(Utterly fictional example scenario): A friend calls to tell me that she thinks she and her husband are going to get divorced. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do, where she’s going to live or how she’s going to survive on her own.
How would I react in December 2013? My stomach drops and my heart aches for her. How can I help? I immediately try to think of all of the resources I can offer and the ways that I can help. I offer financial assistance. I offer to look for apartments with her. I tell her all of the reasons why she’s better off on her own, despite having no real idea if divorce is her best choice. And after I hang up the phone, I lie awake all night hurting and anxious. I feel sick to my stomach. Should I call our other friends and organize assistance? Should I have offered to let her move in with me? I have an extra bedroom and more space than I really need. I know I don’t want to do that, but how selfish am I? Why did this have to happen now? I had plans next weekend and I really don’t want to be dealing with this right now. After several days of feeling miserable, I find myself avoiding her phone calls because I just can’t deal with the drama.
How would I react in December 2014? My heart aches for her. “Wow, that’s a really heavy decision. Tell me what happened.” And I listen while she shares and cries. “I can’t even begin to imagine how much stress that puts you under. Let’s plan to meet for dinner this week so I can hug you for real. Maybe we can plan a spa day in a couple of weeks (I have plans this coming weekend) to take your mind off of the heaviest stuff for a few hours.” I make a note to send a text each day to check in.
What changed? I did. I changed (or rather, I am a still changing work in progress) because I finally learned what it really means to set emotional boundaries.
Understanding Emotional Boundaries is Life Altering
One of the very first observations that my therapist made this year was that it seemed that I had difficulties with emotional boundaries – and yet it took about five months of therapy sessions for me to really understand what that meant. Setting emotional boundaries is learning to take responsibility for your own emotions – and to not take responsibility for anyone else’s. I had heard all of the words before – boundaries, guilt, shame, responsibility – but having all of those pieces click together was eye opening.
In that scenario above, nothing about my friend changed. She was still struggling with the devastating life event in the same way. All that changed was how I reacted to her struggle. I didn’t make it my struggle. I didn’t make it about me. By not making it about me, I didn’t feel responsibility to fix it – and I was able to better provide emotional support and love. My heart ached, but my life went on.
Learning that emotional boundaries have everything to do with me and nothing to do with anyone else has been life altering. It sounds so insanely simple to say, “I have all of the power when it comes to how I feel”, but internalizing that and practicing it is astoundingly difficult. And I am definitely still a work in progress.