Unhealthy Boundaries: Pouring From An Empty Cup?

Have you ever heard that saying, “You become who you surround yourself with?” To some extent, I agree, but I’d like to preface that with the idea that we become who we surround ourselves with if we have poorly established boundaries with them.

Having unhealthy boundaries with someone may look like…

• Taking on their emotions/hardships as your own

• Inability to say “no” to them

• Stretching yourself too thin for the sake of their happiness

• Only being able to handle being around certain people in “small doses” due to them making you feel overwhelmed, annoyed, or upset quickly

• Feeling obligated to do things for them or with them

Sound familiar? Unhealthy boundaries will look different for everyone, but my primary red flag for unhealthy boundaries is when I’m feeling as though I’m taking on their feelings as my own. As a therapist, this can happen quite often if I don’t have those clearly established healthy boundaries with clients and maintain them.

I didn’t write any blog posts in February due to the month feeling emotionally overwhelming and taxing for me. It took me a couple weeks to realize that my own healthy boundaries with clients were starting to crumble down a bit, causing me to feel very depressed, lethargic, and have low motivation. I was taking on their problems and struggles, resulting in that impacting my personal mental health. So how do we establish healthy boundaries and what do they look like?

Healthy boundaries may look like…

• Healthy communication (I Statements, calm tone, no shaming/degrading comments, etc.)

• Providing necessary support to others without making their happiness your responsibility

• Identifying and voicing your own needs in the relationship

• Saying “no” without feeling guilty

• Taking care of yourself as needed and having open communication with others about it

We establish healthy boundaries by increasing healthy communication with others to create a platform for which healthy boundaries can sit upon. Advocate for yourself but also for others in your life as well. Be open about how behaviors/actions impact you and why. Also be in tune with your emotions, which is definitely more easier said than done.

During February, my own boundaries with my clients dropped due to them struggling so intensely. For context, I lead a therapy group for 10 teens who were previously in an inpatient hospital for suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, drug abuse, as well as trauma. These teens have experienced horrific things and struggle to see any light at the end of the tunnel, so most days revolve around trying to help them see that life is worth living. However, when you’re listening to this amount of pain every single day, you may experience something called “compassion fatigue.” Have you ever felt very overwhelmed and exhausted from trying to support others in your life that are really struggling emotionally? That’s what was going on for me, which indirectly led to lowered healthy boundaries, resulting in some low mental health days for myself.

Healthy boundaries with those in our lives are not only encouraged, but legitimately needed to function well. I think most of us struggle with establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with others, due to us taking it upon ourselves to make others happy, but what impact does that have on our happiness and well-being? Something I tell my teens quite often is this saying: “You cannot pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.” I’ll then ask my teens a question: What fills your cup? My cup is filled by alone time, time spent lounging around, time with my cats, and time with my partner. My cup is filled by time well spent. What fills yours?

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