Emotional Boundaries vs. Defensiveness

Emotional boundaries and defensiveness are two different ways of protecting ourselves from emotional harm. These two concepts often intertwine but remain distinct in their essence.

Emotional boundaries and defensiveness are two different ways of protecting ourselves from emotional harm. These two concepts often intertwine but remain distinct in their essence.

Emotional Boundaries

Emotional boundaries are the limits we set around our emotions to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed or manipulated by the emotions of others. They’re intangible and inconspicuous. Emotional boundaries give us a sense of who we are, what we need, like, want and feel. They dictate how we want to be treated, what we’re comfortable sharing, and where we draw the line in our interactions with others. These boundaries are unique to each individual and are shaped by our life experiences, upbringing, and personal values.

Not All Emotional Boundaries Are The Same

While boundaries do the important work of keeping us safe, where we place them is of great importance. They require just the right amount of porousness and flexibility. We can categorize emotional boundaries according to their placement and flexibility:  

  • Rigid Boundaries: People with rigid boundaries tend to keep a considerable emotional distance from others. They might have difficulty opening up and connecting on a deeper level.
  • Healthy Boundaries: Healthy boundaries are characterized by a balanced give-and-take in relationships. People with healthy boundaries are able to share and connect without feeling overwhelmed or taken advantage of.
  • Porous Boundaries: Porous boundaries are marked by a lack of clear separation between oneself and others. People with porous boundaries may overshare or become overly involved in others’ problems, often to their detriment.

Why Emotional Boundaries Are Important

Emotional boundaries serve several critical purposes:

  • Self-preservation: They protect our emotional well-being by preventing others from crossing lines that could harm us emotionally.
  • Autonomy: They ensure that we maintain a sense of self and individuality within relationships.
  • Healthy connections: They promote healthy relationships by allowing for mutual respect and understanding.


Defensiveness is an automatic reaction to having an emotional boundary violated. It is rooted in our need for self-preservation.  In caveman days, one of the biggest threats to our survival was other animals.  We developed defenses to protect ourselves such as hiding, climbing trees, throwing rocks, etc.  Fast forward to the 21st century and most of us are no longer living under the daily threat of physical harm. The #1 threat to us now is emotional harm.  And just like how we developed defenses to handle the physical threats, we’ve developed some really eloquent defenses to emotional threats. Most common emotionally defensive behaviors are characterized as blaming, making excuses, or withdrawing. Being defensive is counterproductive and damaging to relationships. 

Common Signs of Defensiveness

  • Denial: When confronted with criticism or a breach of emotional boundaries, some people may deny any wrongdoing or refuse to acknowledge their actions.
  • Anger: Defensiveness often manifests as anger or aggression, where individuals react defensively by lashing out verbally or even physically.
  • Withdrawal: Some individuals may withdraw emotionally or physically when their boundaries are crossed, creating distance in the relationship.
  • Blame-Shifting: In an attempt to deflect criticism, some people may shift blame onto others or external circumstances.
  • Excuses: Another defensive response is making excuses for one’s behavior rather than taking responsibility.
Emotional Boundaries vs. Defensiveness

How to set emotional boundaries without being defensive

  1. Be clear and assertive. When you set a boundary, be clear about what you are willing and not willing to do or accept. Be assertive, but not aggressive.
  2. Listen to the other person’s perspective. It’s important to understand why the other person is behaving the way they are. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean trying to see things from their perspective.
  3. Be patient and understanding. It takes time and practice to learn how to set healthy boundaries. Be patient with yourself and the other person.

If you find yourself getting defensive, take a step back and try to calm down. Once you’re feeling calmer, you can try to communicate your boundary again in a clear and assertive way.

How to overcome defensiveness

There are several things you can do to manage how defensive you are:

  1. Identify your triggers. What are the things that tend to make you feel defensive? Once you know your triggers, you can start to develop strategies for coping with them.
  2. Practice self-awareness. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, especially when you are feeling defensive. What are you thinking and feeling? Why are you feeling that way?
  3. Challenge your negative thoughts. When you start to think negatively about yourself or the situation, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself if they are really true.
  4. Practice relaxation techniques. When you feel yourself getting defensive, take a few deep breaths and try to relax your body. This will help you to calm down and think more clearly.

Balancing Emotional Boundaries and Defensiveness

While emotional boundaries and defensiveness may seem contradictory, they can coexist harmoniously when managed effectively. Here’s how to strike that balance:

  • Self-Awareness: Cultivating an awareness of your own emotional boundaries and recognizing your triggers for defensiveness is the first step. This allows you to identify when and why you react defensively.
  • Communication: Open and honest communication is crucial. Express your needs, feelings, and boundaries clearly to those around you, and encourage them to do the same.
  • Active Listening: Empathetic listening helps you better understand the intentions and feelings of others. Understand their perspective before responding. 
  • Empathy: Cultivate empathy for others’ emotions and boundaries. Recognize that they have their own limits and defenses.
  • Seeking Support: If you find it challenging to manage your emotional boundaries and defensiveness, consider seeking support from a therapist who can provide guidance and tools for improvement.


Emotional boundaries and defensiveness are intricately connected aspects of human interaction. Emotional boundaries proactively protect our emotional well-being and defensiveness is a reactive mechanism when those boundaries are threatened. The key to fostering healthy relationships lies in understanding both concepts, striking a balance, and developing effective communication and self-awareness.

By recognizing and respecting our own and others’ emotional boundaries, we can create an environment where defensiveness is less likely to emerge. Ultimately, this paves the way for more authentic, fulfilling, and harmonious relationships in our lives.

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