How to Set Emotional Boundaries

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Emotional Boundaries

We often hear about setting boundaries when it comes to time management or boundaries between our work and personal lives, but there’s another important type of boundary that isn’t discussed as much as it should be – emotional boundaries.

Why do we need emotional boundaries?

It’s common to get caught up in other people’s difficult emotions or worry about how someone might react to something in the future. Sometimes, we even try to overly manage the other person’s emotions or how they will react by doing any of the following: 

  • sugar-coating or over-engineering a tough message, allowing key points to get lost
  • quickly jumping in to soothe or calm the other person at the first sign of difficult emotions
  • back-pedaling on something that’s very important to us just to make the other person feel better
  • gaming our approach with another person because of our fear of their reaction

These actions illustrate a lack of emotional boundaries. It’s why a lot of people avoid conflict. 

Not only is this behavior not healthy, but it also consumes precious time, energy, and mental capacity that are better spent on other things. It can also lead to resentment, particularly when it involves sacrificing parts of ourselves to appease others. 

At work (and in life), we need to engage in conflict, make the hard decision that will upset someone, hold firm instead of giving in, and risk dealing with the fallout or messiness of other people’s negative emotions.

After all, are we really responsible for someone else’s emotions or reactions? 

The bottom line is, no, we aren’t. 

This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t care about what they are feeling or apologize if we’ve done or said something wrong or acted out of line. 

What is our responsibility is to conduct ourselves honestly, ethically, and respectfully in our interactions with others. 

Learning to set emotional boundaries – which to be sure, takes a fair bit of practice – can be incredibly liberating. It involves learning to delineate “what’s yours” and “what’s theirs.” Share on X

By learning how to keep a clear boundary between others’ feelings and your own, you’ll be more effective in dealing with challenges as well as experience a lighter mental and emotional load. 

The Three Truths of Emotional Boundaries:

1. Other people’s feelings and reactions (and their behavior) are about them. 

You can’t make people feel something. Whatever the other person is feeling, those feelings were already there. Your words or actions may simply (and inadvertently) trigger or activate those feelings that had been lying dormant below the surface. 

We all have different triggers for negative feelings. One of my triggers is being bullied. That’s because, long ago, I was. Someone else’s behavior just activates those feelings stored in my body from decades ago. If I hadn’t been bullied, their behavior would likely not affect me as much. I’d more easily see their bullying behavior for what it is – their need to control the situation or avoid their own vulnerability at all costs. In this scenario, their behavior is about them, and my feelings are about me – and vice versa. (In addition, knowing this about myself can help me better manage future situations, including my own emotions, if I do feel bullied.)

2. You can create space for other people’s feelings – but it’s up to them to examine and manage their feelings.

When others experience tough feelings or have emotional reactions, you can create space for what they are going through by being in observer mode. This gives them space to have their feelings and places the focus on their experience – on their side of the net – ideally, without you reacting to their reactions. This does not preclude showing concern or having empathy. Be curious, non-judgemental, compassionate, and a good listener. These all take practice.

If you’re able to create enough safety and the individual is open to it, you can help them to step back and look at what they are feeling (versus through those feelings), why they are feeling them, and even where those feelings came from. Where else in their life have they felt this? Emotional reactions are usually familiar patterns. 

You can reflect back to them specific behaviors you observed, such as: “I was a bit concerned that you shouted in our last meeting, and then shut down after I shared more about our team’s new structure. Can you tell me more about what was going on for you?”

The other person may not be willing or open to look at their feelings, let alone share them, and that is their choice. For some, it may be too painful or embarrassing. Their leadership and growth will be limited by their inability to examine these feelings. At a minimum, hopefully they can do this with themselves, or ideally with a trusted coach, therapist, or friend, if not with you. If they shut down or act badly towards you, you can end the conversation and invite them to talk more live if and when they’re ready. 

The practice is to stay in observer mode and not get hooked or triggered yourself by their emotional reaction. Again, this takes practice. 

3. Other people’s emotions are not yours to absorb or fix. 

It is not your responsibility to absorb or take on the other person’s feelings, or let them consume you, particularly when it is clear that someone else is projecting their negative emotions onto you. Share on X Projection is a defense mechanism that comes from the other person’s discomfort with their own negative emotions. By placing these negative emotions, beliefs, or traits onto someone else, they protect themselves from their own uncomfortable inner struggles, anxiety, and other unpleasant feelings. Signs that someone is projecting their own negative emotions onto you include extreme sensitivity, deflecting responsibility, blaming others, and difficulty in accepting negative feedback or accountability. It also feels like they are expecting you to “take on” something that you are clear is not yours or that you don’t actually feel. It doesn’t land or resonate with you. Only you can say what you are feeling, not someone else.

Likewise, is it not your job to fix someone else’s experience with their painful emotions (whether they are willing to accept these emotions or not). For example, if you genuinely disagree with someone or deliver bad news respectfully and someone is upset with you for it, let them be upset. Allow them to have their own experience and manage it. Of course, hear them out and consider what they have to say, but this does not mean you need to jump and come up with a different solution, solely on the basis of their negative emotions or reaction. No one is going to be happy about everything all the time.  

When others are upset, they have an opportunity to build their self-awareness and their ability to self-regulate their emotions. If they are willing, they can choose to do the self-reflection and inquiry to understand themselves better and try to continuously improve in these areas (i.e., self-awareness and self-regulation). Trying to fix the situation for them by jumping in to overly soothe them – or go back on an important decision or standard – just to make them feel better, robs them of developing their ability to do this.  

Notice if you have a tendency to overly soothe or change your stance — or even say “never mind” and back off altogether — solely to try to calm or fix the other person’s feelings. When we do this, it’s because of our own discomfort with the other person’s difficult feelings. Rushing in to fix their feelings for them robs the other person of working through their own difficult emotions and the growth that inherently comes with this.

The next time you notice that you have the urge to fix someone else’s feelings, try not acting on it. Make sure to pay attention to your own feelings or discomfort around this. Do your own self-inquiry to understand what’s behind your desire to fix it. Where does this come from? How is this a pattern for you? And what is it costing you?

By establishing emotional boundaries, instead of walking around fearing or acquiescing to other’s emotional reactions, you can respond with kindness and be clear and direct with others about what is yours and what is theirs. Maintaining emotional boundaries helps you to find peace for yourself. When carrying the responsibility to protect others' feelings, we do them a disservice. We are robbing them of the ability to feel, process, and work through their difficult feelings to grow, develop, and even heal. Share on X

Reflection: What emotional boundaries do you need to set and with whom?



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