In the first article in this series, we talked about the importance of emotional boundaries for our mental health and well-being. When we allow others to cross our emotional boundaries and drain our energy, we’re left with less of ourselves to devote to what’s actually important to us. To live our best and most fulfilling lives, therefore, we need to practice self-care by setting and defending our emotional boundaries.
Boundaries are a perennial hot topic in Internet self-help circles, because in real life, protecting our boundaries is rarely as simple as flatly stating the boundary, then walking away or cutting people out of our lives if they violate it (which is advice commonly given when questions about boundaries crop up). Open confrontation is also not always a viable option to us. Sometimes we have to avoid it due to work or family relationships or obligations. Sometimes cultural programming or our own temperaments preclude it. And that’s okay.
If you have no issues with bluntly telling boundary crossers to stick it where the sun has never shone, and all you needed was permission to find and honor your emotional boundaries as well as your physical ones, then the first part of this series may be all you need. If, however, you struggle with giving boundary crossers explicit directions to where they can go, read on for some strategies you can use to better protect yourself without accidentally starting World War 3.
Boundaries are a perennial hot topic because in real life, protecting our boundaries is rarely as simple as flatly stating the boundary, then walking away.
Start With Micro Boundaries
In my conversations with others and my observations of myself, I’ve begun categorizing emotional boundaries into macro boundaries and micro boundaries. A macro boundary might be something like “I do not wish to discuss politics, because that topic sends me into a misanthropic existential crisis.” A micro boundary, on the other hand, might be something like “I do not wish to receive links to political commentary on Twitter, because that stresses me out.”
When you’re finding it hard to establish macro boundaries, try starting with micro boundaries. It’s often easier to enforce these—“thanks for sharing this, but I don’t look at Twitter” tends to roll off the tongue smoother than “I don’t want to hear anything about politics”—and you can build on your successful use of micro boundaries to work your way up to macro boundaries.
(I also don’t look at Twitter anymore. I personally find it to be an outrage factory that is more often than not bad for my mental health, even if I only view tweets and never engage.)
Try Gray Rocking
In certain online self-help circles, much is made of the technique of gray rocking. Deployed in response to habitual boundary pushers, gray rocking simply entails making yourself and your responses as boring and noncommittal as possible. The idea is that people who push boundaries sometimes do so specifically to elicit an emotional response. By refusing to give them that or to reward them in any way for their digging and needling, you can gradually train them to move on to a different target.
Not all emotional boundary crossers do so maliciously. In fact, I believe most are well intentioned, just pushy and oblivious. But just because someone means well doesn’t mean you have to give them what they want.
So let’s say you have a relative who won’t stop asking you when you plan to get married, settle down, and have children. It doesn’t matter why you haven’t. It doesn’t matter if you do plan to eventually or if you don’t. If you don’t want to discuss your personal life with someone, you aren’t obligated to. And if you would like to avoid the discussion without blowing up, you can simply gray rock: Give them the least amount of information and the least amount of emotional engagement possible.
If you would like to avoid the discussion, you can simply gray rock: Give them the least amount of information and the least amount of emotional engagement possible.
“So, seeing anyone special these days?” “Eh, you know how it is.”
“When are you guys going to finally get married?” “Oh, who knows? I’m not worried about it.”
“Aren’t you about ready to start having babies?” “Maybe sometime, and you’ll hear about it when we do!”
With a little practice, you’ll find that gray rocking intrusive questions preserves much more of your own energy and peace of mind.
Just because someone tries to engage with you doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate, at least not beyond the minimum standards of basic civility. You have a right to defend both your time and your energy. Sometimes doing so will require gently stepping away from people or topics that you find draining or otherwise emotionally taxing.
Imagine a coworker with whom you share an office. This coworker is going through some personal difficulties (or may be a person who seems to always be going through some personal difficulties). Their difficulties may be cause for sympathy but detrimental to you when the coworker begins taking every free moment to trap you into conversations about them. They may not be things you want to know about the coworker in the first place, they may not be things with which you can help, and the conversations may adversely affect your ability to perform your own job duties.
So what do you do?
You can gently disengage. “I’m so sorry to hear that, but I can’t really talk about it—I need to focus on my work while I’m here.” “That’s too bad. I hope things get better for you soon.”
The name of the game here is to avoid asking questions that will prolong the conversation, and to avoid making offers that may turn into burdens later on. Make sure you don’t reflexively ask follow-up questions or inquire what you can do to help unless you’re genuinely sure you are willing and able to.
The name of the game here is to avoid asking questions that will prolong the conversation, and to avoid making offers that may turn into burdens later on.
Oversharing is one of the most common ways people cross others’ emotional boundaries. Society often teaches us to value kindness over self-preservation. Kindness is a virtue, and we should be glad to offer a listening ear when we can, but unless we want to martyr ourselves on the fire of other people’s problems, we should exercise our right not to be used as free therapists and nondenominational confessionals. The energy that we expend in absorbing and engaging with an oversharer’s stories is energy that we can’t use to pursue our own fulfillment.
Finally, if all else fails, the gentlest disengagement of all is a reminder that you aren’t a professional.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, and I’m not at all qualified to help. Have you talked to a therapist about it?”
A Final Word
As you feel your way into your own emotional boundaries, you may be tempted to explain yourself to those you’re setting boundaries with.
Many people take explanations as invitations to debate. Chronic boundary crossers may use your explanations to find objections they can overcome, in order to pull you back into their orbit or to extract the information they want from you. “I don’t look at Twitter,” “I’m not planning to get married right now,” and “I’m not the best person to help you with this” are all the explanation you need to give.
You may not encounter as much pushback as you fear. Plenty of people are simply unaware that they’ve been crossing your boundaries and will respect your wishes. As for the others: Their opposition to your reasonable boundaries will give you an insight to how little they respect you. That knowledge alone should be helpful in validating your decision to defend your boundaries from them.
Establishing emotional boundaries can be hard at first, especially if you’re not used to them. It gets easier with practice and as you figure out your own specific boundaries, as I did when I restricted story replies on my Instagram account. Gradually, you’ll find yourself feeling more and more empowered. You’ll have more energy and more headspace to tackle your own priorities. And that is worth the effort that having boundaries will take.
Good luck! You’ve got this!