The difference between boundaries and walls (Episode 43)

In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about her lifetime of memories of pretending to be OK so that the people around her wouldn’t have to worry about her. And she talks about how to stop pretending. You, too, can develop compassion for yourself so that you can dare to live your own life instead. For more information about Kay’s webinars or coaching practice, or to download the free Thought Download Guide or learn more about Human Giver Syndrome, go to

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: The difference between boundaries and walls (Episode 43)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. This is episode 43.

Before I get started today. I’d like to let you know that as of the date of this episode going live, my next webinar is scheduled for Thursday, August 26th, and it’s on boundaries and Human Giver Syndrome. There is a link to register in the show notes. Also, if you are on Facebook, I created a new support group called From One Caregiver to Another, so if you want to be part of a community of people who want to dare to live their own lives, even when we have caregiver responsibilities, go request access to join, there is a link for that in the show notes. That’s it for housekeeping. Let’s get into today’s topic.

I get so many questions about boundaries that I thought I’d record another episode on them.

If you haven’t listened to episode 33 yet, which is called, “you are allowed to set boundaries,” you might want to hit pause on this episode and go listen to that one. In that episode, I explain what boundaries are and are not, and what to expect to happen when you do begin to. The simplest definition I’ve ever heard of boundaries is this: what’s okay and what’s not okay.

When you put it that way, boundaries sound great. Don’t they? I mean, given that definition, boundaries should seem neutral and even helpful to the person who sets them and to the people the boundary- setter interacts with. Except we don’t see boundaries as neutral. We see boundaries as scary to set and hard to enforce because, you know, we do face social consequences when we set boundaries.

Some people won’t like our boundaries. Some people will be very angry with us and they will either use their words to tell us they’re angry or they’ll tell us by kind of giving us the cold shoulder and some people while they’re going to mouth off about it to other people we know so that everybody is going to hear how much they don’t like our boundaries.

And that makes them hard. What I’d like to talk about today is the difference between two concepts that seem really similar, but when you’re dealing with two people in any kind of a relationship, or maybe more than two people, like families, being able to look at these two concepts critically can make such a big difference in your understanding of the world.

And these two concepts are walls and boundaries. And of course, I mean emotional walls and boundaries, not physical ones like you would build with bricks or draw on a map. Boy, wouldn’t that be easy if you could just take your emotional boundaries and put them on a map and have everybody know where they are.

And I’m going to start this with a story about a family who built emotional walls. Two families, actually, my mother’s family and their closest neighbor family. This is the story of their feud. This was back in the 1930s. So this was before my mom was born or at least as far as I could tell from the stories I’ve heard, everything’s pretty fuzzy at this point in time.

But the way the story is told is that my mother’s family was in a dispute with the family that owned the land next to their property. And we are talking about a considerable amount of land that was owned across the two family sets of land. Now, nobody knows any more quite what started the feud or what they were actually feuding about but it did have something to do with land.

But the neighbors ended up building a fence, an honest to goodness fence across a county road. And that fence cut off access to town and town services for my mother’s family. And supposedly the neighbors family also set about defending that fence. I don’t know what that means but I’m certain there were guns involved. There were always guns involved when people tell the story.

And I just have to take a minute here to acknowledge that my mother’s family told this story about them and the neighbors, and they always told it with the neighbors as the aggressors in this feud. Now I can guarantee you that this feud was a two way problem.

I have spent enough time with my maternal family and I love them, but I’ve spent enough time with them over the years that I know for sure they would have been very actively involved in whatever the troubles were real or imagined.

So anyway, as a result of this fence, which effectively denied access to roads and services, my mother’s family couldn’t get water from town anymore.

So they had to go about digging out old wells on the property to get water for the family and for the crops and the livestock. I’m not really sure how long any of this went on, but I do know that everything came to a head at one point when apparently members of the two families were pointing shotguns at each other in the house, circling around the dining room table in my great-grandfather’s house, in their house.

And again, even though I’m not really sure of the timing of all of this, my family has always said, “And nobody wanted to be on the other end of a shotgun Uncle Bob was holding, he was a crack shot and he never missed!” I’m not exactly sure how any of this ended because there’s really nobody left who can tell anything even close to facts.

And I’m pretty sure at least two different stories from my own family lore are kind of mixed up in all of them. To this day, though, there is some version of this feud still going on. And I know this because the last time I was down visiting the family and saw the old property, I saw that somebody from the neighbor family, and they still own the adjacent land there, they had put up a very large, very unattractive metal barn on the side of the road, which was pretty obviously situated to block the view of the mountains for really anybody who happens to be driving up the road to see my uncle’s old home.

If there’s anything to see in this story, I think it’s pretty clear that both my family and the neighbor family had built emotional walls to shut each other out. They over time built this massive story about how they had offended each other and they ganged up on each other regularly. And then they spent a lot of time defending their emotional walls. Well, and in this case there was that fence also, but if they had been setting boundaries instead, I don’t think I would have a story to tell today. Even if in setting their boundaries, they had just decided not to have anything to do with one another, setting a boundary, instead of putting up these emotional walls would have meant that somebody from each family could have worked out an agreement that would not have cut off the water supply for my family.

The neighbor family probably would not have felt the need to build an actual and illegal fence across a county road. And they would not have felt the need to be so defensive about it and actually defend it from what they felt like was a breach.

So I’m about to explain my definition of walls and boundaries, and it’s going to sound a lot, like I’m judging walls as bad, but I’m not judging walls as bad. The language I’m going to use for sure is going to sound a little judgy here, but I want you to please hang tight with me because I’m going to finish by talking about the important relationship between walls and boundaries. I hope that you can begin to see from this story, what I mean by emotional walls, but here goes, I’ll give you an actual explanation.

Walls are the protective force fields that we put up around ourselves, around our lives and our relationships and around our emotions. The primary job of an emotional wall is to repel. We often end up putting up walls out of anger or fear or hurt. So walls don’t come from a place of love, not love for ourselves, not for the people around us, but they come from a defensive place.

And the idea of a wall is that it will be impenetrable. Walls are strong, but they are brittle. Walls are cold and putting up walls makes us, on purpose, completely unavailable to one another. The purpose of a wall I think, is to allow us to pretend that we don’t need anybody and defend ourselves from them if they do try to get in. So walls then are about pretending and defending and deflecting interaction with other people. And sometimes walls can be about depriving somebody of a thing that they need that can be depriving them of love or money or other resources, like time. Interestingly, keeping walls up over time requires a lot of energy and a lot of telling stories and convincing other people that you are right and they should join you in your opinions and help you keep the walls strong and fortified. So emotional walls, really enable a lot of drama to continue over time.

Well, what about boundaries? Boundaries are still strong, but they’re flexible, not brittle. Boundaries allow people to actually interact with us.

And when they bump up against a boundary we’ve already set for ourselves, we can act to redirect them. To find another way to talk to us or be with us or figure out their situation rather than repelling. When you set a boundary, basically you’ve decided in advance how you are going to respond to other people in certain situations.

So boundaries come from a place of love, whether that’s self-love or love for a person, or maybe for a group that you care for. Boundaries are about making decisions about what’s OK and what’s not OK. And taking personal responsibility for how you respond when a boundary is crossed and at the same time, putting responsibility on other people to respect your boundaries and handle their own business.

Now boundaries require you to be not just responsible, but also vulnerable. And if the idea of being vulnerable scares you, let me just be the first person to raise my hand and say, yep, vulnerability scares me too. But at this point in my life, I do want to be vulnerable because without it, my life would be full of walls, and I just don’t want so many walls anymore because they are exhausting.

Boundaries and vulnerability let people in and they just don’t take as much energy as walls do to maintain over time because boundaries come from a place of love and respect. They actually lower the drama in situations and relationships over time. Drama is really hard to maintain and it’s impossible to escalate when one of the people involved just stops playing the drama game and you do that with boundaries.

So I promised you that I don’t feel judgmental about walls, even though it sounded like it from the words that I used in my explanation. And I don’t have to be judgmental about walls because I understand the relationship between walls and boundaries. And I know there are times in our lives when we may actually need real walls.

Sometimes we need these emotional walls for our physical or emotional safety. In fact, boundaries sometimes start out as walls. Over time as we begin to feel safer because we get the protection that we need from an emotional wall we set up often we can kind of soften that wall and turn it into a boundary instead.

And maybe even over time, boundaries can give you room to consider forgiveness, which isn’t possible when you have walls. I’m not saying you have to forgive. I can’t recommend it to you if it doesn’t feel safe or if it feels unavailable or if you just don’t want to. But I am saying that when you learn how to set and enforce boundaries one day, maybe you’ll be able to see forgiveness as an option for you. And that definitely won’t happen with walls.

Before I sign off here, I’ve got what I think are a few great questions to ask yourself when it comes to boundaries and walls in your life, and here they are. Where do you see emotional walls in your life or in your family life or your neighborhood, or maybe at work or at your house of worship?

And where do you notice boundaries? Where do you want to set boundaries? Do you know somebody who is good at setting boundaries without setting walls? And can you ask them about it? Can you learn from them one thing that I can promise you from my own experience?

And I know this from my clients too, learning to set and enforce boundaries, even though it might seem overwhelming and difficult and even intimidating, it will be one of the most important self-care practices that you will ever learn.

Thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at, that facilitator on And there’s a lot of good stuff. Including links to my book and to learn more about Human Giver Syndrome and to sign up for the next webinar that I’m offering on Human Giver Syndrome.

If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please leave a review, which will help other caregivers find their way here too. And definitely tell a friend who happens to be a caregiver.

I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another .

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram or in the "From One Caregiver to Another" boundaries discussion community.

"Caregiver Coaching" is for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own life. Facilitator on Fire's "Building Trust Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.