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How To Set Emotional Boundaries

Know what triggers you the most.

Key points

  • Some people struggle with other people's problems becoming their problems.
  • There are various challenges that may arise when individuals are “enmeshed."
  • These reactions may be learned early in life as a way of coping in a chaotic environment.
Source: realworkhard/Pixabay
Source: realworkhard/Pixabay

You and your best friend are “joined at the hip,” hanging together all the time, even able to finish each other’s sentences. Your brother is struggling with a breakup, and you “sympathize,” can feel his pain, having recently gone through the same yourself. Your friend is discouraged in her attempt to get pregnant, and though you know that is a step you never want to take, you can “empathize” with her distress.

Joined at the hip, sympathy, and empathy—these are different layers of emotional connection and response we have to the feelings of those close to us. But there is a deeper level, one where emotional boundaries are porous, where your negative emotions easily trigger my own. Your worry makes me worried; your depression makes me depressed. There’s not the separation that comes with sympathy and empathy where I can feel or understand your feelings, but I also know that these feelings and your situation are yours to ultimately deal with. Here, there is no separation; your problems now become my problems. The technical term for such relationships is “enmeshment"; the individuals are “enmeshed,” and this dynamic creates its own problems.

The consequences

When your anxiety automatically stirs my anxiety, I have a couple of ways of responding. One is that I need to somehow get you to feel better so I can feel better—after all, I’m only happy if you’re happy. Another is that I feel resentful: Because your problem becomes mine, I’m angry at you for dumping this on my lap, messing up my day.

What I’m likely to do next is push hard to fix you—offering solutions to your problem or ways of calming down. Instead of seeing this as supportive, the person feels criticized, micromanaged, and resists; they’d rather you just let them vent or leave them alone. This increases my distress even more, so I push harder, quickly creating a downward spiral. Or, instead of trying to fix you, I get annoyed or angry at you for being upset yet again. They not only feel criticized but now have the added problem of fixing me, which again fuels their distress and creates the inevitable downward spiral.

The result is that we both are unhappy. We’re both worrying about or trying to change the other, both feeling criticized or micromanaged; we argue over whose reality is right, who’s more upset, and, most importantly, perhaps, the other person never gets the support they needed to prevent all this in the first place. It’s an emotional mess. And because it is, we likely don’t circle back when the dust has settled for fear of starting it all over again. Instead, we sweep it under the rug, never solve the underlying problem, and always walk on eggshells, hyperalert to the next collapse and conflict.

Breaking the cycle

There is a way out of this cycle. Here’s what to do:

1. Be aware of the problem and pattern. Solving problems starts by acknowledging them, and the starting point for acknowledging is being aware of your tendency to overreact to the other’s emotions. Generally, these reactions are longstanding, learned early in life as a way of coping in a chaotic or emotionally volatile family environment.

2. Know what triggers you the most. It’s not anxiety or depression, per se, but maybe the language the other person uses—about being “overwhelmed,” or that they “can’t take it anymore." Or perhaps, their tone of voice—the yelling, the huge sighs; or their behavior—the withdrawal, the sitting on the couch and staring at their phone or TV. Or maybe specific topics push your buttons most—talking about money, kids, or jobs. Knowing what you’re particularly sensitive to helps you anticipate and change your reaction rather than going on autopilot.

3. Change your self-talk. This is the key. Instead of jumping into fixing or getting annoyed, say to yourself: “They are having a problem. [deep breath] This is not about me. They are struggling right now. I need to ask how I can help.” Doing this shifts the focus away from your anxiety and need to run the show and put it where it belongs—with them, their problem, their reactions. It creates that emotional boundary, that needed separation.

4. Ask how you can help. “I need you to listen and let me vent. Just leave me alone for an hour and watch the baby or cook dinner.” Do what they ask; don’t overdo, overanalyze, or do what you think they need.

5. If you're upset, take responsibility for yourself. Repeat the self-talk, but if you are getting triggered, find ways to calm yourself by yourself. Go for a walk, listen to your favorite music, and be mindful when making dinner. Get out of your head.

6. Circle back and solve the problem when you both are calm. Actually, two problems: The topic—the job, the money, the kids—and what to do to keep the problem from continually coming up. And the pattern—what each of you can do to help break the cycle: “It helps if you can let me know how you’re feeling before it reaches that tipping point”; “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use such dramatic language because it triggers me”; or“Let me zone out on the couch for a bit without you’re seeming annoyed and know that I will feel better after a little while.”

Breaking the hold of enmeshment is about rewiring your brain, behaviorally changing old patterns, and creating new, healthier ones. It will take time and practice, and the old feelings will linger for a while until they can catch up to the new behaviors. This is ultimately about healing old wounds, yours and the other’s, about stepping away from those little-kid feelings.

It’s about becoming more of the adult you really are.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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