Create Emotional Freedom by Setting Healthy Boundaries

“I’ve discovered that you can’t change people. They can change themselves.” ~Jim Rohn

 “As much I want you to be happy, I’m realizing that I can’t be responsible for your happiness.”

I had never spoken truer words in my life. Even as the tears flowed down my cheeks, I felt a profound sense of freedom and lightness.

My mother suffers from major depressive disorder. For much of my life I truly believed that there was something I could do to bring her out of it. I tried to be the perfect daughter. I minimized my own emotional presence. I did everything I could to make her smile.

Yet nothing I did seemed to make any difference in her mood.

Though I couldn’t articulate it as a child, I felt I was to blame. I hadn’t been entertaining, engaging, or good enough to keep her from feeling sad.

I internalized my mother’s emotional moods until I was no longer able to tell the difference between what she was feeling and my own emotions.

I didn’t give myself permission to express any of the emotions I perceived to be negative, such as anger, sadness, guilt, or shame. It seemed my mother had sole ownership of these, so I suppressed them within myself.

As I got older, I began to interact in much the same way with romantic partners, friends, and others I encountered. Like a chameleon, I took on the emotions of other people and was greatly affected by their moods.

Most of my relationships were unhealthy and unsatisfying, involving varying levels of codependency.

I felt trapped within myself. I grew tired of pretending. I craved emotional freedom.

Then my therapist said something that completely changed me: “It is okay to feel angry, sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc.”

For me, this was a revolutionary idea, and extremely empowering. I didn’t think it was acceptable to be anything other than happy and “perfect.” Once I gave myself permission to feel these things, I noticed that these emotional experiences did not consume me as much as they once did.

I felt liberated.

Emotional Freedom = Emotional Separation

Becoming an emotionally healthy and mature adult involves developing a sense of emotional separation from others, particularly caregivers.

This requires you to experience and establish emotional boundaries by being clear about the difference between your emotions and the emotions of others around you. You learn to take greater personal responsibility for your emotional experience and are less likely to seek and attract codependent relationships.

Give yourself permission to experience a wide range of emotions.

Oftentimes, we hold this idealized image of how we should be, feel, and act in the world. We believe that emotional health means completely eliminating “negative” emotions and being in a state of perpetual state of happiness and bliss.

This is simply not true. Expecting yourself to be happy all the time is completely unrealistic and unhealthy. Instead, allow yourself to feel whatever you may be feeling at a particular moment.

Don’t try to label these emotions initially. Don’t try to understand or analyze them. Don’t assign them a positive or negative value. Simply allow them to exist and experience them as they come. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.

Learn to identify your emotions.

After you have become comfortable with experiencing your emotions, it's helpful to learn to identify them.

Most of us have a very limited emotional vocabulary. We tend to be extremely familiar with the major emotions: happiness, sadness, anger. However, we are less familiar with the broad range of emotional experiences that aren’t fully captured by these terms.

What you may experience as anger might actually be disappointment. Perhaps the guilt you think you’re feeling could best be described as resentment. Take some time to develop a deeper level of self-awareness so you can accurately describe your emotional experience.

One tool that was extremely helpful for me was an emotional vocabulary chart. I would carry this around with me and check in with myself several times a day. I began to see patterns in my emotional experiences. I truly began to observe, understand, and accept myself more fully.

Again, the point is not to assign judgment or to determine why you are feeling a particular emotion. When you question why, you may assume that something is wrong with the feeling you are having. You are merely observing and identifying in order to develop greater self-awareness.

Learn to express your emotions.

Expressing your emotions to others is an important part of healthy and mature communication.

Consider the following statements.

“You made me angry.”

“I feel angry.”

Did you notice any differences?

There is a subtle but powerful shift in emphasis between the two. The former places blame and assumes that the other person is responsible. This often leads to defensiveness and can shut down further efforts at communication.

The latter effectively communicates the same feeling, but eliminates blame and indicates a personal acknowledgment and acceptance of the internal experience. This is an example of something known as perceptual language, which I've found is a powerful tool for learning how to communicate in a more mature and healthier way.

It becomes more of a report than an accusation. In my experience, these types of statements are better received by others, and also give me a greater sense of control.

In communicating your emotions, it’s not only about the words you say. Your intention is also extremely important. Be sure you're not expecting the other person to make you feel better. This often leads to anger, frustration, and disappointment. Instead, find ways to soothe and comfort yourself.

Allow other people to have their own emotional experiences.

Once you've given yourself permission to feel and identify emotions within yourself, it becomes much easier to separate yourself from the emotional experiences of those around you.

Just like you, other people must be accountable for their own emotional experiences. Allow them to experience, identify, and express their emotions in their own way.

Once you have clearly defined emotional boundaries, you no longer hold yourself responsible for other people’s emotions. This ultimately leads to healthier, more deeply satisfying relationships.

Photo by Rachel Rae!

About Alana Mbanza

Alana Mbanza is a freelance writer and the author of LoveSick: Learning to Love and Let Go. Even more than a writer, she strives to be an active agent of creation, choosing to see and create life through the lens of love. Visit her website for more information about her freelance writing and coaching services.

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  • Andrea

    Good points! I understand how one can be affected by others’ moods. and to not expect the other to make you feel better is an important one.
    ps: the toes in the sand photo is not a good one to use.:)

  • lionglow

    I found this through stumbleupon and….this is one of those amazing coincidences that tell me I am on the right path in my spiritual development. This is the same problem I’ve been struggling with, and I just started realizing these things on my own. I was thinking about it just a couple of minutes before finding this article by chance; as a matter of fact I was writing about similar things in my journal when I landed on this page. This article filled in all the parts that were missing for me in trying to understand myself at this point in time. Thank you for posting!!!! <3 Take care

  • Alana


    I love those little moments of synchronicity when things just seem to come together. I’m so glad this article resonated with you and truly honored to have been of assistance on your journey.

  • Alana

    Thank you for your comment and for the feedback on the photo. I think the line in the sand is supposed to represent boundaries but I agree, the toes are kind of distracting.

  • Hi Andrea and Alana! I was having a hard time finding a photo that felt appropriate for the message, hence the line in the sand. I will see if I can find something else…

  • lv2terp

    Fantastic blog, thank you for sharing your wisdom!!! This is something I have been trying to accomplish myself…thank you so much! 🙂

  • anna

    Alana, thanks for this post. I understand a bit what you went through growing up. I was raised by someone with a personality disorder who is self-centered, manipulative, and critical of others, yet extremely fragile on the inside. I walked on eggshells my entire childhood to please this parent not know that it wasn’t normal to do so. I too suppressed my emotions and have had mostly unhealthy relationships through adulthood.

    I’m just learning how to have boundaries. It’s interesting that I understand the concept, but it’s so hard to put into practice. I’m so used to mirroring others. I even caught myself physically and verbally mirroring a new friend this month. I have a feeling it will be a long path.

  • TC

    Thank you for this article!

  • commentgal8

    So true, this is beautiful. My mother also has major depressive disorder and anxiety, and I too experienced all of the suppression you talked about. With the help of an amazing counselor, I finally realized how big the fallout was in all my relationships and I’m learning to take care of myself now. It’s a really isolating experience to be a caregiver for someone with mental illness, because there’s such a stigma and it’s genetic, so by sharing that this is your struggle, you run the risk of people treating you with kid gloves like you’re going to lose your marbles at some point, too. Very tough and lonely experience, and it’s amazing to know others out there have identical experiences, even if I don’t happen to know any of them (that I know of…) in person right now.

  • Melissa

    Hello Alana,
    This post is very helpful. I am realizing I tend to becoming co-dependent in relationships and am working to develop better emotional boundaries. Often in relationships, I “take the other person’s baggage,” and make it my own. I’m realizing this is toxic for me and everyone around me. It also is an insecure way of “loving” someone because I’m not being confident that they’re able to handle their own emotions.
    That being said, I am hoping you can share some practical tips for establishing healthy emotional boundaries. How do I know where to draw the line? How do I distinguish my intuition from fear? This varies from person to person but I learn well from examples (even hypothetical ones). Please share!
    Kind regards,

  • lv2terp

    Awesome post/message! Thank you for sharing your insight, and advice! Great reminder, I need and appreciate them, thank you again! 🙂

  • shikira

    Like Alana, I also grew up with a mother who had major depressive disorder that allowed her to choose the most incompatible of partner’s, my step-father. This man sexually, mentally and physically abused me and my brother from infancy right through to our teenage years, and my mother remained in denial about the whole thing. Subsequently, I ended up with major depression myself and other complex emotional disorders, that still plague my very existence now.

    As a very learned person, I have studied in depth, anything and everything to do with the mind and emotional dysfunction, been in and out of talking therapies as well as written extensively on the subject, unpublished articles. The commitment to yourself to identify and learn how to process emotions most certainly an arduous journey – fraught with unseen obstacles, the mind has to correlate what the emotions are doing – often heightening unwanted thoughts in the process.

    I agree with Alana about nurturing a sense of self-awareness, though in my case has done nothing but confront me with emotional despairing as a survivor of abuse, unable to seek justice of that, and transform my life in the present. If you take the concept of ‘choice’ for instance; overwhelms the cognitive processes in many people – a well documented fact in human psychology. Choice directly spawned from emotional insight means that we are no more empowered by it, only ever aware of the presence of conceptualizations.

    Too much emotional insight, can also cloud our judgment of its complexity, whilst too little can imprison us. Many times I have screamed at the sheer self-awareness I have embraced over the years, yet still feeling a huge mass of unresolved internal conflict, not knowing what should be done with it. I don’t yet have closure of the past to get on with life as it is now. It does not necessarily empower the individual to become more self-aware – otherwise I would certainly have surpassed my own desires and expectations of being what it is I feel I ought to be by now.
    Emotions are not tools by which to carve ourselves a desirable existence – this has been tried and tested by a great many – mostly poor people who want social change and their poverty to end. What they are instead, are experiences that pass with the night and day of our lives, and bring about compassion. civility and tolerance we can project onto all others.

  • Keilah Machelle (ilahmache)

    Very eloquently put! Thank you Alana!