Nothing can kill an otherwise good relationship as quickly as not having healthy boundaries in place. Without these boundaries, toxic interactions start to infect the relationship. Over time, resentment builds as the relationship becomes unbalanced and draining.

The problem is, setting healthy boundaries is a difficult task, especially if you struggle with being assertive. You want to have empathy for your partner, and boundaries seem like a selfish short-cut. But this is a myth.

In fact, setting healthy boundaries is a selfless act: It tells your partner that while you’re there to support her, you respect her enough to allow her autonomy over her own actions, decisions, and emotions.

In this episode, you’ll discover how healthy boundaries save relationships from devolving into resentment and codependency, how to set healthy boundaries (even if you’re not naturally assertive), and simple ways to become more assertive.

Listen now.

 Show highlights include:

  • The single best way to prevent toxic interactions from infecting your relationships (0:43)
  • Why setting healthy boundaries doesn’t mean you’re being selfish or narcissistic (even if this is your gut reaction) (2:56)
  • The counterintuitive way wanting to fix someone’s negative emotions is a form of toxic manipulation that strains even the healthiest relationships (3:56)
  • Want to help your partner without crossing toxic boundaries? Try saying this to them when they’re down… (6:23)
  • The insidious “enmeshing” problem that trips up a lot of guys and dupes them into sabotaging their relationship (and the easiest way to avoid this costly mistake) (9:30)
  • Do you struggle with setting healthy boundaries with your partner? Reading this book will end your struggles (11:59)
  • How to tell the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness so you become comfortable with asserting your needs (without coming across like a jerk) (14:36)   

    Does your neediness, fear, or insecurity sabotage your success with women? Do you feel you may be unlovable? For more than 15 years, I’ve helped thousands of people find confidence, fulfillment, and loving relationships. And I can help you, too. I’m therapist and life coach David Tian, Ph.D. I invite you to take this quick quiz to access my free Masterclasses on dating and relationships at now.

For more about David Tian, go here:

    Emotional Mastery is David Tian’s step-by-step system to transform, regulate, and control your emotions… so that you can master yourself, your interactions with others, and your relationships… and live a life worth living. Learn more here:


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Welcome to the Masculine Psychology Podcast, where we answer key questions in relationships, attraction, success, and fulfillment. Now, here’s your host, world-renowned therapist and life coach, David Tian.

David: Welcome to the Masculine Psychology podcast. I’m David Tian, your host. In this episode, we’re diving into something that’s absolutely crucial for your emotional health and the quality of your relationships, understanding and maintaining healthy psychological boundaries.

My hope is that by the end of this episode, you’ll have a clear grasp of what healthy boundaries really are, and more importantly, how you can assert and maintain them. Without healthy boundaries, your relationships are going to suffer. We’re talking toxic interactions, especially with those that you’re closest to. [00:52.2]

Let’s jump right into a question from one of our listeners to set the context for this, and I’ll quote the question here. “You said that you shouldn’t take responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts or behaviors. This sounds the same to me as “Don’t care about others.” It sounds so selfish and, like, narcissistic. How is it not that? Have I misunderstood the concept?” This comes from a commenter on a recent YouTube version of this podcast.

First of all, great question. I appreciate your honesty and the vulnerability in asking this. Okay, so let’s unpack it. When I talk about not taking responsibility for others’ feelings, thoughts or behaviors, what I’m really getting at is this concept of psychological boundaries—and, no, this isn’t about not caring for others. Far from it. It’s about understanding where your responsibilities end and where others begin.

Here’s one way to think about it. If you’re constantly trying to manage or take responsibility for how others feel or what they think, you’re stepping into a territory that’s not yours to control. This doesn’t mean you don’t care. Rather, it means you respect their autonomy and your own. You empathize, you support, but you don’t carry the burden of changing or fixing their emotional state. That’s on them. [02:10.0]

And why is this so important, again? Without healthy boundaries, relationships become draining and unbalanced. You end up losing yourself while trying to be everything for someone else, and that’s not healthy for anyone involved. It’s like trying to fill others’ cups while yours is empty. It just doesn’t work.

Healthy boundaries are the foundation for mutually-respectful, fulfilling and thriving relationships. They allow you to be there for others, without losing yourself in the process—and here’s the thing, setting these boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s actually one of the most caring things you can do. It means you’re offering the healthiest version of yourself to the relationship, not a worn-out, overburdened version of you.

To answer your question directly, no, you’re not being selfish or narcissistic by setting healthy boundaries. You’re actually practicing self-respect and respect for others. You’re creating space for genuine healthy connections, where everyone’s needs and feelings are acknowledged, but not imposed upon. [03:13.3]

Let’s go one step further and to tackle a concept that trips up a lot of people, the difference between empathy and responsibility in relationships. Okay, empathy, we all know it’s key in any meaningful connection, right? It’s about getting where someone else is coming from, feeling with them. It’s that human connection that says, “Hey, I get you. I understand you. I feel what you’re feeling.” But here’s where it gets tricky. Feeling empathy is one thing, but taking on the responsibility for someone else’s emotions or actions, that’s a whole different thing.

Imagine, a friend comes to you upset. Empathy is listening, understanding, maybe even feeling their pain with them, but the moment you start thinking it’s your job to fix their emotions, to make them happy, that’s when you cross into unhealthy territory. Taking responsibility for controlling or changing how another adult feels is a toxic boundary violation, and trying to do so often just leads to frustration and strained relationships. [04:17.7]

Okay, let’s put this into perspective. Consider the relationship between a parent and a child. As a parent, yeah, it’s your responsibility to take care of your child, and this isn’t just about food and shelter. It’s also about their emotional wellbeing. You’re there to guide them, help them navigate their feelings, thoughts and actions, but, and this is key, as they grow up, you gradually release that responsibility to them, helping them become autonomous individuals.

Now, this parent-child dynamic, it doesn’t translate directly into adult-adult relationships, or at least it shouldn’t. When you start caretaking another adult, trying to manage their feelings and decisions for them as if they were your child, things go south. You might think you’re helping them, but what you’re actually doing is infantilizing them. [05:07.7]

You’re treating them like an infant. You’re stripping away their autonomy, their power to handle their own emotional world. This doesn’t foster a healthy, mature relationship or a healthy, mature person. Instead, it breeds dependency, codependency to be precise.

Let’s break it down even further. When you’re in a relationship and you start feeling like it’s your job to make or keep the other person happy all the time, to fix their issues, you’re not respecting them as an independent adult. You’re actually saying to them, without meaning to, “I don’t trust you to handle your own emotions. I need to do it for you,” and that’s not respect. That’s not love. That’s control, and it’s not healthy for either of you. [05:54.3]

Healthy boundaries mean recognizing that everyone is responsible for their own emotions. You can support. You can listen. You can empathize. You can feel compassion. But you can’t and shouldn’t take the wheel of someone else’s emotional car. That’s their job. Your job is to manage your own emotions, and if you want to, support them in managing theirs without taking over for them.

How do you strike this balance? How do you empathize without overstepping into responsibility? We can start with communication. Clear, honest, respectful communication. For example, say, your partner is going through a rough time. You might say, “I’m here for you. I want to support you, but I know I can’t fix this for you and I trust you to navigate your feelings. Let me know how I can help.” This approach shows empathy and respect for their autonomy. [06:57.7]

Remember, healthy boundaries aren’t about building walls. They’re about respecting both your and the other person’s emotional space. You’re acknowledging that while you’re there for each other, you’re also separate individuals with the ability and the right to manage your own emotions.

So, empathy, yes. Responsibility for someone else’s emotions, no. Keep these two distinct and you’re on your way to healthier, more fulfilling relationships. This isn’t just good for you, remember. It’s good for everyone involved. When people feel trusted and respected to handle their own emotional world, that’s when real growth and connection can happen.

Now, the best wording I found for the definition of healthy boundaries is from my friend, Mark Manson, and I think the commenter is referencing Mark’s wording for it, and Mark is drawing from the work of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. In case you don’t know, Mark Manson is the New York Times mega-bestselling author, and he writes, “Healthy personal boundaries are taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while not taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.” [08:12.7]

Now, the thing about healthy boundaries is that they often get misunderstood by people who are less mature. Some people think setting boundaries is like putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your life, but let me set this straight. It’s not about shutting people out or neglecting their needs. It’s about knowing where your responsibilities end and theirs begin.

An example I like to give is, say, you see a homeless man on the street and you have compassion for this man and you want to help him out, you, of course, can do so because you want to help him out, but it is not your responsibility to help him out. He is not your responsibility, except in maybe some special cases where you’re a government official whose responsibility is to take care of homeless people in your city, in which case that would then fall under the scope of your job responsibility. [09:03.8]

Just because something is not your responsibility doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead and do it. Maybe in your house, the responsibility for vacuuming that week or day falls on somebody else, to another one of your housemates, but you see that there are crumbs on the rug, and you take out the vacuum cleaner and vacuum it up. You can do so out of the goodness of your heart or just because it annoys you right then and there and you want to get it done without delay, but that does not mean you’re doing it because it’s your responsibility.

Here’s another example. Imagine a friend who is going through a tough time. You want to help, right? That’s natural. But helping doesn’t mean taking on their problems as if they were your own. It means offering support, maybe some advice if they asked for it, but not taking on their emotional baggage for them. Their struggles are for them to work through, not for you to fix or rescue them from. [09:54.4]

This is where a lot of people can get tripped up. They think caring for someone means taking on their issues, but that’s not actually caring. That’s enmeshing, blending your own emotional wellbeing so tightly with someone else’s that you can’t tell where there’s end and yours begin, and this doesn’t do anyone any favors. Not only does it put an unfair burden on you, but it also robs the other person of the opportunity to grow and grow up to handle their own challenges.

Healthy boundaries allow you to care for others in a way that’s sustainable and respectful. It’s about offering support without overstepping. It’s about being there for someone without losing yourself in their problems, and it’s about showing love and care, while respecting both your limits and theirs.

So, how do you go about setting these boundaries? First, it starts with self-awareness. You need to get clear on what you’re comfortable with, what your limits are, and what you’re responsible for. This might take some introspection. It’s about asking yourself tough questions, like “Am I taking on this problem because I genuinely want to help or because I feel like it’s expected of me, or because I think it’s my duty? Is this my responsibility or am I overstepping?” [11:13.6]

Once you have a handle on your own limits and responsibilities, you can communicate them. This isn’t about being harsh or unkind. It’s about being honest and clear. Let’s say a colleague keeps dumping their work on you. Instead of just taking it on every time, you might say, “I understand you’re swamped, but I have my own workload to manage. Let’s find a way to distribute the work more fairly.” This approach respects both your boundaries and theirs.

So, healthy boundaries are not about neglecting others. They’re about fostering respect and care in a way that’s healthy for everyone involved. They allow you to be there for others without sacrificing your own wellbeing, and that’s not just good for you, remember. It’s essential for any healthy, balanced relationship. [11:59.0]

There’s an excellent resource on healthy boundaries that I recommend to everyone and it’s Manuel J. Smith’s book, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Yes, that’s a little bit of a cheesy self-help type of title, but it is a mega-bestseller. I highly recommend you get it. It’s actually quite deep when it comes to the psychology, especially the first chapter, and then it’s very practical with lots of examples of the techniques that are recommended.

No matter their physical strength, for many men, emotions are too much for them to handle. It’s why they can’t give women the deeper levels of emotional intimacy and connection that they crave. It’s why they fail to be the man that modern women desire most: a man with inner strength, a man who has mastered his emotions.

Find out how to master your emotions through David Tian’s “Emotional Mastery” program. The Emotional Mastery program is a step-by-step system that integrates the best of empirically-verified psychotherapy methods and reveals how to master your internal state and develop the inner strength that makes you naturally attractive, happy, and fulfilled.

Learn more about this transformational program by going to

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When you dig into, again, Manual J Smith’s When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, you’re going to get some fantastic insights, especially on what is termed assertiveness in psychotherapy. Assertiveness is not about being a bulldozer in your relationships and it’s not about being a doormat. It’s about finding that sweet spot, expressing your needs and feelings clearly and calmly and respectfully, without stepping on anyone else’s toes or violating their boundaries.

Okay, let’s paint a picture for you with a case study. Imagine Sarah, who is part of a project team at work. She’s got great ideas, but she often holds back from expressing them. She is afraid that she’d come off as pushy or aggressive. On the other hand, there’s Mike, another team member who is always voicing his opinions loudly, often disregarding others’ input, cutting them off. [14:10.8]

Here we have two ends of the spectrum, Sara’s passivity and Mike’s aggressiveness. Assertiveness is the middle ground that both Sarah and Mike need to find. It’s about Sarah confidently voicing her ideas, while respecting her colleagues’ opportunity to do the same. It’s about Mike learning to express his views, while also actively listening and valuing others’ contributions.

People who have grown up with their boundaries constantly or consistently, or frequently being violated, and have learned by example to do the same for others, they often have a lot of trouble understanding assertiveness. They often mistake assertiveness for aggressiveness, and here’s a good way to put it: aggression is when you actively invade or attack another person’s territory or rights, or personal space or their minds, and in this case, taking responsibility for what is their responsibility, their realm, which is their emotions and thoughts and actions. So, aggression is invading, crossing the border crossing the boundary. [15:13.1]

Assertiveness and asserting your boundary is defense. You’re holding the line. It’s not that you’re overstepping their boundaries or invading their territory, or taking responsibility for them. It’s that you’re defending your space, your responsibility, your realm. If assertiveness is about defending your boundaries, aggressiveness would be going into and crossing over somebody else’s boundaries.

Let’s break this down even further. Assertiveness starts with self-awareness, understanding your own needs and feelings. Then it moves into clear, honest, calm communication. It’s saying what you mean, meaning what you say, but not saying it meanly. It’s about setting boundaries without building walls. [15:57.2]

For example, let’s say your friend keeps borrowing money from you but never pays it back. A passive response might be to say nothing and feel resentful. An aggressive response might be to accuse them of being a freeloader or trying to seize the money back. An assertive approach, that could look like saying, “I value our friendship and I want to help you, but I can’t keep lending you money if previous loans aren’t being repaid. Let’s find another way to address your needs.”

Assertiveness also involves active listening. It’s not just about getting your point across. It’s about understanding the other person’s perspective. It’s a two-way street. This approach builds mutual respect and understanding in any relationship, whether it’s at work, with friends or with family.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, But David, isn’t it easier just to go with the flow? Sure, in the short term, avoiding conflict might seem easier, but in the long run, it leads to frustration, resentment, and misunderstandings. Assertiveness is the key to preventing these issues. It’s about respecting yourself enough to voice your needs and respecting others enough to hear theirs. [17:10.6]

Okay, let’s use another real-life example. Think about your last disagreement with a partner or a close friend. Maybe you held back what you really thought in order to avoid conflict or maybe you bulldozed them through the conversation to get your way. How did either of those work out for you? Now imagine handling that with assertiveness, expressing your feelings calmly, listening to theirs, finding common ground. Do you see how the outcome could be different?

Now, healthy boundaries and asserting your boundaries skillfully are so important for a healthy intimate relationship that I’ve devoted an entire module in my course Rock Solid Relationships to assertiveness and boundaries. Obviously, I highly recommend you check out Rock Solid Relationships if you want to go deeper on boundaries and assertiveness. [18:04.4]

Okay, so remember, assertiveness isn’t about winning an argument or getting your way all the time. It’s about expressing yourself authentically and respectfully, creating space for others to do the same. It’s a skill, and like any set of skills, it takes practice, but the payoff is healthier, more honest, more fulfilling relationships.

Now, let’s go a few layers deeper, getting to the root of why so many of us struggle with setting healthy boundaries. Let’s start with a case study. Let’s call him Tom. Tom is a guy in his 30s who is always finding himself overcommitting to others’ needs and problems. He’s the go-to person for everyone else’s crises, but he often feels overwhelmed and resentful as a result.

Why does Tom keep doing this? If we peek into his childhood, we see a pattern. Tom grew up in a home where his emotional needs were often overlooked. His parents, though not intentionally harmful, frequently dismissed his feelings and his needs. As a kid, Tom learned that his role was to be there for others, putting his own needs aside. This pattern that started out as a survival mechanism now hampers his adult life. [19:15.6]

In environments where boundaries aren’t respected, kids like Tom grow up without learning where their responsibilities end and others’ begin. They often develop a heightened sense of responsibility for others’ emotions, thinking they have to fix or soothe these feelings. It’s a tough spot. On the one hand, they care deeply, but on the other, they end up overstepping their own boundaries.

Now let’s bring in the concept of toxic shame. This kind of shame is a deep-seated belief that you’re inherently flawed or unworthy. In Tom’s case, constantly catering to others’ needs might be his way of proving his worth. He’s unconsciously thinking, If I can just make everyone else happy, then I’m a good person, or I’m worthy or I’m enough. But this belief, while it may offer temporary relief, only furthers the cycle of neglecting his own boundaries. [20:12.3]

How does this tie into boundary issues in adulthood? When kids like Tom grow up, they carry these learned patterns into their adult relationships. They might struggle to say no or feel guilty for prioritizing their own needs, or find themselves in relationships where their boundaries are constantly crossed and violated. It’s not just about being nice or helpful. It’s about a deeper, often unconscious belief that their value lies in how much they can do for others.

Let’s consider another example. Let’s call him Larry. Larry is a successful professional, but he finds it hard to assert himself in relationships. He often feels taken advantage of, but fears that setting boundaries will just lead to rejection or conflict. It turns out these fears stem from his childhood experiences, where expressing his needs lead to negative, often painful consequences. As an adult, Larry finds himself repeating these patterns, despite them not serving him well anymore. [21:12.3]

Understanding these psychoanalytic perspectives can be completely eye opening. It helps people like Tom and Larry see that their boundary issues aren’t just a matter of willpower or personality. They’re deeply rooted in their earlier experiences and their sense of self-worth. Recognizing this is the first step towards change.

So, what can Tom and Larry do? It starts with self-awareness again, recognizing these patterns and understanding where they come from. This awareness can be tough to face, but it’s crucial. It’s about learning to value yourself independent of how much they do for others. It’s about practicing self-compassion, and gradually learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries. It’s about going through the therapeutic process. [21:57.8]

It’s about understanding and building a relationship of trust with the protective parts of themselves that have been overcompensating for the fear that they’re not enough or they’re not good or they’re not worthy, and then unburdening those parts of themselves that are being protected, the exiled inner-child parts, helping them to let go of the pain they’ve been holding on to and to trust in the leadership of your higher self within.

I’ve just explained the therapeutic process using IFS therapy terms, and if you’ve been following the podcast for a while, you would know what these are referring to, and if you don’t, then lucky you, I’ve got lots of previous podcast episodes on IFS therapy and why it’s such an effective approach to the therapeutic process.

Okay, so let’s dive one step deeper and look at the underlying toxic shame that’s driving this overcompensating, caretaking boundary-violation behavior. Toxic shame isn’t just about feeling bad about something you did. It’s this deep-seated belief that you at your core are flawed or unworthy. [23:03.3]

Let’s break this down with a real-life example. Think about Alex. On the outside, Alex seems like he’s got it all together, good job, active social life, but inside Alex is wrestling with this constant need of not being good enough. This isn’t about humility or being self-critical. We’re talking about a fundamental belief that he is somehow less worthy than others, and this belief is driving a lot of his actions.

How does this play out in terms of boundaries? Alex finds himself always saying yes to things even when he doesn’t want to. He’s the guy who never turns down requests at work, even if it means staying late or sacrificing his weekends. In his personal life, he’s always the one his friends turn to, no matter what the issue is. Sounds like a great guy, right? But here’s the thing. Alex isn’t doing this just because he’s a nice guy. Deep down, he’s driven by this need to prove his worth to shake off that sense of being flawed. [24:00.4]

Every time he jumps in to fix someone else’s problem, he’s trying to validate his own value, and this need for constant approval and validation becomes exhausting, and more importantly, it’s not sustainable. Alex is setting himself up for burnout, resentment, and yes, even more toxic shame. It’s a vicious cycle.

So, how do you break the cycle? The first step is recognizing this toxic shame for what it is. It’s not an easy task. It involves digging deep, often into uncomfortable territory. It’s about asking yourself tough questions like, “Why do I feel the need to always say yes?” or “What am I trying to prove, and to whom?” Once you start uncovering these underlying beliefs, the next step is challenging them. This is where things like individual therapy or group therapy or journaling, or even just open conversations with trusted friends or mentors, these can be game changers. It’s about replacing those toxic beliefs with healthier, more realistic ones. [25:01.0]

Here’s another example. Let’s call him John. John grew up in a household where making mistakes was not an option. Perfection was the expectation. Fast-forward to his adult life and John is terrified of failing. He takes on too much, overworks himself, all to avoid that deep-seated fear of not being perfect.

But through the therapeutic process, John starts to challenge this belief. He learns to accept that making mistakes is part of being human. He starts setting boundaries, saying no when he needs to. And guess what? The world doesn’t end. In fact, his relationships and his work life actually starts to improve.

Wrapping this up, understanding and addressing toxic shame is crucial in developing healthier boundaries. It’s not about ignoring your flaws or never seeking approval. It’s about finding a balance where your self-worth isn’t tied to what you do for others or how flawless you can appear. [26:02.3]

Okay, let’s do a quick recap of what we’ve covered.

We kicked things off by differentiating between empathy and responsibility, highlighting that it’s crucial to care for others without carrying the weight of their emotions.

We then moved on to understanding healthy boundaries, emphasizing that it’s not about neglecting others, but about respecting your own limits and those of others. We also touched on the role of assertiveness, where it’s key to express your needs and feelings clearly, without stepping over other’s boundaries. And, of course, we dove deep into the psychoanalytic explanation of boundary issues, exploring how our past experiences, especially from childhood, can shape our current approaches to boundaries.

Lastly, we tackled the impact of toxic shame, discussing how it can drive us to constantly seek approval or try to fix others problems as a way to prove our worth, and of course, this ties directly into my earlier work on the white knight syndrome and the rescuer or fixer mentality. [27:02.8]

So, what happens if you ignore everything I’ve just said? Imagine a life where you say yes to everything and everyone. It might seem like you’re being helpful at first, but this path leads to burnout, resentments, and a loss of self-identity. You become so caught up in pleasing others that you forget what you want or need. Your relationships might suffer because they become one-sided. You give too much and the balance is thrown off over time because you have unhealthy boundaries. This leads to a deep sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

But what happens when you take what I’ve covered seriously and you get into the therapeutic process? Imagine waking up feeling in control of your day. You know your limits, you know your boundaries, and you’re comfortable asserting them. This doesn’t mean you’re uncaring or selfish. In fact, it’s the opposite. You’re more present and authentic in your interactions because you’re not stretched too thin, and you’re respecting the boundaries of others. You’re allowing and giving them room to express and exercise their autonomy and their independence, to allow them to grow further. Your relationships are more balanced and fulfilling, because they’re built on mutual respect and understanding. [28:14.1]

With healthy boundaries, you’re not constantly seeking approval, because you know your worth isn’t dependent on what others think of you or what you can do for them. You’re able to make decisions based on what’s best for you, not just what will please others more. This leads to a much more fulfilling life, where you’re not just surviving but thriving. You have the energy and space to pursue your passions, to grow and to enjoy life.

In a nutshell, healthy boundaries are the foundation for a happier, more balanced life. They allow you to respect yourself while you’re respecting others, leading to deeper and more meaningful connections.

Okay, I hope you found these insights helpful and that they inspire you to take a closer look at your own boundaries. Remember, its journey and it’s totally okay to take it one step at a time. [29:02.6]

Thank you so much for tuning in. If you liked this episode at all, hit a like or subscribe or follow on whatever platform you’re listening to this on. If you have any thoughts at all about this episode, please let me know. Give me feedback. Remember, this episode was inspired by a YouTube comment on a previous episode, so I thrive off your feedback. Also, if this has helped you in any way, please share it with anyone else that you think could benefit from it.

Thank you so much for listening. I look forward to welcoming you to the next episode. Until then, David Tian, signing out.

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