A few months ago, I adjusted the settings on my Instagram account to limit who can reply to my stories. Previously, I’d allowed anyone who views them to send replies; now, only people I follow can do so. Yesterday I tightened my account restrictions down even more by limiting access to my content to people age 16 and up.
My reasoning for these decisions are specific to content creators and people with a public presence, but the underlying causes are relevant to just about everyone. At 41, I’m still learning and practicing the art of protecting my emotional boundaries. I know I’m not the only one.
Emotional Boundaries: The Basics
We all know, or should know, how to recognize and respect other people’s physical boundaries. When people express their preference to not be touched, we don’t touch them. Property lines, fences, and doors: We know not to cross them without permission. And even when we have a hard time enforcing those boundaries for ourselves—enduring the unwanted hug from a relative or letting an uninvited guest in the door—we make note of those boundary violations and generally recognize on some level that they aren’t right.
Emotional boundaries are a little trickier.
Emotional boundaries are the limitations each of us needs to set in order to protect not just our time and energy but also our sense of sovereignty over our own thoughts and emotions. More simply put, they’re how we can prevent other people from ruining our day. Healthy emotional boundaries are absolutely critical for mental health. Learning how to set and maintain them is an act of self-care.
Evading the Emotional Vampires
If you’re not sure what I mean, think about the people in your life and see if you can identify any of what I and some of my friends call emotional vampires.
These are the people whose interactions with you consistently leave you drained or irritable or upset. They’re people who seem to always have some problem to dump on you, some injustice to vent in your direction, or some need that you feel obligated to meet. You may feel as if you’re their unofficial (and unqualified and uncompensated) secretary, therapist, or social worker. Or you may feel as if you’re required to play the part of adoring audience member to their life, clapping for their victories, crying at their defeats, yet unacknowledged when you want recognition of your own.
Emotional vampires consistently leave you drained or upset. You may feel as if you’re their unofficial (and unqualified and uncompensated) secretary or therapist.
They most likely aren’t treating you this way intentionally or maliciously (and most of us have probably been guilty of emotional vampirism at some stage in our lives). Regardless of intention, however, the end result is the same. The frequent negativity or requests for validation drag your mood down and suck away your time and energy. Even when you’re away from an emotional vampire, stress and resentment can start to consume you.
You feel that way because your emotional boundaries are being crossed. Reflecting on your interactions with them can give you valuable insight into what your emotional boundaries are. And finding ways to better defend your emotional boundaries can free up valuable time and energy for the people and pursuits that are most meaningful to you.
Doing so can be hard, though. We’re often socialized to value generosity, friendliness, and the willingness to provide comfort and a listening ear to others, no matter what’s going on in our own lives. Placing restrictions on how much we can give, even emotionally, may feel selfish and wrong.
It isn’t. Prioritizing your own mental health allows you to be at your best, and when you’re at your best, you’re capable of giving your best to others when truly needed.
Energy Budgeting: A Different Perspective on Emotional Boundaries
It’s easy to say “communicate your boundaries and enforce them.” It’s harder to do so if we haven’t had much practice in prioritizing our own needs over the perceived needs of others. So here’s another way to look at it, which has helped me immensely.
We all have our limits. Our funds are limited, of course. Our time is limited: There are only 24 hours in a day, and some of those hours are already allocated to work, school, and/or home responsibilities, as well as our unfortunate need for sleep. Our mental and emotional energy are limited, too. When we allow people to cross our emotional boundaries, we end up giving them not only our time but also our thoughts. They take our attention even when we need to pay attention to something else. Our other relationships or pursuits may suffer as a result.
Think of your mental and emotional energy as limited resources. They need to be replenished regularly. They also can’t be spent wildly on anyone who asks.
Think of your mental and emotional energy as limited resources. They need to be replenished regularly. They also can’t be spent wildly on anyone who asks. When we budget our money, we decide which expenses are the highest priority and make choices to ensure that we have enough money to meet those. We do the same with our time. We should also do the same with our energy.
So How Do We Budget Our Energy?
We budget our energy by making the same kinds of decisions we make when we budget our money and our time. Making the most efficient use of our energy means knowing which uses of it align with our personal values and priorities. Once we determine our priorities, we then work to make sure we’re spending our energy accordingly and not squandering it unwisely.
As a general example, your own studies or job and your own close relationships are generally higher priority for you than, say, the marital problems of your coworker down the hall who overshares and asks for your advice every time you encounter them in the break room. While you may feel that listening and engaging are the kind (or at least the polite) thing to do, doing so without boundaries may leave you too drained to pay enough attention to your real priorities.
In situations like these, it’s perfectly healthy and perfectly okay to step back and protect our emotional boundaries. As adults, we’re responsible for ourselves. That means looking out for ourselves, both physically and emotionally.
The more energy you allocate to the people and pursuits and activities that really matter to you, and the less you allow it to be consumed by matters that don’t align with your goals, the better equipped you will be to take control of your life and achieve what you want.
Want some practical tips to help you get a handle on your emotional boundaries for the future? Stay tuned. In the second part of this series, we’ll go over some common emotional boundary violations, what you can do to defend yourself from them, and what to do when you have no choice but to let them happen. Until then, take good care of yourself in whatever ways you can!