This week’s post is for anyone who has a goal of setting boundaries without feely guilty. It’s a worthy goal. It would undoubtedly make boundary-setting easier. But is it obtainable?
Unfortunately, most of us will never realize the dream of setting boundaries without feeling a little guilty. In our experience, people always experience some level of discomfort when establishing and maintaining personal boundaries.
10 tips for setting boundaries without feeling quite so guilty
Now that you’ve heard the bad news, here’s the good news: it’s possible to reduce guilt when setting personal boundaries. There are ways to manage and tolerate it so it doesn’t prevent you from upholding your boundaries.
Working with an experienced psychologist can help you identify the best strategies for your unique situation. In the meantime, here are 10 tips to try out on your own:
1. Set realistic expectations
It’s extremely common to feel guilt and other challenging emotions before, during, and after setting boundaries. In our experience as therapists, most people feel anxious, afraid, remorseful, awkward, ashamed, or some combination every time they establish a boundary. You’re guaranteed to experience discomfort at some point, especially if you’re new at this.
Our goal in telling you this isn’t to scare you away from establishing personal boundaries. We only want you to have realistic expectations so that you’re not taken by surprise. You’ll be better-prepared and less likely to give up when you know what to expect.
2. Remember the consequences of weak boundaries
Setting boundaries is hard, but so is not setting boundaries. Most people spend so much time dwelling on what could go wrong that they forget to consider the upsides of having healthier, more authentic relationships.
Consider what you’re already sacrificing by having weak boundaries. You’ve probably had to pass up self-care and other opportunities for happiness. Maybe you’re stressed, overwhelmed, and burned out from saying “yes” when you’d rather say “no.” Your relationships may also be polluted by resentment, frustration, and disappointment.
If you allow your fears about worst-case scenarios to prevent you from setting personal boundaries, you will continue to experience the same problems. You can either deal with them forever or experience some temporary guilt—it’s up to you.
3. Learn to differentiate healthy boundaries vs. selfishness
Here’s a question we hear a lot: “Are boundaries selfish?” If you’re unsure whether your boundary is selfish, consider this: Is it all about the other person and what you want from them? Are you insisting that they do something for you or give you something you’re not entitled to? Are you assuming that you have a right to their time, energy, or possessions? If so, your “boundary” may be a demand (and possibly a selfish one).
In contrast, a healthy boundary focuses on you. It defines what you will and will not tolerate in a relationship and what you will do when your boundaries are crossed. Healthy limits keep you from feeling chronically worn out, unappreciated, and used. If someone in your life is taking more than they give, setting boundaries with them is NOT selfish—even if the other person feels sad, angry, and/or disappointed as a result.
People who struggle to differentiate boundaries vs. selfishness may also confuse “being nice” with being kind. People with weak boundaries try to “be nice” to please others, even when their heart’s not in it. When they give away their time/resources, they do so out of obligation. In contrast, people who take care of themselves with healthy boundaries give out of genuine kindness.
4. Set boundaries when you’re calm
Apprehension about the potential consequences of setting a boundary often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You worry so much about what might happen that it becomes a big deal in your head. When you communicate that boundary, you do so in a way more likely to raise the other person’s defenses. The conversation turns into a fight, and you’re likely to say something you later regret.
Another thing we often see in our work as therapists is that people are so nervous about setting boundaries that they put it off for too long. Their frustration and resentment build until they come out suddenly and aggressively.
To avoid this, we recommend setting boundaries before reaching your emotional breaking point. If possible, have these conversations when you are calm enough to consider the other person’s point of view. When you set boundaries calmly and compassionately, the person on the receiving end will feel less hurt, making you feel less guilty.
5. Consider your upbringing
Young children are often shamed or scolded for having needs/preferences. Since their survival depends on their parents, they pick up people-pleasing as a survival tool. Certain family dynamics and experiences make this scenario more likely. Here are a few examples you might recognize from your own childhood:
- You were dismissed, ridiculed, or belittled when you expressed your needs. You might have been labeled as “dramatic,” “difficult,” or “ungrateful.”
- When you refused to do things that made you uncomfortable (like hugging a stranger), you were scolded, apologized for, and told to “be nice.”
- You had too many responsibilities for your age, perhaps due to the absence of a parent or a caregiver’s addiction, physical illness, or mental health problems.
- You were raised by someone (possibly a narcissist) who withheld their love and care if you did not behave in a certain way.
- You often felt unsafe, possibly due to physical or emotional abuse.
- Your caregiver was overly worried, concerned, or involved in your life. You felt responsible for their emotions, so you learned to suppress yours to protect them.
Your lack of boundaries helped you survive childhood. If you want to thrive as an adult, you need to question why you feel so guilty. Is it possible your guilt is not a measure of your culpability but an outdated coping mechanism? If so, there’s no reason you should act on it by rescinding your boundaries.
6. Take a step back intellectually
Many people don’t realize how problematic their relationships are until a friend or therapist points it out. Even after realizing it, they find it difficult to break away from their internalized beliefs, such as “I’m a peacekeeper” or “My feelings don’t matter.” What they need is a new perspective.
To break free of old patterns, pretend that you are an outside observer. For example, you could think of yourself as a psychologist watching your interactions unfold. This emotional distance can help you see with greater clarity and objectivity (“It looks like mom is trying to guilt-trip me into compliance. That’s interesting.”).
Another option is to pretend that you are a kind, compassionate friend. If this friend saw people treating you the way they do, how would they react? Would they encourage you to take care of yourself by setting a boundary? Considering how a reasonable observer would view your situation, you’ll feel more justified and less guilty.
7. Spend time with people who respect boundaries
Keep an eye out for people who are comfortable saying “no” and having “no” said to them. They might be friends, relatives, co-workers, or baristas at your local coffee shop. These are the people who deserve the gift of your attention. By spending time with them, you can reprogram yourself to see that boundaries are not selfish—they’re completely healthy and normal.
It can also show you that boundaries don’t hurt healthy relationships. People who care about each other do not withdraw their affection when reasonable boundaries are drawn. Anyone who does that to you doesn’t deserve a place in your life. There is always some give-and-take as people sort out how to take up equivalent space in a relationship, but observing that process can be inspirational and instructive.
8. Face your feelings
Many people habitually bottle up their emotions in an attempt to “be nice” and keep the peace. They don’t tend to their emotional wounds (or acknowledge their existence in the first place). As a result, they fester and persist.
We urge you to face your feelings instead. Armed with healthy coping strategies such as meditation, yoga, and journaling, you can learn to tolerate guilt, shame, and regret. When you stop avoiding your emotions, they can teach you a lot about yourself, including where your inner boundaries lie. Once you’ve allowed your feelings to serve their purpose, they will begin to fade.
9. Try positive affirmations
Our brains evolved to protect us, so our thoughts tend to overfocus on threats (whether real or imagined). Rather than accepting your negative and fearful thoughts as truth, you can debate your inner pessimist with neutral and positive statements.
For example, perhaps you’ve been planning to set a boundary that you will no longer respond to your boss’s emails on weekends. But you worry that your boss will be so angry that he revokes your recent promotion. While it’s possible he would do that, is that likely? You could try repeating the following affirmation to balance your thoughts: “My boundary is reasonable. Since my boss is a reasonable person, he’ll support my decision.”
You can find inspiration for affirmation statements everywhere, including this blog post. The book that inspired this series—Set Boundaries, Find peace—also has some great ideas, including “Setting limitations with others is a healthy way to ensure that my needs are met” and “Discomfort is a part of the process.”
10. Apologize (but only if you were intentionally hurtful)
We recommend against apologizing for any boundary you’ve set since there’s no reason to regret taking good care of yourself. Apologizing for your limits only casts doubt on them and invites pushback.
That said, we know that many people make the mistake of swinging from one extreme to the other—from having no boundaries to overly rigid and aggressive ones. They bottle up their frustrations for years until they suddenly snap, and they end up surprising and injuring the other person much more than was necessary.
Perhaps you recently communicated a reasonable boundary, but you could have done it more compassionately. If so, it’s okay to share your feelings and apologize. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry for losing my temper yesterday. Setting this limit with you is important to me, but I could have communicated this sooner and without insulting you.”
Setting boundaries without crippling guilt is possible
As executive coaches, we’ve seen successful professionals be great at boundary setting in some areas and really struggle in others. If you constantly struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries, working with a psychologist may be helpful. We can help you uncover the underlying thoughts and feelings that hinder health boundary setting. Send us a message to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Barajas.