Emotional Garbage: Taking on other people’s trash


Years ago, when I was still under clinical supervision for licensing, my supervisor taught me an extremely valuable lesson about making things both three dimensional and palatable for my clients. His trick? Making things physical for them and using stories and euphemism to paint pictures. His method was like that of Milton Erickson, but with a much more brisk, rough-around-the-edges approach.

Here, I present one of these tales, as it was delivered to me to help me grasp the concept of emotional boundaries, and where they come from – within us rather than extrinsically.

I was struggling to help a client set boundaries for themselves. We’d done all the preparation. Identifying areas of unease that needed to be protected, discussed methods of communicating the boundaries, practiced in the office. Yet, they weren’t getting it in the way I thought they would – there was a lot of emotional upset from people’s responses to my client’s setting of boundaries. These angry emotions expressed to the client left them feeling hurt, and as if the boundary setting was hurting rather than helping their level of peace in life.

I’d made a mistake by focusing on the behavioral aspects of boundaries: not engaging with unwanted or harmful behaviors of others, being selective with information shared with those who offered unsolicited opinion, etc. I’d failed to give enough attention to the emotional aspects of how boundaries function and one of the largest boundary issues of all: the sharing of emotion.

People who flagrantly violate boundaries do it because they can get away with it, and they get away with it because the person they’re violating either won’t say ‘no’, is unable to do so due to an authoritative issue, and/or because they know that person feels responsible for whether or not they’re upset.

When you feel responsible for someone else’s emotions and behaviors, you’re likely to do all you can to keep their emotions and behaviors from being unpleasant ones – up to and including allowing them to tromp right over a boundary you may have set or be working to set. This is what had happened to my client. They had put some behavioral boundaries in place, but when they were exposed to the emotional reactions of the person they’d set boundaries with, it was a terrible feeling. Guilt, shame, and blame.

How to help this person draw that mental and emotional boundary?

As I discussed this with my supervisor he munched on the tiny snickers candies his wife kept stashed in the bowl on his desk for him. Little wrappers began to pile up on the desk next to him. I babbled endlessly trying to put into words what I felt needed to be done as he scooped those wrappers off his desk and into his hand.

“Put out your hand, mi hija.”

I dutifully put my hand out, palm up. He responded by putting all of his many wrappers into my hand. They started to fall out of my hand and onto the floor. I reached down, scooped them up and clenched them tightly. I sat there holding them. I was eyeballing the trashcan next to his desk.

What in hell is going on here? Was he really thinking I was going to just hold his trash for him? 

My eyes must’ve been darting from my hand to the trashcan in a noticeable way at this point. Finally, he put his hands up in a “What do you expect?” kind of way and shrugged.

“You just going to hold that?”

I felt really….stupid for a split second. Then I realized that I’d been had in a brilliant way. He held his trashcan out to me and I dropped the wrappers into it and dusted my hands against my dress.

If we keep holding our hands out, open to taking responsibility for what anyone may just hand us, then we can’t ever be free of those things. We’re quite literally holding onto them, and willingly.

This is how emotional boundaries work. What someone does won’t ever stop bothering us as long as we hang on to it emotionally. If we aren’t able to understand that what other people do and feel are their responsibility, then this part of boundary setting will never click.

This requires letting go of the emotions that people hand to you, and accepting that you can’t “fix” them or control them. It demands understanding and accepting that nothing anyone else does is because of you, but is because of them, their experiences, their own inner world, values, and beliefs – which you have no control over. It means you have to repeat this to yourself over and over (and over) again while you’re learning it and trying to let go.

The true difficulty with that is that when we accept that we must also accept by default, that our emotions and responses are our own responsibility. We embrace fully, that we are responsible for what we take on and how we feel about others’ expressed emotions when we accept that we aren’t responsible for what others feel. Others can’t be responsible for their own emotions and reactions if we can’t agree that we’re responsible for our own.

Maybe this is why this part of boundary setting is the hardest to get. It’s far easier to say ‘no’, to limit contact with someone, or to change what you communicate with them verbally than it is to embrace responsibility for just yourself and how you choose to hang on to someone else’s feelings and trying to fix them, or letting them go and stepping into your own calm and peace.

Here’s your invitation to let go, drop the emotional refuse that keeps you working so hard to make others happy that you can’t find energy to manage your own reactions.


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