There is nothing more true than the old phrase, "good fences make good neighbors." In personal relationships having unhealthy boundaries create much pain because to a great extent we define ourselves in relation to others. The problem occurs when our own needs, feelings and opinions become ignored. From there it's one easy step into becoming overwhelmed by that other person.
Not being able to set good boundaries usually starts with being in a family where there are no or vague examples of this. Family members become enmeshed as more dominant personalities emerge. Issues around codependency and caretaking as well as becoming a victim soon become the focal point of a major power struggle. Living in a family where there are no clear boundaries leaves it difficult to know psychologically where the other person stops and you start. As a result children grow up without a clear picture of themselves and a desire or need to find someone else to be enmeshed with just like things were when they were growing up.
Just as physical boundaries go as far as our bodies and our allowing other people to control them emotional boundaries act the same way. Good boundaries allow us to define our feelings and needs as well as those of people who are important to us. Poor boundaries leave us responsible for the feelings and needs of others and a tendency to neglect our own. As a result we can no longer ask for what we want or need and are often labeled compulsive people pleasers. Another aspect is taking on the emotions of those around us. We become depressed or angry with ourselves simply because we are very close to someone who is doing that to themselves and broadcasting it so strongly that it drowns out the fact that they are depressed or emotionally unstable and you could not cause it or was not a part of it.
We have two choices in a relationship. The first is to set emotional and physical boundaries ourselves in terms of respect for and an ability to express our feelings. The second is to allow other people to do that for us. Usually if this happens we start to find other people becoming emotionally or physically intrusive in our ability to say no goes out the window. There is no more a startling example of this than a child who feels responsible for their parents depression, addiction or low self-esteem. Without someone setting good boundaries as an example and telling the child that their parents may be depressed but it's not their fault the child will continue to think its all their fault that their parents are that way. As the child grows up they have continued difficulty in separating out issues of emotional responsibility and often feel overwhelmed by the world.
Simply establishing the notion of boundaries is not enough. This can be either too rigid or too loose. People with extremely rigid boundaries shutout everyone else from their lives and are often seen by others as aloof and distant. They may be criticized for not being able to talk about their feelings. They meet become very fearful of letting someone touch them or become physically close as well. These are the people who build their boundaries like an immense stone castle to ensure that no one breaks in.
People with boundaries that are too loose on the other hand have much difficulty describing what's theirs and what isn't. This may begin as a child when we wish that the lights which would turn on or off and think somehow we can control it. Loose boundaries mean that you are a bundle of feelings and desires that may even express themselves inappropriately. On the other hand we can easily become emotionally capsized like a little boat in the sea. These type of people are often emotionally overwhelmed and too involved in others. It's hard for them to judge if a feeling or thought is theirs and their lives are full of drama as if they lived in a house that had no doors and people simply came and went.
Somewhere in between these two extremes are people who create healthy boundaries that are firm yet flexible. They can give and take support. They own up to their own feelings, needs and opinions as well as respect those of others. It then is easy to acknowledge someone else's business. You can then be assertive without getting angry. Respecting the thoughts and feelings of others and having an open mind to them happens when you don't feel that they will invade and take over your sense of yourself.
The problem is getting to that position. You can start by identifying your need to set a boundary and do it without anger or argument. A clear example of this is saying to someone who is very close to you "I will not listen to you when you use foul language." This is very helpful when dealing with people who suffer from addictions. Setting a boundary would mean "if you decide to use drugs in front of me I will go away."
When you find that you have set a boundary but are still caretaking someone else's feelings you know that this boundary is not strong enough. So long as you remain responsible for someone else's emotional mess you have not separated yourself from them and cannot be effective in helping them take responsibility and deal with their feelings. Being able to say this clearly without upsetting others is something that needs to be learned. Being able to say "when you get upset at me that is your problem if you can't tell me clearly what it is that is annoying you." This frequently comes into play when you're dealing with friends who lack resources or insightfulness and seem to play out the same emotional drama with you over and over again despite any attempts at finding a solution.
There is a difference between setting boundaries and being selfish. You will notice however that usually the first reaction to setting a healthy boundary is the outcry of the other person that you're no longer willing to play the game and don't care about them anymore. That is when you need to remind yourself that if you walk your dog you will have to clean up after it but when you walking with a friend that is no longer your responsibility. Generally people don't like to be given the power to change and find solutions to their problems. They feel much more comfortable sucking up the empathy that you may give. It's like having a friend who is very childish and trying to treat them like an adult.
There are certain emotional warning signs that your boundaries are under stress. Feeling anxious or having low self-esteem are usually warning signs that you are not taking care of yourself. Anger or resentment and others that is ill-defined is another indication that your boundaries may be like a bucket with a hole in it were either things come in or they drip out.
Rest assured that when you send a boundary with someone else you will be tested especially by people who are accustomed to controlling you, abusing you, or manipulating you to their advantage. Plan on it and expect it. Be prepared to be firm about the boundary you set despite their emotional uproar. People tend not to like to play a game in which the rules have been reset but once they realize that the boundary you have created is fair they will calm down.
So in conclusion setting boundaries is not boxing people in or out but it's drawing a line in the sand and saying this is mine and that's yours.