time if you are able to listen to them or help them. If they do ask and you are not in the space to listen or help, that is okay. It is perfectly fine to say no. Saying no to your loved ones may be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. While saying no to others, it is also important to remind yourself that as much as you would like to, you don’t need to overexplain, defend or debate your boundaries with others. They are there to help you manage your emotions and your energy so that you don’t become emotionally burnt out.

What happens if you don’t exercise these boundaries?

When emotional boundaries are not exercised, it is very common for us to experience discomfort when in the presence of that individual. Oftentimes when unaddressed, that discomfort can easily morph into irritability, agitation, resentment and even unempathetic feelings towards them. Sometimes, you can become stressed out from carrying the weight of problems that don’t belong to you. You can even resort to avoiding that person, all which can be avoided should you enforce healthy emotional boundaries with them.

While all of this is more easily said than done, emotional boundaries are extremely vital in maintaining healthy relationships with oneself and others, so don’t feel ashamed or guilty when it comes to enforcing them!

Hi there! My name is Chelsea-Blair and I am a Psychology major at UCT. A few things that I love include social and environmental activism, spending time with my cats and making homemade baked goods!