By Lisa Caplan

It is perfectly okay to feel angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss how to develop healthy emotional boundaries. So, what is an emotional boundary? Think of it this way, boundaries put space between where you end and someone else begins. The only way to do this is to develop emotional boundaries by distinguishing your emotions from others’ emotions. Healthy emotional boundaries are vital to having and enjoying healthy relationships, and to avoiding dysfunctional relationships. Having a healthy relationship involves two people who have a clear understanding of who they are separate from the relationship. As much as you want someone to be happy, you are not responsible for his or her happiness. Also, having an expectation of being happy all the time is not realistic, not healthy, and is also exhausting. Expecting to be responsible for making others happy by denying your own wants and needs is also not healthy.

As you learn to set boundaries you will see how boundaries help build your self esteem, confidence, assertiveness and, yes, healthy relationships.  Developing emotional boundaries requires the ability to separate your emotions from someone else’s. For example, if a significant other is upset, this does not mean you need to take this on as your responsibility, be upset too, or try to make them happy. To be an emotionally healthy adult means gaining emotional separation from others, which involves recognizing and taking responsibility for your own feelings, and being able to express them openly and honestly. This will help you take responsibility for how you feel and what you experience, and you will seek out healthy relationships rather than unhealthy ones.

In order to develop emotional boundaries, you need to be able to:

  1. Be patient, because setting boundaries is a process. Start to set boundaries with someone with whom you feel safe.
  2. Recognize that you are responsible for your own feelings. Someone can say or do something that is not nice, but we each decide how we are going to feel about it.
  3. Start to pay attention and identify how you feel. Do you feel anxious, frustrated, vulnerable, overwhelmed, lonely, jealous, etc.? This helps us take a step back and check in with ourselves, put space between our feelings and someone else’s, and not get caught up in their issues. Sometimes we can be so over-involved in someone else’s life that we take on their feelings.
  4. Recognize your feelings; allow them to just be present without analyzing them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, and you have the right to feel the way you do.
  5. Identify what boundary has been violated. For example, does this person make plans and not follow through? Do they ask you to do things for them, but are never able to help you? Borrow money, but never pay you back? Make mean comments to you? Or, do you have a client who always shows up late or not at all for your appointments?
  6. Decide how to set a boundary. If someone makes plans and never follows through, you might want to say that you can’t make plans with them anymore because they don’t follow through. If someone doesn’t pay you back, you might tell them that you can’t lend them money until they pay you back. If a friend is unwilling to help you, tell them that you are not available to help because they aren’t available to help you. If someone makes mean comments, you might want to tell them it’s not acceptable to talk to you that way. With a client who doesn’t keep appointments, you can tell them you are unable to continue to work with them and refer them to someone else. You can also express how you feel by saying “I feel angry, frustrated, etc.”  If you express your feelings, be careful not to blame the person by saying, “you make me feel…” Always start with “I feel___.” This “I feel” approach helps the person understand how you feel without blaming them. Of course, if they are willing, you can discuss how to resolve this issue and how to move forward in a healthy way. You also might need to reevaluate your relationship and see if you need to distance yourself or move on from the relationship. If the person gets upset and argumentative, you might need to walk away. Setting boundaries helps gain control of your life and decrease the drama.
  7. Get support and talk with someone. Setting boundaries is difficult, especially when you are just learning. We all come from different families, and talking about how you feel and setting boundaries may not have been how you were raised. Talk with a friend who is good at setting boundaries or talk with a counselor to learn skills that can be helpful.
  8. Take care of yourself. Learning anything new can be stressful. The better you take care of yourself, the easier it will be to deal with the stress. Remember to get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy and spend time with positive people.
  9. Breathe. Take some deep, slow breaths: imagine you are filling a balloon from the bottom up, holding for five seconds, and exhaling at half the speed you inhaled. This simple activity will help you take a step back and ground yourself. When we feel grounded, we can make better decisions for moving forward in the healthiest way possible.

For assistance, please contact the Lawyer Assistance Program for free, confidential counseling. We have a network of counselors throughout Maryland. Jim Quinn, Director, (443) 703-3041,; Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C, Associate Director, (443) 703-3042, Toll Free 1(888) 388-5459.


Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C has over 20 years experience in her field, and extensive experience working with lawyers and judges in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and trauma.