counseling

What Are Emotional Boundaries, and Why Do You Need Them?

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In my experience, we typically equate a discussion of boundaries to setting expectations about the physical relationship in romantic contexts; rarely do we consider the realm of emotional boundaries, including their merit in friendly or familial relationships. I would argue that we need to have a good understanding of emotional boundaries first since these can be more challenging to define and address, and because they will inherently inform how we think about other forms of boundaries in life.

What are boundaries?

I like to think of boundaries as our recognized limitations, a way of acknowledging what I can and cannot do. For example, as a counselor, I have limitations to my hours and availability. I cannot be available 24/7 or provide crisis services to my clients because that’s not part of my current role or my training. Boundaries also help us understand distinctions of identity and responsibility. In theory, there is some delineation between where I stop and another person starts. If someone else and I have a conflict, we need some sort of responsibility dividers, some way to acknowledge that there are elements of responsibility which are mine and others which are not mine. In practice, we tend to vacillate between taking too much or too little responsibility, and both of these extremes can damage relationships

All that being said, I consider boundaries to be guidelines for interacting with others wisely. In this way, setting boundaries with myself and in my relationships allows me to consider how to love my neighbor with wisdom, both for their benefit and my own.

Proper emotional boundaries allow us to acknowledge our limits and consider how wisdom plays a role in our relational development and sustainability.

Why do we need boundaries?

In short, we need boundaries because of sin, and not just because of other people’s sin. We need boundaries because of our sin. If we begin from a place of humble self-evaluation, we see we need boundaries to recognize our limitations and place safeguards around the sinful desires of our hearts. Sometimes, our sinfulness leads us to becoming the stereotypical “boundary pusher.” We don’t take no as an answer. We challenge others or maneuver to get our way. We ask intrusive or inappropriate questions; we have little respect for the agency and individuality of others. Other times, our sin looks like pride or wanting to feel needed by others. This can be a struggle for those who can’t say no or feel compelled to overexplain. I fall into this category sometimes; I want to be liked or needed, and I’m willing to lie to myself (or others) about my limitations in order to get that validation.

Concerning early signs of unhealthy relational dynamics include things like being controlling or possessive, manipulative, strong fears of abandonment, or jealousy in the relationship. These dynamics demonstrate a lack of boundaries and will not lead to a healthy relationship characterized by wise interaction and Christlike love for the other person.

Some ways of relating may need to be addressed with a counselor, pastor, mentor, or another third party who can help. Some of these instances include talking down to someone repeatedly and publicly, extreme jealousy, high emotional reactivity or mood swings, any form of physical harm or intimidation, and coercing someone to do something they don’t want to do. If these sound familiar to you, let me strongly encourage you to reach out to someone who can help. These relational dynamics are complex and difficult to address interpersonally on your own, especially if your relationship involves a strong dynamic of power and control.

What do wise or healthy emotional boundaries look like?

I’d argue that every relationship benefits from some baseline emotional boundaries. These can be as simple as being comfortable saying no without needing to overexplain, setting expectations early on, and preparing for conflict well. Plenty of pre-marital resources address such topics, especially conflict resolution, but we fail to recognize our need for these outside of marital relationships as well. You may benefit from doing some exploration personally, asking yourself what lies underneath your habits of overexplaining, what you expect of others and how to communicate or adjust those in relationships, and your patterns of responding during conflict. All of these are geared towards being able to have mature, adult conversations with others to strengthen relationships.

When we think about newer relationships, again both the friendly and the romantic, the rate of our self-disclosure and building trust are often overlooked or assumed. Every person has a story, and we are in charge of how, when, and to what extent we share about the deepest, and sometimes hardest, parts of that story. As a counselor, I hear about the most painful parts of people’s stories, but they choose when and how to share that with me. So too in friendships and other relationships. As a way of self-evaluation, when you meet someone new, do you expect a rate of disclosure from them that is unwise? Do you share too much too fast? Do you trust easily, or even too easily? I hear people use the label of “over-sharer” often without realizing this may not be a personality trait as much as a lack of emotional boundaries. Maybe it’s wise to consider that not every relationship will be your most intimate or vulnerable, and that depends on so many factors. We tend to over spiritualize trust to the neglect of boundaries, prioritizing authenticity over wisdom. Is there room for wisdom in how we disclose or how we build that trust? I hear stories like this often, whether it’s a first date with overly personal questions (think: asking about mental health history, highly nuanced theological positions, or trying to align your ministerial callings before you’ve even ordered dinner) or friendships that seem to go from 0 to 60 in a flash, usually resulting in dependency or disappointment. Proper emotional boundaries allow us to acknowledge our limits and consider how wisdom plays a role in our relational development and sustainability.

Interested in Counseling?

If you are interested in counseling services available to current Southeastern Seminary students and their spouses, please contact counselingservices@sebts.edu for more information.

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Kelsey Hamilton

Counseling Coordinator for Student Life at SEBTS

Kelsey Hamilton is currently working on her PhD in Christian Counseling at SEBTS and serves as the counseling coordinator for the Student Life office. When she’s not counseling or doing schoolwork, she enjoys spending time with her husband of 6 years, Jacob, and their very active son, Peyton. She’s also a Raleigh native who loves a good Tex-Mex restaurant, watching social documentaries, and reading non-fiction for fun

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