Good mental health requires clearly defined emotional boundaries, which is the awareness of what you think and what you feel, and in response, knowing what you are prepared to do and what you are not prepared to do. It means being able to say no without guilt. Many people have difficulty forming healthy emotional boundaries.
Rivka, age 46, was an only child who grew up in a home with a very angry, controlling and narcissistic father. Her mother was codependent and constantly tried to avoid conflict with her husband by always being compliant and avoiding arguments. Nevertheless, Rivka’s dad continuously yelled at her mom.
Rivka was scared of what she saw and avoided her dad’s temper at all costs. She suppressed her fears and submitted to his control. Her dad told her what to do and how to live her life. She was not able to be a real teenager.
Rivka went on to graduate high school and college but had few friends and was unsuccessful in her attempts to develop relationships with guys. Since she was not in touch with what she felt, she constantly focused on what she believed others expected from her. She always believed that she was doing something wrong and often apologized to people about the smallest matters. These behaviors obviously began in her home with her parents but continued throughout her adult years.
Although Rivka was able to hold a job, she grew increasingly lonely and depressed. Rivka sought out therapy because she was depressed about her life, but did not know how to make it better.
Below, I compiled some of the recommended strategies found in the psychology literature that help people like Rivka make healthier boundaries (Margarita Tartakovsky, www.psychcentral.com, October 8, 2018).
1. Name your limits. If you are not sure where you stand – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – you cannot set good boundaries.
2. Get in touch with your feelings. Boundary problems exist for many people like Rivka because they do not know what they are feeling. Feelings represent the true self, and emotionally healthy people need to be clear about their feelings in order to know what they want for themselves and from others.
One feeling to be on the lookout for is resentment. Resentment usually comes about because we do something that we really do not want to do; perhaps someone feels pushed or feels guilty for saying no. Resentment is a red flag for unhealthy boundaries. Perhaps you are trying to be a good daughter, son, or parent, or pleasing your boss for his/her approval. Again, defining what is in your best interest is not an easy task, but it is most important to be aware of what you feel before deciding what to do. If someone makes you feel resentful, it may be that he/she is crossing your emotional boundary.
3. Be direct. Once you know what you are feeling, let the other person know what you want or need. This is easy for some, but for others like Rivka, it is very difficult.
4. Give yourself permission. Boundaries are also a sign of self-respect. Give yourself permission to express what you feel, think and want. Stop feeling guilty for being for yourself.
5. Practice self-awareness. Learning to make healthier emotional boundaries requires being mindful of the interactions you have with others and developing awareness of the way you handle those interactions.
6. Consider your past and your future. Think about how you were raised and what kinds of messages you were taught or given concerning the concept of give and take. Being aware of your history can deepen your understanding of what may be going wrong in forming healthy boundaries in your current situation.
Are old patterns repeating themselves? If so, how can you change in order to create a better balance of reciprocity in your life with key people? Can you say no, at least some of the time, to friends or to your boss?
7. Practice putting yourself first. Rivka was helped to put herself first, not an easy thing for her to do, but essential for learning to develop healthier boundaries.
8. Be assertive. Practicing assertiveness is an essential skill for people who have poor emotional boundaries. People cannot read your mind. You have to let people know what you like or do not like.
I always tell my clients that he/she can do this with respect for the other. You do not have to scream and shout to let someone know what you want or prefer.
9. Start small. Getting in touch with your feelings and asserting what you feel and want takes practice. It takes time to learn this skill. Be patient.
10. Seek emotional support. Talk about your goals to develop healthier emotional boundaries with your closest friends and family members – that is, the people you can trust. If need be, seek professional counseling to work on these issues.
Remember, it takes courage to develop healthy emotional boundaries. They are not learned overnight, but they are essential for positive mental health.
Some 2,000 years ago, people were struggling with the same issue. Hillel had some great advice for people in his time as well as for people today. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14).
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. www.facebook.com/drmikegropper, firstname.lastname@example.org